Can the SNP push Labour into third in 2016?
Itâ€™s been said that the creation of New Labour was indirectly Margaret Thatcherâ€™s greatest achievement; that her government remodelled the whole political landscape so much that many of her policies were continued and developed not just by her own Conservative successor as PM but by the Labour one following him too. As with all these things, thereâ€™s an overly-deterministic element to such reasoning (had John Smith lived, his leadership would have been a far less radical departure from Labourâ€™s history), but the fundamental point is right: really successful parties change not just themselves and the country they govern but their opponents too.
And by far the most successful party in Britain at the moment is the SNP, so itâ€™s an appropriate moment to look at what their big gameplan is. Obviously, the number one long term goal remains independence but with the loss of the referendum and the halving of the oil price since then, thatâ€™s likely to be off the agenda for the time being so letâ€™s set that aside and look at the strategy below that.
For the SNP, the big election is not the one in a little under seven weeks or so but the one in a little over a year. Having already done what was considered impossible and gained an overall majority at Holyrood in 2011, given the state of the current polls, Nicola Sturgeon can have her sights realistically set on not only repeating that but potentially doing even better than Alex Salmond did.
But thereâ€™s another prize to be won, potentially even bigger than forming the government â€“ and thatâ€™s where remodelling the opposition comes in. Scotland has been something of a game of musical chairs for a while. Most top-level political systems if left unassaulted by external shocks will settle down into two main opposing camps. The SNPâ€™s great achievement has been in redefining both aspects of that statement.
Scottish politics has become widely divergent from that of England and Wales. Obviously, there were always local aspects to it but prior to 1999 (and indeed, for a short time afterwards), politics there was still defined by the Westminster battle, between Conservatives and Labour, and hence â€“ given the nature of the electorate â€“ a consistent and sizable Labour dominance. By redefining which parliament was seen as the more important, and by overtaking the Conservatives, the SNP has changed the principle debate from Lab-Con to Lab-SNP. That achievement was arguably bigger than subsequently forming a government in that the one followed logically from the other. As soon as theyâ€™d won a seat at the top table and were not seen as unacceptable by too many people (which they werenâ€™t but the Tories were), it was inevitable that the swing of the pendulum would at some point deliver them government.
However, the last five years have been so good for them (referendum apart), that they can now envisage going one stage further. Whereas they were once labelled by Labour as the Tartan Tories, they now lump Labour in with the Conservatives due to the referendum campaign. Neither claim had much merit and was based on the logical fallacy that my opponentâ€™s opponent is necessarily my ally but thatâ€™s a little beside the point if people believe it. The ideal result for them in 2016 would be to win over so many former Labour voters on that â€˜betrayalâ€™ mantra that the Conservatives finish second, which would not only prompt a crisis in Labour but would validate the SNPâ€™s claim to left-wing voters as being the best place to â€˜stop the Toriesâ€™. Put simply, the long term shift would not be to replace the Tories as the opposition to Labour but to replace Labour as the opposition to the Tories.
Is such an outcome credible? Itâ€™s a stretch but not impossible. For a start, itâ€™d need a Labour government in Westminster, both as an SNP bogeyman and as a drag on Labourâ€™s own vote; itâ€™d also need a leftwards shift in the SNPâ€™s own stance, prompting the centre-right voters Salmond attracted to switch to the Blues, offset an additional swing from Red to Yellow; finally, itâ€™d need a bit of luck in â€˜eventsâ€™. The first part of that game-plan is putting Ed Miliband into Downing Street.