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19 June 2024

The SNP manifesto is a challenge to Labour

John Swinney’s party is outflanking Keir Starmer from the left on the NHS, welfare and the House of Lords.

By Chris Deerin

If anyone was in any doubt about what matters most to the SNP amid the various severe and generational crises facing Scotland, its general election manifesto immediately sets them straight. Its very first page states, in slightly screamy point size, “VOTE SNP FOR SCOTLAND TO BECOME AN INDEPENDENT COUNTRY.”

There is also, however, an early indication of John Swinney’s attempts to restore the public image of his ailing party, with a promise that the subsequent pages contain “moderate left-of-centre policies” – the equivalent of a supermarket ingredients label. This message, this shift, is vital to the SNP’s pitch, and was re-emphasised by Swinney at the launch, when he said that “we are a moderate, left-of-centre party in the mainstream of Scottish public opinion, firmly rooted in the ideas of inclusion and internationalism.” He said it again, later: they would be “working whenever we can with others to promote practical, moderate, left-of-centre policies.” After years of radical social engineering under Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf, which left many voters bemused or antagonised, and which ultimately contributed to a plummet in support, you can see why it was deemed necessary.

The Nats are also appealing to those who’ve had a look at what’s on offer from Keir Starmer’s Labour and found it wanting. As the Labour leader attempts to unite the disputatious tribes of England with a safety-first message, the SNP is portraying itself as a braver, more traditional social democratic vehicle. “I believe people are crying out for principled leadership which is prepared to argue for what it believes in,” said Swinney. There was little doubt about his target.

The SNP insists that the NHS is unsafe in Labour’s hands, that there might be some sort of secret plan to privatise it. That this seems a bit of a stretch, and that smart use of the private sector to reduce waiting lists and improve health tech is desirable and possibly essential, doesn’t deter it. “We will join with progressive politicians south of the border to press for greater funding for the NHS,” said Swinney. “And we would introduce a ‘Keep the NHS in Public Hands Bill’ at Westminster. A legal guarantee for a publicly owned, publicly operated health service. The NHS is not for sale.”

If this amounts to scaremongering and a fairly brash misrepresentation of Labour’s position, the Nats are not the first to deploy the tactic. Remember Tony Blair’s “24 hours to save the NHS”? Swinney knows that the decrepit state of the health system is right at the top of voters’ list of concerns – far above, for example, independence – and wants to use Rachel Reeves’ fiscal caution as a stick with which to beat the incoming government. There should be £10bn more every year for the NHS – meaning an extra £1 bn for Scotland – the manifesto argues. With some chutzpah, the Nats are even calling for the UK administration to match its inflation-busting pay deals for health workers in England. 

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The party wants to seem more ambitious than Labour, calling for an immediate end to the two-child benefit limit, full abolition of the House of Lords and renewed EU membership. Easy positions to take when you won’t be in a position to deliver them. 

There were boasts, too, about Scotland’s “progressive” (read: worryingly high) tax system, its A&E services (just ask clinicians about the state of Scotland’s NHS), its progress towards net zero (earlier this week Scotland missed its annual emissions target for the 9th year out of 13), and its progress on affordable housing (the housing sector is in open revolt over the imposition of rent caps and other policies).

Still, this is probably a more palatable SNP than in recent years – for example, it has started talking about the economy and stopped talking about gender reform. That the NHS is the main focus – other than independence – of the SNP manifesto at least tells us what the shape of Scottish politics will be from now until the Holyrood election in 2026. Both Labour and the Nats are making health their priority. 

The SNP, because it has been in power in Edinburgh for the past 17 years, must insist that all the NHS’s problems are down to a lack of money – otherwise the party would surely have been able to solve them. Scottish Labour, aware that funds will continue to be tight under Starmer, will concentrate on reforming the system. In these circumstances, will it be at all possible to reach some cross-party agreement on the way forward? It doesn’t look that way.

For the SNP, Labour at Westminster will not go far enough. But then it never could. Swinney talks about more collaboration across party lines, but is also setting up fault lines where he can happily challenge a Starmer government. Power may be about to change hands, but this is politics – the cross-border feuding will continue.

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