Conservative protesters outside Chatham House during Ed Miliband's speech on foreign policy. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the SNP wouldn't drag Labour far to the left

The nationalists are barely more left-wing to begin with.

The belief that a Labour minority government reliant on SNP support would be dragged significantly to the left has hardened into conventional wisdom. Some, such as Len McCluskey, welcome this prospect, while the Tories and others issue dystopian warnings of a high-spending, high-taxing, high-borrowing administration that scraps Trident. Slightly embarrasingly for Labour, Peter Mandelson's consultancy firm Global Counsel has warned: "[The SNP will] pull the Labour party to the left, away from the centre ground of English politics. This will include pushing Labour towards higher public spending. In addition, the SNP will intervene in some high-profile policy areas, such as by attempting to block the replacement of the Trident nuclear fleet."

But as I've written before, the SNP's leverage is nowhere near as great as stated. In the case of Trident, those MPs in favour of renewal (most of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems) will far outweigh those opposed. As long as the Tories are prepared to walk through the division lobbies with Miliband, there is no chance of the SNP blocking defence spending (as its deputy leader Stewart Hosie has grandiosely suggested they would).

On fiscal matters, the SNP wouldn't drag Labour significantly to the left for the simple reason that isn't much to the left to begin with. As the IFS noted last week, the party's "stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric". The nationalists' commitment to ensure that the deficit and the national debt fall "in every year as a share of national income" means that they have less room for manoeuvre than assumed. Indeed, under some assumptions, the SNP would cut public spending by £5bn more than Labour over the next parliament. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls responded by emphasising that Labour wanted to deliver a surplus on the current budget, rather than merely balance it (which could entail greater cuts), but the gap between the two parties is still marginal.

In the case of tax, the SNP manifesto proposes "the reintroduction of the 50p top tax rate, a tax on bankers' bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of 'non dom' status, reversal of the married couples' tax allowance, and a review of the pension tax relief available to the wealthiest." But every one of these measures is already supported by Labour. Indeed, it was arguing for them long before the SNP. Only recently, under Nicola Sturgeon's leadership, has the party unambiguously embraced social democracy. Under Alex Salmond, it refused to support a 50p tax rate and argued for a 3 per cent cut in corporation tax. If anything, as Stephen argued recently, it's the SNP that has been dragged leftwards by Miliband.

But in politics, perception matters more than reality. And as the most recent Scottish polls show (with the SNP reaching a new high of 54 per cent today), the perception that the nationalists are far to Labour's left is one that is doing them no harm at all.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.