For weeks the UK’s party leaders and candidates have been slogging away on the campaign trail, each trying to outfox the other on tax rates, the health service, childcare spending, deficit cutting and much more… all to little avail according to successive and consistent opinion polls. They suggest the outcome of Thursday’s election will be a “hung parliament” with no party securing an overall majority, leaving the major players scrambling for potential coalition partners.
If the election campaign had been a football match between the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – we would be approaching the end of extra time after a 0-0 stalemate. For political specialists, there have been some interesting skills (and fouls) on display, but for most people there has been little memorable goalmouth action – apart from a few noisy TV debates that produced neither stunning shots nor own goals.
All parties arguably have been under-performing, according to the polls. The Conservatives have failed to transform better news on the economy into increased support. Labour have failed to make dissatisfaction with the coalition government count in their favour. The Liberal Democrats seem to be paying a heavy price for propping up in coalition an unpopular administration, UKIP’s support has fallen away from the giddy heights of last year’s European election, while the Greens have failed to strike a meaningful chord with the public.
All parties have under-performed, that is, except one. In Scotland the SNP could have been expected to wither in the tail wind of last year’s independence referendum defeat. In fact the opposite happened – and its membership and level of support have surged, thanks largely to clever campaigning and the party’s charismatic new leader, Nicola Sturgeon.
The SNP surge
Since last September’s referendum on independence for Scotland there has been a massive swing from Labour to the Scottish National Party. Opinion polls suggest that more than 50 percent of Scots plan to vote for the party, whereas Labour’s support has crumbled. Although the SNP’s ultimate goal is independence for Scotland, it now draws support from a wider electoral base.
If the UK had an electoral system based on proportional representation this might not be significant. Scotland only has five million people, out of a UK-wide population of 64 million. However under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the winner takes all.
Opinion polls have suggested the SNP is in a commanding position in the run-in to the vote and could sweep the board in Scotland – raising the possibility that the party might even win all 59 seats north of the border with England.
With the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, locking horns and both predicted to fall well short of the 325 seats needed to secure an overall majority in the UK, the SNP could well find itself playing the role of kingmaker this Friday May 8.
The Westminster puzzle
It takes only a rudimentary knowledge of British politics to know that a Conservative-SNP coalition is out of the question. Scottish support for the Conservatives has more than halved since the Thatcher era, and since 1997 the party has held no more than one seat north of the border. Sturgeon has vowed to keep the Conservatives out.
Instead the SNP’s rise raised the possibility of Labour trying to do a deal with the Scottish Nationalists in order to make a government work. Sturgeon says her party occupies the leftist ground that Labour has abandoned. It promises to end spending cuts and protect the National Health Service (NHS).
The prospect of a Labour-SNP partnership made some Conservatives warn of the danger of a separatist party in the driving seat at Westminster – demanding favours for Scotland in return for legislative support – to try to scare voters away from Labour.
The Labour leader Ed Miliband has said there will be “no deal, no coalition, no pact” with the SNP. This has been seen by observers as a bid to woo voters in marginal seats in England, and a challenge to Sturgeon’s party to dare voting down a Labour legislative programme (Queen’s Speech) in parliament – and see common enemy David Cameron renew his tenure at Number 10 Downing Street.
The prime minister himself has repeated that the threat of Miliband being “propped up by the SNP” remains the same. There have been suggestions that the SNP would derail Labour’s “fiscal responsibility” manifesto pledge, and force it to abandon the proposed renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
No wrecking mission
Sturgeon – who is not standing as a candidate in the UK election and will remain in Edinburgh as SNP party leader and First Minister of the Scottish government – has tried to reassure voters north and south of the border that her party would not be on a wrecking mission at Westminster.
“We won’t just serve Scotland’s interests – though we will most certainly do that,” she told students at the London School of Economics (LSE). “But we will seek to do more than that – we will also seek to play our part in bringing about positive, long-lasting and progressive change right across the UK.”
A Braveheart feeling
The Scottish National Party has been in power in Scotland for the past eight years, forming a minority government after the 2007 Scottish election, before winning an outright majority in 2011. The precise influence the SNP holds at Westminster will not be known until all Thursday’s votes are counted – and may not become apparent for weeks or even months after that.
It has been argued that the SNP would never hold a Labour government to ransom – that in seeking to impose policies which both the Conservatives and Labour oppose, the two big guns would collude in a de facto “grand coalition” to neuter the nationalists’ threat.
That of course raises a further scenario – that of a Scottish electorate feeling even more alienated from Westminster governments, be they Conservative or Labour-led. It has been suggested that Sturgeon’s success lies in her ability to harness skilfully a Braveheart feeling that the English are the alien oppressors.
The SNP has downplayed the question of Scottish independence during this election campaign, saying it wants to reflect the aspirations of all Britons. But some believe – and unionists fear – that the headwind of support the party is enjoying means the issue will return to the fore sooner rather than later.
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