The Scottish National Party has one clear ambition for May’s General Election: nothing less than to hold the balance of power for the entire UK. If that wasn’t clear already, Nicola Sturgeon’s indication yesterday that her party would be willing to break with precedent and vote on English health matters left us in no doubt. The SNP are preparing themselves to play a crucial role in determining who forms the next government of the United Kingdom.
Of course there is nothing surprising about this. All smaller parties have an inherent interest in having enough seats to hold sway in a hung Parliament. But the SNP are clearly seeking to address the fact that they won’t be much good to anyone if they exclude themselves from all votes which do not directly affect Scotland.
This week, three Scottish opinion polls have shown the SNP still well on course to inflict a hammer blow to Labour in Scotland. While new Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy may have been cheered by a Panelbase poll early in the week showing the SNP lead down from 17 to 10 percentage points, his encouragement will have been short lived as Survation and Ipsos Mori subsequently released polls placing the SNP 20 and 28 points ahead respectively. If these latter polls were borne out on May 7, Scottish Labour could find itself with a handful of MPs smaller than the six currently held by the Nationalists.
On the surface this seems like the dream scenario for Nicola Sturgeon’s party: eviscerating Labour (and the Lib Dems) and securing perhaps as many as 50 MPs on a uniform swing. But would this really be the best outcome for the SNP?
In order to strike some sort of deal, whether formal or informal, that would see them able to extract further concessions for Scotland from the next Westminster government, the Nationalists really need Labour to be the largest party after the election. Nicola Sturgeon made it clear as day again at today’s First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood that her party would under no circumstances prop up a Tory government in the Commons. Even if that were not the case, it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which the Conservative (and Unionist) party would be willing to enter any sort of arrangement with the SNP. Another pact with the Lib Dems, or even a deal with UKIP, would be more appealing for the Tories.
So unless Labour comes first, even a 50-strong SNP contingent may find their opportunities to hold the balance of power limited. In these circumstances, somewhat bizarrely, the Nationalists may find their hand is stronger if they won just half that number, enabling Labour to retain some 30 Scottish seats which would significantly enhance their chances of being the largest party after the election.
Will the SNP therefore let up on their campaigning efforts in Labour seats? Don’t bet on it. They know they remain highly vulnerable to a late squeeze as the stark Labour or Tory government choice becomes evident to voters in Scotland. The ongoing crisis in the North Sea may also take its toll on the Nationalists’ commanding lead, while Jim Murphy continues to assemble a team of experienced campaigners to aide his fight back.
So if the SNP want to make their long-awaited Westminster breakthrough and hold the whip hand, they certainly cannot afford to be complacent.
But it may just be that a breakthrough which falls short of the annihilation of Labour currently being predicted would suit their purposes better.
True victory for the SNP depends on victory for Labour too.