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.