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.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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