What will our country look like in the early hours of 8 May? It’s difficult to tell. Almost everyone agrees that the Election is the most unpredictable in a generation. The polls offer no clear indication. There are so many factors – the lack of breakthrough from either the Conservatives or Labour, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats and the rise of UKIP, Greens and other minority parties. It is very hard to predict how this will play out, other than with a hung parliament and general uncertainty over the composition of a future government.
For analysts, commentators and political consultants, it would be courageous to make claims about the outcome of this Election, or even identify one particular factor at play in determining the Election. But among the complexities and uncertainties there is, arguably, a clear and important trend emerging in UK politics right now, which could very well determine the Election – and that is the rise and role of the Scottish National Party.
There would be two main reasons for this for making such a claim. The first is the sheer scale of their surge in support north of the border. Last week’s poll by Lord Ashcroft predicts that, on current levels of support, the SNP would win 55 out of 59 seats. For anyone familiar with Scottish politics, these findings are startling. This represents a huge breakthrough for a Party that currently only has six MPs in Westminster and a complete disaster for the Labour Party which would be on course for a wipe-out in one of its major heartlands. While it’s debatable that the SNP will win every single one of those 55 seats, it is clear that last year’s Independence Referendum has generated and sustained a level of support that is likely to see them, come what may, become the third largest party in Westminster – and crucially, potential king makers.
The second reason relates to the SNP’s approach to deal-making in the event of a hung parliament. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision, last November, to rule out any deal with the Conservative Party is highly significant and could prove pivotal come May. With a natural lack of political affinity to the Tories, and mindful of the toxicity of the Conservative Party brand to a majority of voters north of the border, Sturgeon has categorically ruled out any situation in which the SNP will be ‘tainted’ by propping up a David Cameron-led Government. But she remains open to doing a deal with Labour. This decision – at a stroke – has essentially made an Ed Miliband-led Government more likely than a Conservative-led Government, regardless of whether the Conservatives win marginally more votes and/or seats than Labour. The Conservatives will of course, in the event of a hung parliament, attempt to do deals with other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, DUP and even UKIP to form a government. But, on the strength of these SNP polling numbers, their prospects look potentially bleak.
This fact may be a source of quiet comfort to Labour supporters, but this comfort is unlikely to be long lasting. A Labour-SNP deal will not be straightforward or harmonious. There will be no repeat of the Cameron-Clegg rose garden of 2010 with Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon. There is a longstanding, deep-seated enmity between the two parties in Scotland, which almost makes Old Firm Derbies look friendly. Moreover, the SNP – by their own definition – do not have the UK’s long-term interests at heart and they will have little interest in a formal five-year coalition (their focus will be on the Scottish Parliamentary Election in 2016). Instead, it is more likely that they will push for a confidence and supply arrangement whereby SNP MPs will support a minority Labour Government on a selected number of demands and on an issue-by-issue basis, fearing any more formal deal will squeeze them electorally as junior coalition partner in the way the Liberal Democrats were by the Tories.
This raises a number of very important questions. What will the SNP’s demands be? Will they be entirely focused on Scotland or extend to the governance and administration for the wider UK? How will this and their ‘anti-austerity’ position impact on national policies for taxation, borrowing and spending, foreign affairs, defence, the EU, financial services, pensions, energy, healthcare and education? Will it prompt another independence referendum?
There are no certain answers as yet. One thing is clear, however – ignore the SNP at your peril. It is now time to listen to what the SNP are saying…