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Nicola Sturgeon knows that she has allies in Labour on austerity

The SNP leader's demand for an end to spending cuts is shared with a significant number of Miliband's backbenchers. 

By George Eaton

Nicola Sturgeon arrives in London as the leader of a party that could plausibly hold the balance of power in three months’ time. If Labour or the Tories are unable to form a majority government with the Lib Dems (as they fear), the SNP’s role will become critical. While predictions of them winning more than 50 seats are likely wide of the mark, the nationalists could still win upwards of 30.

Aware of this, they are already flexing their new-found muscles. In a speech at UCL later today, Sturgeon will deliver her central demand: austerity must end. “The current UK government’s economic policy has failed even on its own terms,” she will say.

“It has failed to reduce the deficit as planned, and it has failed even more comprehensively to rebalance the economy. Economic policy is a means not an end; it is the means for citizens to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. The entire focus of the Westminster debate is on the deficit. Now, the deficit is hugely important. But it is a symptom of economic difficulties, not just a cause of them. It’s simply untrue to say that we are ‘all in this together’. The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women, people with disabilities and people on low incomes. The most vulnerable are bearing the heaviest burden. This human cost is in itself too high a price to pay for current policies. But what the UK government is now telling us is this: austerity hasn’t worked, so we need even more of it. It is morally unjustifiable and economically unsustainable.”

As well as a critique of the government, Sturgeon’s comments are a warning to Labour. Although the party has promised a fiscally looser approach than the Tories, Ed Balls has warned shadow cabinet ministers responsible for unprotected areas: “You should be planning on the basis that your departmental budgets will be cut not only in 2015/16, but each year until we have achieved our promise to balance the books”. 

Labour has given short shrift to Sturgeon’s demands this morning. They note that she ignores the harm that the oil price collapse has inflicted on Scotland’s already weak public finances and has refused to match their pledge to introduce a 50p tax rate. Shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran has delivered the now-familiar warning that the more seats the SNP win, the greater the chance that the ultra-austere Tories will triumph in May. 

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All of this is true, but as both Labour and Sturgeon know, she will find allies among the party. Last month, 15 backbenchers signed a statement similarly calling for the abandonment of “endless austerity”. In a hung parliament, they could combine with the SNP to force a change of direction from Ed Miliband. Unless the Labour leader can somehow assemble a moderate majority, his commitment to austerity is already looking vulnerable. 

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