Andrew Milligan / AP

Eyeing kingmaker role, Scottish nationalists take high road to ballot box

UK’s two main parties could be wiped out north of the border, leaving SNP strong hand in Scotland (and Westminster)

GLASGOW, Scotland — The East End of Glasgow has long been a byword for social neglect in Scotland. Once vilified as the "benefits capital of Britain" by the U.K.'s right-wing tabloid press, the area suffers from chronically high levels of poverty, joblessness and ill health.

But in recent months, it has become a staging ground for one of the most dramatic battles of the U.K. general elections, scheduled for May 7.

The area has been a safe Labour seat for decades, but recent polls suggest it will swing to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has enjoyed a surge in popularity since September last year, when it came within 6 percentage points of winning a referendum on Scotland's independence from Britain.

On the doorsteps of Easterhouse, a dilapidated neighborhood at the heart of the constituency, voters were emphatic.

"Labour just doesn't speak for Scotland," said Robert Charles, a 42-year-old electrical engineer who has lived in the district all his life. "They are controlled from Westminster."

A huge Saltire, Scotland's flag — the diagonal white cross and blue background elements of the Union Jack — flutters from the top window of Charles' concrete two-story public housing building. Like many people in this community, Charles backed independence seven months ago. He said he believes Labour should have done the same.

"They missed a trick," he said. "A majority of folk round here would probably support Labour in an independent Scotland."

Labour holds 41 of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats. If the polling data is correct, as many as two-thirds of these will fall to the nationalists in May.

The consequences of an SNP victory in Scotland would reverberate across the U.K. These elections are the most closely contested in living memory. Neither the incumbent Conservative Party nor the Labour opposition looks capable of winning an outright majority in the House of Commons. Moreover, a coalition with the Liberal Democrats — such as the one that helped form David Cameron’s ministry after his Tories fell short of an outright majority in 2010 — may not be enough to prop up either party, such is the expected slump in the Lib Dem vote.

As a result, the next government will likely have to rely on the support of smaller parties, such as the SNP and the Greens, in order to pass legislation.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out any postelection coalition deal with the Conservatives — a toxic political brand in Scotland since the 1980s, when then–Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies are thought to have plunged the Scottish industrial economy into a deep recession.

But Sturgeon, who has made early headway in her campaign, remains open to working with prospective Labour Prime Minister Ed Miliband. In return, however, she wants an end to the public spending cuts Miliband says are necessary to reduce Britain's debt.

Miliband, for his part, has ruled out a Labour-SNP coalition — largely to head off Tory claims that he is willing to be bedfellows with a party wishing to break up the U.K.

But he appears to be more open to the idea of a less formal deal with the nationalists, and he may well be forced into a position of working alongside the SNP.

That Sturgeon may end up as kingmaker at Westminster represents an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for her party. In the aftermath of the referendum defeat, many expected the SNP to fracture. Instead, its ranks have swelled.

"On referendum day, the SNP had around 25,000 members. Now it has in excess of 100,000, making it the third-largest party in the whole of the U.K.," said Peter Geoghegan, the author of "The People's Referendum," a widely acclaimed account of the September poll. "They have profited from the energy harnessed during the referendum campaign, from an appetite for change that has not been satisfied.

"And despite being in power in Edinburgh [the Scottish capital] for eight years, they are still seen by many voters as outsiders standing up for Scotland in an era of growing disillusionment with the established Westminster parties," he added.

The SNP surge is strongest in Labour's working-class heartlands. In Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, and across the densely populated Central Belt, blue collar voters are abandoning their traditional loyalties and turning in huge numbers to the nationalists.

Once viewed as starchy, rural and right-wing, Scottish nationalism is now a largely urban phenomenon with strong reservoirs of support among younger, left-leaning Scots.

The architect of this shift was Alex Salmond, Sturgeon's predecessor as SNP leader. As Labour moved rightward under Tony Blair, embracing privatization and finance-led growth, Salmond carefully maneuvered the SNP into the vacant left-of-center space.

After winning power at Holyrood, Scotland's semiautonomous legislature, in 2007, Salmond implemented a series of populist social democratic reforms, including the abolition of university tuition fees and the introduction of free medical prescriptions.

These progressive policies have helped the SNP break into once solid Labour fortresses such as the East End.

"The swing to the SNP here is partly to do with the referendum," said Natalie McGarry, the SNP's general election candidate for the constituency. "But in some respects, it was a long time coming."

"People think Labour has taken them granted. The amount of inequality in this area is frankly disgusting, and yet Labour have stacked people's votes for generations," she said.

McGarry cited Labour's campaign to defend the Union during the referendum, which was widely perceived as being highly negative, as central to the party's Scottish crisis.

"A lot of voters might have forgiven Labour for campaigning alongside the Tories," she said. "But they feel Labour's tactics were all about fear, [and now] they can't vote for a Labour Party that doesn't hold the values that it should."

Despite the polls, Labour still says it believes the East End is salvageable and that an SNP tsunami can be stopped or at least mitigated.

"This constituency is more complex than many people think," said Margaret Curran, the sitting Labour MP. "It had an SNP MP between 2008 and 2010, and he voted with the Tories more than he backed Labour. People felt let down by the SNP then, which is why we won the seat back with a large majority at the 2010 election."

Curran said she expects the Labour vote to consolidate as Scots start to confront the prospect of another Conservative government. If the SNP wins enough seats in Scotland to deprive Labour of a convincing victory across the UK, she argued, the Tories will return to power.

"At this election, people here have an opportunity to kick the Conservatives out of office, but only Labour is big enough and strong enough to do that. Every seat we lose to the SNP helps the Conservatives get back into Downing Street."

On the streets of Easterhouse, however, that message doesn't seem to be getting through.

"I'm 95 percent certain I'm going SNP," said Yvonne Macintosh, a 51-year-old cleaner who, like her neighbor Charles, voted in favor of independence last year. "Partly because of the Tories — I want to get rid of them — but also because of Labour. All those parties let areas like this go to rack and ruin." 

In postreferendum Scotland, frustration with what the SNP pejoratively describes as the Westminster system is tangible. Resentment toward the established institutions of British politics, including the Labour Party, is growing. In just a few weeks, the rest of the U.K. will find out how deep that resentment runs.

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