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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.