Election Focus – SNP

As Gordon Brown fired the starting gun on the election, first minister Alex Salmond urged Scottish voters to vote for SNP candidates as “champions” of Scotland.

As Gordon Brown fired the starting gun on the election, SNP leader and first minister, Alex Salmond urged Scottish voters to vote for SNP candidates as “champions” of Scotland. Speaking in Edinburgh East, a seat the party hope to take at the election, Salmond said:

“The SNP are going into this campaign with a clear message for Scottish voters: more votes means more Nats, and more Nats means less cuts. The Westminster system is discredited, and only SNP champions can protect and promote Scotland’s interests.

For the SNP, the election could prove both pivotal and historic. For the first time, it will contest a general election not as a party of opposition, but as one of government, which has been at the controls of a majority of domestic policy in Scotland from its base in Holyrood. As such, for voters across Scotland they will, for the first time, be able to judge the SNP not just on what they promise, but on their record.

Two years ago, the SNP were in buoyant mood, with Salmond setting an ambitious target of seeing 20 SNP MPs elected, nearly three times the current level of seven, and in July 2008, the SNP overturned a Labour majority of 13,500 to take the Glasgow East by-election, dubbed by the Mail as “Labour’s crushing by-election defeat”.

Two years later, and data compiled by UK Polling Report shows Labour consistently mounting and sustaining a substantial lead over the SNP when Scots voters are questioned on their voting intentions for Westminster. Dr Nicola McEwen, co-director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh, said of the SNP:

“Their pledge to win 20 seats is an ambitious forecast to make them seem relevant for these elections. There’s so much focus on the battle between Labour and Conservatives there’s a risk they can be crowded out.

The increasing Labour lead in Scotland can be seen within a context which has seen the SNP facing a series of crisises and headaches over the past six months, becoming a party that now carries baggage:

• In November the SNP failed to take the Glasgow North East seat following the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin;

• In December, Alex Salmond was forced to demote education secretary Fiona Hyslop over her handling of class sizes and teacher numbers;

• A series of allegations have been made against deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, new education secretary Mike Russell and Salmond himself over the lunchgate saga; and

• Recent figures have shown unemployment in Scotland is continuing to rise despite a decrease across the UK as a whole;

The election could prove pivotal also for the SNP’s flagship policy of independence. In February, Salmond published his party’s draft bill seeking a referendum on independence for Scotland. A failure to win the argument in this election is likely to strengthen the resolve of those opposition MSPs at Holyrood who currently constitute a majority opposing independence. Indeed, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has used polling data to conclude that “support for independence remains in the doldrums”.

With the election result continuing to look uncertain, a hung Parliament could however serve only to bolster Salmond, who has said:

“I’ve probably got more experience of balanced parliaments than anyone else in politics in Britain. With our Welsh allies Plaid Cymru we would be demanding – and getting – a better deal for the nations of Scotland and Wales.

As the election campaign gets under way in Scotland, the SNP find themselves in a weakened position, a situation Salmond will be unused to having previously been described as being able to walk on water by Alan Cochrane of The Daily Telegraph. Despite chinks in the SNP’s armour more visible than ever, the branding by some of the nationalists as being “irrelevant” at a UK wide election could prove premature. For all the bad headlines in recent months, Salmond, as the Independent has said:

“Is the SNP’s best political operator, and the shrewdest politician in Scotland outside the Labour Party.”

Scotland looks set to be an intriguing battleground in what will be one of the closest elections for a generation.

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