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What impact will the SNP have after 7th May?

Scotland 150x150 Wednesday 22 April 2015

Professor Michael Lavalette, Head of the Department of Social Work, Care and Justice, gives an assessment of Nicola Sturgeon’s political career so far, and how the SNP may fare after 7th May. 

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, has suddenly gained national prominence with her promise that SNP MPs at Westminster (and there could be close to 50 of them) would be willing to forge a 'progressive alliance' with Labour, Green and Plaid Cymru representatives. The Conservative Party have reacted by trying to stoke English hostility to all things Scottish - something they started last September as soon as the Independence referendum was over.

 So who is Nicola Sturgeon? Is she, as the Daily Mail would have her, "the most dangerous woman in Britain"? And what should voters in England think about the SNP surge in Scotland?

 I don't know Nicola. I have only met her twice, both times in the south side of Glasgow when we were canvassing for a Yes vote in the referendum. I was campaigning alongside a group called 'Scottish Asians for Independence' and Nicola was a regular at their events. Emphasising that hers is a very civic nationalism and not one based on myths of blood and race. 

 But in many ways I have a great deal in common with Nicola. I'm older than her (she was born in 1970, I was born in 1962) but we come from the same part of Scotland (North Ayrshire) and from similar backgrounds. We were both brought up in the Scottish education system and both studied at Glasgow University. But more importantly we grew up in a similar social world.

 The North Ayrshire we grew up in was a place that was devastated by successive Conservative Governments in the 1980s. Docks, mines and factories all shut. Our communities were abandoned. Today unemployment remains stubbornly high. Health indicators are abysmal. North Ayrshire still includes some of the poorest parts of Britain. Furthermore the 1980s saw the British government spend billions on Trident nuclear missiles. But rather than locate them near the seat of political power they were housed hundreds of miles from London: at Faslane, just over 20 miles from Glasgow.

 Traditionally growing up in North Ayrshire meant voting Labour. But by the 1980s Labour was the dominant party of the local establishment. Unlike Labour councils in places like Liverpool, Sheffield and London, Scottish Labour offered no significant challenge to the Government's marketisation and privatisation agenda. The Poll Tax, implemented in Scotland a year ahead of the rest of the country, seemed to show that Government cared little about Scotland. But Labour's domination of local Government meant they were the party that implemented the tax. As a result many people of our generation in places like Glasgow, Ayrshire and Fife spiritually left Labour: it was no longer the automatic party of choice.

Personally it meant joining various radical left electoral formations. I stood and was elected to local government for the Socialist Alliance, Respect and, latterly, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. But many more, like Nicola, started to join the SNP. Seeking an alternative for Scotland from the devastating policies of Thatcherism. In the aftermath of the Independence Referendum the SNP has grown massively. It is now the third biggest political party in the whole of Britain, even though it only recruits in Scotland. The membership influx is a reflection of the hope that grew out of the Yes Alliance. The Yes Movement was about much more than independence. At its heart was the belief that there was an alternative to the 'austerity orthodoxy' of the main three Westminster parties.

And there was a clear class base to the vote last September. The poorer the community, the more working class the area, the higher the Yes vote. Glasgow, Dundee, Dunbartonshire, North Lanark and North Ayrshire were the areas with the strongest Yes vote. These were all formerly strongly traditional Labour areas and now all likely to return SNP representatives. 

 Nicola has clearly learnt much from the Indy campaign. She was always on the left of the SNP. Since becoming leader she has pushed the party to embrace the anti-austerity message embedded in the Yes Movement. And it is this that has shaped her approach to the election. An able debater, she has performed very well in the various leader debates. Her anti-austerity message has won her considerable support in England and Wales. Indeed the most tweeted question after the first leaders debate was 'how can I vote SNP' from people living in England! Nicola's assertion that there is an alternative is something to be welcomed - though it's caused apoplexy amongst establishment figures and generated hostility in the right wing press. She is clear that the SNP will use its influence to undermine austerity, promote employment, defend welfare, invest in the NHS and stop investment in a new generation of Trident. Policies that are not 'Scottish' but speak to large numbers of people across the country who are looking for an alternative.

 The 'most dangerous woman in Britain'? Hardly. But the prospect of a 'fighting 50' SNP MPs committed to greater equality and an end to austerity means we could be in for some really interesting times in the next Parliament.

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