The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog


The SNP is praying for a Tory poll surge

The party needs the Tories to move ahead of Labour to encourage Scots to back independence. 

The party needs the Tories to move ahead of Labour to encourage Scots to back independence.
David Cameron shakes hands with Alex Salmond outside at St Andrews House in Edinburgh on October 15, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

What will it take to persuade a majority of Scots to vote for independence? The SNP believes it has found the answer in the form of another Conservative-led government. In the last fortnight, two polls have shown that up to 55 per cent of voters support independence when confronted with the prospect of David Cameron returning to Downing Street. 

To mark Ed Miliband's speech in Edinburgh today, the SNP is devoting itself to talking down Labour's election chances. It notes that just 9 per cent of Scots believe Miliband looks like a prime minister, that 50 per cent believe he has been a weak leader and that the Tories have a 15 point lead over Labour on the economy. Added to this, it highlights that Cameron's former director of strategy Andrew Cooper, a recently appointed adviser to the No campaign, has tweeted that "No opposition party has ever gone on to win the next election from the poll position Labour is in now." 

It is not hard to see why the SNP is determined to promote the idea that Miliband is destined . As Labour leader, he has adopted precisely the kind of centre-left policies championed by the nationalists. He has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax (which, like the Poll Tax, has become a symbol of Conservative callousness in Scotland), to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, to invest more in early-years education and childcare, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. He has condemned the invasion of Iraq, prevented a rush to war in Syria and pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on "values, not alliances". And he has denounced the rise in income inequality (which, as Salmond rightly laments, has made the UK one of "the most unequal societies in the developed world"),  and has made its reversal his defining mission. If the UK elects a Labour government next May, it won't need Scotland to serve as a "progressive beacon". Rather, it will become a more progressive country through its own means. 

Awkwardly for Salmond, then, Labour's slight but stubborn opinion poll lead endures (at an average of five points). None of the findings cited by the SNP are persuasive evidence that this will change. Scots may take a dim view of Miliband but since the country, as Salmond complains, has little influence over the outcome of general elections (accounting for just 59 of Westminster's 650 MPs), why should this be relevant? That Labour's lead has remained even as Miliband's ratings have worsened suggests they may not be an obstacle to victory. The Tories may also lead Labour on the economy (as they did in 1997) but they continue to trail on the crucial issue of living standards. As for Cooper's observation, I have explained before why history is likely to prove a poor guide to the outcome of this election. 

To persuade Scottish voters that the Tories are most likely to be back in government after May 2015, the SNP needs the unambiguous evidence provided by a Conservatiove poll lead. Thus, we are presented with the grim sight of a "progressive" party cheering on a reactionary one. 

As it happens, the belief that a Tory poll surge would persuade Scots to back independence is almost certainly wrong. The question on the ballot paper will not be "Should Scotland be an independent country to free itself from Tory rule?" (the leading question used by pollsters) it will simply be "Should Scotland be an independent country?" Voters will consider far greater issues than the likely outcome of the 2015 election. And, when they do, every poll continues to suggest that they answer "No". 

In the meantime, as Salmond prays for a Tory poll surge now and a Tory victory later (to increase the possibility of a second referendum), this debased and opportunistic alliance deserves more attention than it has so far received.  

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