Ian Swanson: Numbers add up to trouble for Nicola Sturgeon

MINORITY government could make life uncomfortable for the First Minister on a series of issues, says Ian Swanson

Wednesday, 18th May 2016, 10:45 am
Updated Wednesday, 18th May 2016, 11:52 am
Tough times ahead for Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tough times ahead for Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Jane Barlow

NICOLA Sturgeon is going to find things a bit different in this parliament now that the SNP is a minority government again. Despite the party’s record-breaking million-plus votes, it ended up with 63 seats out of the 129 – down six on last time and two short of an overall majority.

The polls had suggested the party would equal or exceed the total it achieved last time, so the result was a surprise even though it showed the system working, as intended, to make an overall majority difficult to reach.

Ms Sturgeon – duly re-elected as First Minister yesterday – plays down the Government’s minority status. “Be in no doubt, the SNP won the election – we have a mandate to implement our policies,” she told a press conference at Bute House.

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But she also insists she wants to be open, inclusive and keen to find areas of common ground. “At times that will involve the Scottish Government compromising, accepting suggestions made by other parties,” she admitted.

Life might not be all that difficult though. Although there is no overall majority, the SNP is not in the same tight spot as in 2007 when it found itself with 47 MSPs to Labour’s 46 and 36 others.

There was speculation back then about whether the new government could survive more than a few months – but it ran for the full term with only occasional defeats. Nevertheless, the numbers do matter – and there are already signs of some trouble ahead.

The opposition parties have signalled moves to try to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was intended to crack down on sectarianism but has been branded a threat to free speech. None of the other parties supported it at the time and they are all opposed to it now.

Air Passenger Duty – which the SNP has pledged to halve by the end of this parliament – is another flashpoint where the other parties are all united in opposition. Ms Sturgeon may have to defer any action or decide to take on the massed ranks of Conservatives, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems, accept defeat and blame them for families having to pay extra for flying abroad on holiday.

The Tories have suggested there is now a “natural majority” against the SNP’s Named Person legislation. The issue was a hot topic during the election, but the arithmetic looks like favouring the government – the Greens back the SNP and Labour and the Lib Dems are not opposed in principle.

Some say the Greens are the SNP’s most obvious allies when it comes to winning votes. Both parties back independence, after all. But the Greens fought the election on the promise of using whatever strength it had to make the SNP “bolder” on policies from fracking to land reform and the Nationalists are reluctant to be seen as being forced leftwards by a group of six MSPs.

The irony is, however, that on some issues the party closest to the SNP might turn out to be the Tories. Their positions on both income tax and council tax are not that far apart.

During the last minority government, the Tories provided vital votes in passing SNP budgets.

But having lambasted Labour for its alliance with the Conservatives in Better Together, Ms Sturgeon cannot afford to be making deals with them now. So could the First Minister be willing to make concessions on issues like tax to Labour, Greens and Lib Dems?

At that But House press conference she did describe compromise as “probably to the benefit of democracy and governance as a whole”.