Nicola Sturgeon is popular, but she’s giving the SNP nothing to sell voters on the doorstep

The First Minister's campaigning never ends, but she will need to offer more detail to retain her popularity in the Scottish elections in May

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The Independent Online

The badges for this weekend’s SNP conference feature the popular hashtag #BothVotesSNP, an indication that the party never stops campaigning. It’s a typically thoughtful detail for a conference likely to be so tightly choreographed that it will do little more than project the SNP’s core messages to Scotland, and broadcast a 40 minute speech from the popular mother of that nation, Nicola Sturgeon. 

One would assume from polling, which consistently puts the SNP on between 50 and 60 per cent of the vote, that it has transformed Scotland in a decade, clearing out the cobwebs of dull, managerial Labour politics and turning it into a dynamic hotbed of radical reform. That would be wrong.

On Saturday afternoon the First Minister will laud the SNP’s “record” in government, no doubt convinced that every action - no matter how conventional or counterproductive - has been “progressive” and transformational. One imagines there will also be a lengthy peroration about future triumphs. But it remains pretty thin gruel.

As things stand, the SNP’s manifesto will comprise no clear commitment to a second independence referendum, minor tinkering with a council tax it once promised to scrap, no real change to income tax (although possibly an increase for higher earners, a token gesture given its limited likely impact) and “standardized” testing in schools. And that's pretty much it. 

The former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell once promised to “do less better”; Sturgeon has made cautious inactivity into an art form. She possesses popular appeal and political authority her predecessors could only dream of, but so far the SNP leader has shown very little inclination to do anything with it.

At last year’s autumn conference there were modest signs of frustration on the conference fringe when it came to fracking (the leadership is ambivalent, the grassroots deeply hostile) and land reform (ministers talk “radical”, but many activists want to go much further), and there’ll be more of that in Glasgow this weekend. 

Members of political parties need something to fight for, something to sell on the doorstep. In previous years that’s been relatively easy with populist polices such as abolishing up-front tuition fees. At this election, however, the dynamic has changed; the cautious inactivity having become more obvious, as Holyrood secures greater powers. The novelty of an engaging new leader helped distract from this reality, but Sturgeon has now had almost a year and a half to prove herself as party chief and First Minister; and what is there to show for it? 

Even presentationally, Sturgeon is rather inconsistent. Great at hustings and on television screens, at Holyrood she appears more easily rattled than the pugilistic but generally unflappable Salmond. The weekly First Minister’s Questions is a case in point: at 12 noon every Thursday Nicola Sturgeon becomes Alex Salmond; the same bluff and bluster, the same indignant posturing when confronted with inconvenient truths, the same playground debating points.

Yesterday I could see Salmond beaming proudly from the backbenches as his protégé demolished her opponents despite her own government’s figures having recently revealed a Scotland hypothetically in the red to the tune of £15 billion. There the Salmond legacy is deeply unhelpful to Ms Sturgeon: his approach is increasingly threadbare and his party will see through it. 

Anyone catching sight of FMQs on the box would have seen the First Minister “standing up for Scotland” using her two favourite words, “radical”, and “progressive”. The campaign never ends, but it will need more depth than this to retain her popularity.

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