Here, PR guru and old political player Andy Maciver takes a look at the SNP manifesto launch.
With most of the undercard out of the way, today we had the main event of manifesto launches. If there had been any doubt about what would be the most noteworthy launch, the snaking queues outside the EICC, and the mini-stadium which had been constructed inside, eradicated it.
The most striking first impression is how much is pinned on Nicola Sturgeon as opposed to her party or her government. Her photo adorns the front cover (for someone who is very photogenic, I actually think the shot is slightly awkward-looking) and her Cabinet held up giant posters of her in case anyone had missed the point.
This is logical – polls show Sturgeon to be more popular than any other democratically elected leader I can think of, with her party at least 10 percentage points less popular (though still, of course, incredibly popular) and her government another 10 or so point below that. So, if we thought the Tory launch was all about Ruth, then this is at-least-as-much all about Nicola.
Everything about this manifesto launch was beautifully designed. The strategy is relatively simple, but it is brilliantly executed. Firstly, let’s consider the issue of the second independence referendum. It is quite, quite clear that Nicola has long-grassed #indyref2. Her line has actually remained unchanged since the party’s conference in Aberdeen last year; “we’ll hold it when we know we’re going to win”. This is nothing if not sensible – why would any leader in their right mind want to proceed with a course of action which could end the reason for her party’s existence, and which might even lead to her personal demise? It is a no-brainer, she has played it correctly, and the fact that her sometimes feverishly pro-independence supporters will probably follow her lead is testament to her abilities.
The second issue over which there has been significant speculation is the #BothVotesSNP strategy. This is madness, some say. “Let your supporters vote Green on the second vote and get another 10 pro-indy MSPs instead of letting unionists in on the List”. This is twaddle; they don’t need to do that, they don’t want to do that and they can’t afford to do that. Don’t need to, because she’ll have a healthy majority on their own, thanks very much. Don’t want to, because, frankly, she sees Patrick Harvie as a potential troublemaker and she could do without him having more clout. And can’t afford to because the thoughtful people at the top of the SNP are scarred by the suddenness and completeness of Labour’s downfall, and know that, in the final analysis, complacency kills.
There is little bold about this manifesto. Governing parties rarely attempt boldness. What it is, instead, is a continuation of the pragmatic, managerial centrism which has been the key to the SNP’s success over the last decade.
Public services will still be run in a largely state-controlled manner, with some tinkering done in our slipping education system and money thrown at the NHS to stave off any real debate about why it isn’t working properly. Infrastructure – a real SNP success story, as evidenced by the giant double page spread on the Queensferry Crossing on the manifesto’s inside cover – will continue to receive more investment than anyone else is prepared to put towards it.
Indeed, there are barely any of the other parties’ key messages which are not dealt with in today’s manifesto. The Lib Dems on mental health? The Tories on education? Labour on welfare? The Greens on sustainability? I’ll see you, and I’ll raise you, says Nicola. Why bother voting for anyone else?
This is likely to prove to be yet another good day for a party and a leader which, after 9 years in government, defy normal electoral rules. However, they should privately be aware that nobody – not even Nicola Sturgeon – has a monopoly on her people’s vote forever. All leaders fall, usually from a great height and with a hard landing.
It will be a long, long time before the SNP loses a Scottish Parliament election (and the party which will beat it probably does not exist yet), but the seeds of that loss will likely be planted in this next term. It has gained and held an awful lot of middle-class votes by its centrist tax positions, but that mask is beginning to slip. Land Building Transaction Tax, Council Tax band changes, the decision to keep the high-rate Income Tax threshold down and (according to the manifesto) the possibility of a 50p rate by 2018 are all penal to a great number of working families who are voting SNP.
Tax powers are forcing the party to take a position on issues where it once could obfuscate or, in the case of the Council Tax freeze, positively help. The state of our public services, now out in the open with respect to education, with the NHS around the corner, will force action from all sectors of the population who fail to understand why we can’t do a lot better. Mis-steps such as the Named Person legislation will, inevitably, become more common.
These looming issues are a threat to pragmatic politics and with it, albeit not for many elections to come, the SNP. But don’t hold your breath.