Nicola Sturgeon delivers her first speech as SNP leader at the party's conference in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Nicola Sturgeon sets out her conditions for an SNP deal with Labour

New party leader says Miliband would have to "rethink" Trident renewal and austerity as she positions herself to Salmond's left.

Nicola Sturgeon delivered her first conference speech as SNP leader in better circumstances than she could ever have hoped for after the No vote on 18 September. Her party's membership has increased by 60,000 to a remarkable 85,884 (the equivalent of a million member UK party), polls put it on course to win a majority of Scottish seats at both Holyrood and Westminster and the public now favour independence in the event of a second referendum. Added to this, the SNP has united behind her as a worthy successor to Alex Salmond (who she replaces as First Minister next week). 

Aware that her party could hold the balance of power at Westminster after the general election, Sturgeon (profiled here for the NS by Jamie Maxwell) devoted a significant section of her address to how the party would act in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, given her tribal anti-Toryism and that of Scotland, she ruled out any deal with the Conservatives. "My pledge to Scotland today is simple - the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government," she told delegates in Perth. But in the case of Labour she left the door open to a confidence and supply agreement. "Think about how much more we could win for Scotland from a Westminster Labour government if they had to depend on SNP votes," she said. 

Sturgeon went on to set out three conditions for a deal with Labour: "real powers" for the Scottish parliament, a rethink of "endless austerity" and, most significantly, the removal of Trident from the Faslane base. "Conference, hear me loud and clear when I say this - they'd have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the River Clyde," she cried.

It is unclear whether these are red lines or merely negotiating demands but they show what a significant role the SNP could play in the next parliament. Sturgeon warned that the renewal of Trident could force a second referendum. "With the UK hurtling head long for the EU exit door, with the unionist parties watering down their vow of more powers, with deeper austerity cuts and new Trident weapons looming on the horizon, it may be that our opponents bring that day closer than we could ever have imagined on the morning of the 19 September," she warned. 

The rest of her speech was notable for a series of bold (and expensive) social democratic pledges: the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds by 2020, a real-terms increase in NHS spending in each year of the next parliament and making payment of the living wage a "central priority" of all Scottish government contracts. With the SNP likely to retain power after the next Holyrood election in 2016, Sturgeon speaks with maximum authority. But how the SNP would pay for all of this, in the absence of a significant increase in taxation, is the question it still won't answer. 

While there was a section on the importance of supporting business, she was at her most passionate and convincing when championing social justice. Like Ed Miliband in his speech earlier this week, she described tackling inequality as her "personal mission". Her address confirmed that she will govern to the left of Salmond. There was no mention, for instance, of the past SNP pledge to reduce corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate. 

In response, a spokesman for Scottish Labour said: "We are pleased that Nicola Sturgeon has finally recognised that her government needs to take action now on improving childcare, protecting the NHS and introducing a living wage. It's just a shame that for the last three years her government said this wasn't possible without independence."

"Nicola Sturgeon claims she doesn't want a Tory government. What this makes clear is that if you want a Labour government and Labour policies like an energy price freeze, increased minimum wage and making sure the most well off pay their fair share with a 50p tax rate then you have to vote Labour. Every vote for the SNP is a vote to help elect David Cameron."

As in the past, Labour will appeal to Scotland's anti-Tory majority to unite behind it at the general election. But the problem it faces is that, for the first time in its history, the SNP has given Scottish voters a compelling reason to support it in a UK-wide contest: to hold Westminster's feet to the fire over further devolution and ensure that "the vow" is kept. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.