Battle for the Left


As the polls stand, the SNP will win 47 seats in May. That is more than twice the Lib Dems’ likely figure, and head and shoulders above anyone else Labour might sit down at the table with. Nicola Sturgeon may well find herself at the centre of the most unprecedented cabinet negotiation in recent British history. And her party can influence that dynamic, before and after 7th May, far more powerfully than 47 seats would suggest.

Most directly, the SNP has ruptured the left. Party membership has risen from 26,000 to over 100,000 in the past seven months, and the party is on track to grab the vast majority of Labour’s 41 seats in Scotland, where leftist voters face a very real choice of outcomes.

The left split of votes need not be even between the parties to be threatening to both. It need only deny Labour the position of the largest party – which the SNP, inadvertently or not, is currently accomplishing – to risk the Tories holding more of the cards, Nick Clegg among them, and therefore jeopardise the chances a left-wing government.

Ed Miliband’s woes only worsen with the unpalatability of a deal with Mrs Sturgeon to his supporters south of the border. Branded by the Tories as “terrifying,” the mere prospect of such a deal, the result of Mr Miliband’s (admittedly understandable) refusal to rule it out, has already begun to cost him votes. As Labour play down this possibility and Alex Salmond plays it up, the publicly perceived chaos is taking votes, not just away from Mr Miliband, but away from the left entirely.

Yet the SNP is a force for change of the Westminster system, not just within it. The chance of a minority government, a parliamentary setup alien to the British electorate and the Commons, looks realistic. While minority governments have their saving graces, the SNP is doing the democratic legitimacy of its position no favours by throwing its inflated weight around. “If you hold the balance,” Mr Salmond proclaims, “then you hold the power.” That a party, not even in the top four of support by percentage vote, may hold to ransom a party commanding nearly half of the seats in parliament, is a scenario Mr Salmond may be comfortable with. He would do well to consider whether the people feel similarly inclined.

There is also, in the shape of the SNP, an unprecedented shift in mandate. The party has a very specific focus; but unlike UKIP, the Greens and other insurgents, that focus is geographically discriminate. Mr Farage and his EU referendum can appeal as much to the residents of Cumbria as they do to those of Clapham. Mrs Sturgeon’s mandate is quite different in nature. It prejudices against a large portion of those to whom it will apply, but not as a result of how they voted. The democratic acceptability of this mandate is far from unquestionable – not to mention the strain it may place on the union if the SNP can exact it.

This may seem to paint the SNP with too dark a brush. The insurgence of any new party motivates more people to think more carefully about how they vote, which is always good. Scotland’s having more representation is promotive of democracy to the north of the border, and does not necessarily have to be detrimental to the south. However hard he might have worked otherwise, Mr Miliband will work twice as hard to please voters now. But Mrs Sturgeon is making waves in a pond that has long stood stable: and if disdain is not yet warranted, the utmost caution most certainly is.

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