SNP's '˜Strong and stable' message pushes indyref2 to the margins
John Swinney will open the SNP conference claiming that only the SNP offers stability amid chaos at the top of the Conservative Party and another contest to lead Labour in Scotland.
But two separate polls have cast a shadow over the conference, confirming that the SNP is losing ground to Labour and highlighting voters’ uncertainty over Nicola Sturgeon’s record in government.
The First Minister is under pressure to satisfy her own supporters’ demands for progress towards a second independence referendum, while responding to the constitutional fatigue that drove voters away from the SNP at the general election in June and cost 21 MPs.
She also faces awkward questions on Tuesday, when she delivers her keynote speech on the same day that the Catalan parliament is expected to make a unilateral declaration of independence.
Topics set for debate by delegates include motions on Brexit, raising the minimum age for military service from 16 to 18, and cracking down on landlords who advertise accommodation in exchange for sex.
But discussion of independence is limited to a pair of fringe meetings.
Delegates will also be given a say on raising the public sector pay cap amid calls from unions for pay rises of up to 5 per cent, but there will be no debate in the conference hall on raising taxes.
“Against the backdrop of Brexit, Labour and the Tories have descended into unprecedented chaos, and amidst the complete abdication of leadership on the key issues of the day, the responsibility on the SNP to deliver strong government has never been greater,” Swinney said ahead of the conference getting under way.
The party is set to highlight the recent ban on fracking, the introduction of “baby boxes” for all new parents, and the completion of the Queensferry Crossing as evidence of its delivery after ten years in power.
Swinney said: “The SNP is the only party delivering progressive government anywhere in the UK.
“In recent weeks, our bold and ambitious policy plans have set the agenda in Scotland and been heard around the world.
“We are the only party firmly focused on the priorities of the people of Scotland, protecting Scotland’s interests and ensuring Scotland’s voice is heard.”
But critics accused the SNP of airbrushing out major challenges facing education, the health service and policing from the party’s record. Interim Labour leader Alex Rowley said the SNP’s term in office had been a “decade of division”.
“The nationalists’ claim to be a progressive government is laughable when they have spent their time in office turning the Scottish Parliament into a conveyor belt for Tory austerity, slashing local authority budgets by £1.5 billion since 2011,” Rowley said.
A Scottish Conservative spokesman said talk of the nationalists’ achievements “might wash with the SNP faithful, but the public more generally are sick of the SNP’s warm words.
“The truth is, in a decade of government, the nationalists have only made things worse.”
It comes as a poll conducted by pro-Union campaigners found that most people disapprove of the SNP’s record in government, and are split on Sturgeon’s performance as First Minister.
Asked to give their verdict on everything the SNP have done since they first formed a government in 2007, 42 per cent of respondents to the YouGov online poll say they disapprove of the nationalists’ record, while 39 per cent approve and 19 per cent don’t know.
On the question of how Sturgeon is doing as First Minister, 45 per cent said she was performing well compared to 44 per cent who say she is doing badly, with 10 per cent saying they do not know.
Scotland in Union chief executive Pamela Nash warned the SNP against reviving the case for another independence referendum, or risk seeing its election prospects dip even further.
“These figures show the tide is now turning and the SNP’s obsession with the constitution is costing them support,” Nash said.
“The issues that matter to Scots such as our economy, our schools and our NHS have been cast aside and it’s clear people are increasingly fed up. They want a government running the country, not a campaign.”
Yesterday the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford joined the growing number of senior voices within the SNP calling on Sturgeon to postpone any consideration of indyref2 until after 2020, beyond the next set of elections.
Blackford warned that setting a target date for a second independence referendum was “putting the cart before the horse”.
He said: “We need to know what will happen with Brexit, what is going to be the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, but the second thing is we need to set out a vision of what kind of Scotland we expect to see.”
Fellow SNP MP Pete Wishart recently called for a second independence referendum to be put off until after a post-Brexit transition period, which is not set to end until 2019 at the earliest.
In an interview last month, Sturgeon admitted she didn’t know when indyref2 will be called, saying it depended on the outcome of Brexit.