David Carr: The voter’s dilemma – Labour and the SNP’s manifestos compared


CommonSpace columnist David Carr examines the SNP and Labour manifestos and asks whether it’s enough to out-run the Tories

BOTH Labour and the SNP have issued strong General Election manifestos. They make impressive reading as counter-narratives to the Conservative ideology of austerity. However, each offers a dilemma for Scots voters – and that is in what they don’t say.

Labour’s offering has been hailed as the most radically progressive in living memory. Its pledges make impressive reading – free higher education (which we already have in Scotland); banning zero-hours contracts; increasing the minimum wage; a massive programme of social housing; re-nationalising the railways and utilities; setting up national and regional investment banks. 

(On an interesting point – the re-nationalisations would be difficult or impossible under EU rules. This is a Lexit manifesto).

Read more – 5 things you need to know about the SNP manifesto #GE2017

The manifesto is not perfect. Scots looking for a sympathetic ear on independence would be reading the wrong document. It remains committed to Trident. Still, it has been well received, with opinion polls climbing upwards. Even the normally hostile media reacted favourably. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee – no Corbynite, she – called the manifesto a cornucopia of delights.

For the SNP, this was a hard act to follow. Certainly, its manifesto supports a more progressive vision for the whole UK (increased minimum wage; increased health spending; a 50p tax rate at UK level). Naturally, it is also campaigning for the right to decide when a second independence referendum is held. 

The manifesto states that while this will not be decided by this election, the case will be “reinforced” by strong SNP representation.

However, such is the nature of devolution that it is hard for the SNP to shine on UK-wide topics. SNP MPs have no control over Westminster’s ‘day job’ issues. Their record largely depends upon devolved matters. In this election it is not the SNP’s place to promise much in the way of nationalisation, national investment banks, massive house building.

Elections aren’t decided on manifestos alone but on various, individual concerns. For some voters, the focus will be on dominant issues such as Brexit or independence. Jeremy Corbyn’s (manufactured) unpopularity is certainly a factor. Additionally, in Scotland, there are now – arguably – two main outlets for the progressive vote.  

Read more – What you need to know about Labour’s leaked manifesto

Granted, Scottish Labour’s leadership is incorrigible. The progressively-minded voter may boak at voting for the arch-unionist, anti-Corbynite former head of Better Together, Blair McDougall, who is standing in East Renfrewshire. But perhaps the manifesto will attract some to one of the 17 Corbyn-aligned candidates from Labour’s Campaign for Socialism.

A key calculation is whether a party is electable. The voter’s choice here is similar to ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ from game theory mathematics, whereby they also have to consider what fellow voters will do.

Let’s assume the voter is attracted by Labour’s pledges. (And let’s assume that it’s that mythical voter who hasn’t permanently attached themselves to the Yes or No tribes.) Their Labour vote delivers only if others vote Labour and Labour win. Manifesto unlocked, UK-wide. 

If, on the other hand, Labour’s chances are slim, the quicker route out of Tory domination may be independence. An SNP vote would make more sense. 

But the lose/lose outcome would be Labour failing UK-wide yet taking votes from the SNP in Scotland.

Read more – Mind the gap: What are the policy differences between UK and Scottish Labour?

I am in no way trying to tell people how to vote here. I offer this comparison of manifestos to make a more general point about the necessity of a clear, progressive vision at the heart of future independence campaigning.

It is a perfectly reasonable to desire independence on the ‘lifeboat principle’. But this choice shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a rejection of progressive ideas, but rather lack of faith in their present electability.

Scotland likes to see itself as a progressive nation. While this is sometimes debatable – there are plenty of conservative views – there is no less left sentiment north of the border than south. I’m sure that many will be rooting for Corbyn in England even while voting SNP. Certainly the assumption has been that independence will advance the progressive cause. 

But what if the progressive ideas come from the south? Few have been putting money on Labour – until recently. Now with their poll surge, the possibility seems less remote. But even if it cannot win – for various reasons unconnected to the reality of its policies – its manifesto remains a statement of what is possible, what can be strived for. It has set a benchmark which the SNP would be wise to match and exceed in its vision for an independent Scotland.

There is an old joke about a hunter who is on safari with local tracker. They come across a cheetah in a clearing. The tracker lays down his pack, gets out a pair of running shoes and starts putting them on.

“What are you doing?” asks the hunter, “You’ll never outrun a cheetah!”

“I don’t have to,” the tracker replies, “I only have to out-run you.”

Scotland can do so, so much more than out-run the Tories – but we need to be thinking about and clearly stating progressive policies for after independence.

Picture courtesy of justgrimes

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