The SNP performed so well in the 2015 general election that it wants to make 2017 a repeat performance, albeit with a few changes to the roles to be played by the different characters.
Exploiting the boost given to nationalism and national-identity politics by the 2014 referendum, the SNP succeeded in persuading Scottish voters in the 2015 election that they key question was not which political party should form the next government, but which political party would best represent Scotland.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP’s answer to its own question was: the SNP. The SNP was “stronger for Scotland”. A vote for the SNP would therefore make Scotland “stronger at Westminster” and give Scotland “a stronger voice at Westminster.” Although, at the time of going to press, the SNP has yet to launch its election manifesto, it is already repeating its lines from 2015.
As Sturgeon recently wrote in her column in the Glasgow Evening Times: “The important question is this: Who will be best at standing up for Scotland’s interests? … The need to stand up for Scotland at Westminster has never been greater. … It’s vital that we have strong voices standing up for Scotland at Westminster … by electing SNP MPs.”
“A stronger voice for Scotland” was needed at Westminster, claimed the SNP in 2015, in order to put pressure on a minority Labour government to implement its manifesto commitments. But this claim was simply incredible. The policies which the SNP promised it would make a Labour government implement were policies explicitly ruled out by the White Paper on which the SNP had fought the referendum campaign only eight months earlier.
In September 2014, the SNP had promised to cut corporation tax and freeze income tax in an independent Scotland. By May 2015 it was appealing for a vote for the SNP as a vote to make sure a Labour government increased corporation tax and increased income tax for the wealthy. But now, in 2017, the SNP is providing a different reason for electing SNP MPs who will “stand up for Scotland at Westminster.”
This time it is not a matter of “pressurising” a Labour government into implementing its own policies. In fact, Sturgeon has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a Labour government: “No-one is really in any doubt that the Tories are going to win the election across the UK.” This time it is the prospect of a Tory government which demands the election of a phalanx of SNP MPs to Westminster. “Who will be best at standing up for Scotland’s interests and holding the Tories at Westminster to account?” writes Sturgeon.
The scenario of an imminent Labour government has been replaced by the scenario of an imminent Tory government (even though the SNP promised in 2015 that a vote for the SNP would “lock the Tories out of Downing Street”). But the appeal to vote SNP for “a stronger voice for Scotland” at Westminster remains unchanged.
The third element in the SNP’s script for the 2015 election was the denunciation of Labour as “Red Tories”. (The SNP did not even attempt to explain how Labour could be “Red Tories” and yet propose a programme for government which the SNP wanted to see implemented.) The SNP’s use of the “Red Tories” label was the product of a political calculation rather than a serious political analysis. The SNP’s goal in the 2015 election was to unseat Scottish Labour MPs (of whom there were 41) rather than Scottish Tory MPs (of whom there was just one). Sticking the “Red Tories” label on Labour served that political goal.
But the political landscape which confronts the SNP in this general election is different from the one in 2015. Labour has just one seat left in Scotland. And the Tories are enjoying a substantial electoral resurgence. The SNP therefore now dismisses Labour as an irrelevance and concentrates its fire on the Tories instead. The 2015 meme of Labour-are-Red-Tories has been replaced by the 2017 meme of Tories-equal-rape-clause. Whether the SNP’s repeat performance will prove successful is unclear.
The post-referendum wave of Scottish nationalism has begun to ebb, even if it still exercises a toxic influence on Scottish politics. And the SNP’s standing has been undermined by its record in Holyrood, along with its increasingly blatant intolerance of political criticism. But the task confronting Labour campaigners is not to assess the SNP strategy’s chances of success. It is to ensure that that strategy is a failure.
This means placing centre-stage the fight for a Labour government which follows through on its election manifesto commitments. The Scottish Labour right cannot be relied on to do that.
Rather than try to win over SNP voters by highlighting Labour’s policies, they prefer attempting to win over traditional Tory voters by being more anti-second-referendum than the Tories themselves. The politics of the Scottish Labour right were responsible for Labour losing 40 of its 41 seats in 2015.
Now, in 2017, the Scottish Labour right cannot be allowed to sabotage the chances of the election of a Labour government.