Ian Swanson: Labour poses the biggest threat to SNP dominance

Nicola Sturgeon is set to relaunch her government in the autumn
Nicola Sturgeon is set to relaunch her government in the autumn
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TEN years after coming to power at Holyrood, the SNP is still by far the largest party in the Scottish Parliament and has a clear majority of Scotland’s MPs at Westminster.

But the picture for the Nationalists is not as bright now as it has been for most of the past decade.

The loss of 21 seats at the general election, including Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond, was a devastating blow for the party.

And Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to put the idea of a second independence on the back burner.

Now there is talk of the First Minister “relaunching” her government in the autumn in response to persistent criticism that she and her colleagues have been concentrating too much on independence and neglecting the “day job” of looking after Scotland’s health and education, among other things.

It is a huge achievement that the SNP has lasted ten years without its popularity waning until now. Most governments enjoy a “honeymoon” period of just a few months. In 2007 Alex Salmond was able to form an SNP minority government because voters had fallen out of love with Labour and decided to try something different. Four years later he won an unprecedented overall majority because the public judged the SNP had done a reasonable job and Labour still did not appear an attractive alternative.

Despite the 2014 referendum defeat, Ms Sturgeon led the party to another comfortable victory in 2016, albeit without an overall majority, while Labour slumped to third place behind the Tories.

But now both Labour and the Tories are making progress at the SNP’s expense.

And although the Tories emerged from the general election with 13 Scottish seats, it is arguably Labour with its seven MPs north of the Border who pose the bigger threat.

The SNP’s big leap forward came when it ousted long-established Labour MPs in “safe” seats. It built an image as a radical party by adopting policies which voters used to associate with Labour – building council houses, abolishing prescription charges. And in many ways it looked as if the SNP had effectively replaced the Labour Party in Scotland. But last month’s election marked a change in that perception. Labour fought on a left-wing manifesto promising big changes. Jeremy Corbyn was offering distinctive policies which seemed to make sense to people who believe society is too unequal, the rich are not bearing their fair share of the burden and too many people are not being given a decent chance in life.

The SNP, despite its record on issues like prescription charges and tuition fees, is now seen as not radical enough.

When Ms Sturgeon took over the helm she was seen as more to the left than Mr Salmond and quickly dropped the commitment to cutting corporation tax.

But she has failed to make significant use of the Scottish Parliament’s new powers over income tax, while Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has led calls for an increase in income tax and a return to the 50p top rate for the rich to help fund public services.

If the SNP is maintain its prime place it has to work out how to respond to the changed situation with a resurgent Labour Party and come up with policies which will appeal to voters looking for change.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com