Sunday, 22 May 2011

Party tales - 3; The SNP

It seems almost sacreligious to attempt an analysis of the opportunities and pitfalls of the SNP after their tremendous success in the Scottish Election. After all, hasn’t it been ‘historic’, ‘seismic’, ‘ground-shifting’`? They now have what I (and certainly most others) thought was a psephological impossibility - an absolute majority in a (at least partly) proportional house. And they have a clear aim and programme - what could possibly go wrong?
Well, in fact in the seeds of their success could lie a number of problems. And it is clear that the policy and campaigning machine that the SNP created, (There is a good interview with Stephen Noon, SNP policy chief, here.) and which delivered so spectacularly for them this year is also aware of them - or at least some of them. Some of the early statements of Alex Salmond about ‘forgiveness’ make much more sense when that context is recognised.
Firstly of course, the scale of their majority might lead to a couple of problematic developments. Large majorities (and this in a Scottish context is the biggest!), can lead to both arrogance and dismissal of opposition, and/or to the development of an internal opposition. It also means the Scottish Government will now have to deliver on their campaign promises. The four years of ‘recognising-that-we-don’t-have-a-majority’ are over and difficult/uncosted promises must now be implemented. That will be more difficult than people think. The removal of the last local discretion to raise their own funding from our councils in the longer term, may well prove impossible without huge costs. UNISON pointed out early how the then proposed ‘local’ income tax fell short of raising sufficient cash to cover the council tax abolition, here. and the last Scottish Government’s desperate struggle to hide costs suggests there may be other problems.
In terms of the potential for steam-rollering, it is clear from Alex’s statements that he (and his SPADs) are wary of the impact that such an impression would give. Nevertheless, some straws in the wind show they are right to be concerned. The election of Tricia Marwick as Presiding Officer, while not ‘delivered’ by the Government, highlights one problem. The perceived ‘safe’ (for the Government) candidate was elected by the thumping majority over both a candidate from a party which has never supplied a PO, and a ‘awkward’ candidate from the majority party. The warnings about the danger of this were correct - however ill-judged the selection of the warnee was!
And the Government do have a problem here. They want to deliver their programme; they have had four years of frustration which they can now avenge; and they have the delirious clamour from their own members and supporters (many now in Parliament) urging them on. Can they balance that desire for progress/revenge with the public statements about ‘working with other parties/groups’? This has been the downfall of other governments elsewhere, and it is far from clear that, even if Alex himself is on message, other party colleagues will be. No-one has ever mistaken Alex Neil or Kenny Macaskill for shrinking violets!
I think it less likely that there will be the development of an effective internal opposition. While the SNP are less a political party, than an act of faith, and contain political activists from extreme right to left within their midst, most have had too much experience of how media and opposition exploit splits to want to create one. The large number of ‘new’ MSPs will want to maintain their position, and the party faithful - with their eyes on the prize of an independence referendum can be relied on to toe the line. 
One thing that might upset this balance, is if the SNP fundamentalists think their referendum is being watered down by their own. It is clear from judicious leaks from SNP HQ, that the ‘Independence-lite’ option is being seriously considered. A win in the referendum - whatever the question - is clearly seen as essential. If the terms are lite-enough, might it be even a possibility that other parties (not just the Greens and Socialists) may shift to back a ‘Yes’ vote? That might prove a step too far for the Cyber-Nats.
A successful ‘hope-for change’ based campaign also contains dangers, as politicians from Tony Blair through to Barack Obama have discovered. The essence of the SNP’s successful campaign was a positive call for a better Scotland, and it caught a spark. (Pat Kane’s insightful piece on the success of positive campaigns should be read by all party strategists. Push past the psycho-babble, it’s worth it!). Plus the use of very strong public and internal communications also delivered for them.
Now, however the party faces the difficulty of delivering with straitened finances, and of keeping the trust of the voters who voted for them in such large numbers. We already see SNP ministers trying to ‘accentuate the positive’ (Swinney downplaying the high levels of Scottish unemployment blackspots recently for example). And at least one reason for the Scottish Government move to negotiate a strong Scotland Bill must surely be to try and deliver some levers of finance to give them wiggle room.
However it is dressed up though, service cuts and unemployment, are on the agenda, and on the agenda for a large number of the SNP’s ‘new voters’. Obviously one tactic will be (not unfairly) to blame Westminster, but the big business support evident during the election will want some form of ConDem policies (if window-dressed) in Scotland. With an overall majority, and if given extra powers, the blame game may well begin to wear a bit thin. As the STUC has already pointed out, for example - is it such a good idea to devolve corporation tax, so a Scottish Government can further cut money coming in to fund public services? Incidentally it will be interesting to see what Cameron delivers in terms of a strengthened Scotland Bill. What will Tory policy on this be? Give them enough rope or cut Scotland loose?
Oppositions don’t win elections - governments lose them. The last SNP government delivered a competent if uninspiring administration. This meant they were in a good position to ‘not lose’ before the campaign. What the campaign delivered was a scene-change, by successfully sweeping up disaffected voters (from all parties, but mostly from the LibDems), with a positive, but not too specific message.
As the Tories, LibDems (and before them, New Labour) have found however, when voters feel their positive trust in a party has been betrayed, they are very clear and very sophisticated in their ability to express their fury. That could still happen.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post Chris - very welcome and readable assessment of what may lie ahead for the Nats. Maybe the only area where I'm slightly less certain than you is that I still feel that the Nats will not suffer too dreadfully from any difficulties they experience in delivering on their manifesto. Failures in this area can always be blamed on Westminster - and used in order to spin positively for independence...