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Will the SNP manifesto win back disillusioned voters?

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

‘Is the biggest problem for the SNP at this election,’ a Times journalist quizzed Scotland’s First Minister John Swinney this morning, ‘a deficit of enthusiasm?’ The SNP leader was in Edinburgh, launching the party’s general election manifesto. It focused on public service improvement, eradication of child poverty, worker’s rights and, of course, Scottish independence. But enthusiasm for the party is hitting new lows – and at a time when the Westminster group looks on track to lose over half its seats in the election, was the manifesto enough to convince Scotland’s undecided voters to vote SNP?

Independence may be ‘page one, line one’ of the SNP’s manifesto, but it was only first mentioned in the fourteenth sentence of Swinney’s launch speech today. Instead the First Minister started by pointing to the cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the pandemic, issues that across Scottish doorsteps tend to come up far more frequently than the constitutional question. But before he delved much into the detail of his election manifesto, Swinney made a point about setting out the party’s values, in a nod to the sinking levels of public trust across the country. 

Swinney made a point about setting out the party’s values, in a nod to the sinking levels of public trust across the country

‘People are crying out for principled leadership,’ the FM told the crowd. Swinney conveniently didn’t mention that it was the series of events after Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest – namely the police probe into SNP finances, the arrest of the party’s former CEO and Michael Matheson’s £11,000 iPad scandal – that have given Scottish voters reason to doubt the integrity of their government. Indeed the Matheson scandal is mentioned regularly to canvassers campaigning in Scotland’s constituencies.

The NHS featured heavily, with Swinney taking aim at Sir Keir’s Labour party and the ‘spending cuts’ to public services people should expect under a Starmer government. The SNP plans to introduce a ‘Keeps the NHS in Public Hands Bill’ in Westminster in a bid to push back against creeping privatisation. While a policy that will likely go down well with Scotland’s voters – most of whom count the NHS as a top priority in this election – there remain questions about dealing with staff shortages and performance. Swinney said today that the SNP has ‘delivered the best performing core A&E services in the UK for nearly 10 years’. That doesn’t change the fact that, objectively, Scotland’s health service remains under immense pressure: A&E waiting times remain well off the target and less than 70 per cent of patients are seen within four hours of presentation.

On child poverty, Swinney put more pressure on Labour. He slammed Starmer for refusing to get rid of Conservative party’s two-child benefit cap, asking: ‘Are you in government to help children out of poverty? Or are you so morally lost that you push more kids into poverty?’ He pointed to the SNP’s Scottish Child Payment, which has recently increased to over £26 a week. Sturgeon’s baby box wasn’t mentioned, but as one reporter suggested, do a number of SNP proposals simply rehash previous policies? Swinney insisted successive governments had improved upon older ideas, but throughout his speech made a point reminiscent of Starmer’s Labour party: there simply isn’t enough money to do more. 

Continuing the attacks on Labour, the First Minister then pledged to go further than Angela Rayner’s New Deal for Working People on worker’s rights. Labour’s commitments have faced accusations of being watered down, particularly on issues like zero hours contracts. Swinney says that the SNP would work to end ‘exploitative’ contracts and fire and rehire practices, as well as pushing to ‘scrap the so-called Minimum Services Level Act’ adding that it ‘is an attack on the right to strike’. The First Minister repeated a number of times throughout today’s speech that his was a party of ‘moderate, left-of-centre’ policies.

And, of course, independence remains a top priority for the party. The First Minister promised that that an independent Scotland would bring about a ‘prosperous’ economy, protect the country’s public services and even ‘be back in the EU’. Pointing to democracy, Swinney claimed that the SNP government received a mandate for independence in 2021 when Scottish voters brought in a pro-independence majority in Holyrood – not once mentioning the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum. And there was another contradiction: while Swinney now says that a majority of Scottish seats in Westminster would be a mandate for negotiating another independence referendum (as opposed to a direct exit from the Union), the FM was rather more evasive on what it would mean for the ‘Yes’ movement if his party didn’t achieve that majority of seats. ‘I’m not going to predict the general election result,’ he said, brushing off numerous queries on the small print.

Swinney is a better communicator than his predecessor, and seems to have taken the hint that while support for independence remains around 50 per cent, it’s not a top issue this election. Recent polls have shown that SNP voters might be the most flighty, with just under 25 per cent of people who say they’re voting SNP admitting to JL Partners they could change their mind before polling day. Ultimately Scottish voters are more interested in public services and the cost of living, while only one in ten people put independence in their top three priorities. No matter the reality, the SNP can’t afford to weaken their independence message, however, as to do so would put off their core voters. But the problem remains that the party has no real idea of how it would leave the UK. Even if it did, Scottish voters need more evidence of good governance – and less of party infighting – to persuade them.