Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has urged voters to back the Scottish National Party (SNP) in unprecedented numbers to make Scotland's voice "heard like before" in the upcoming Westminster elections.
Urging both Yes and No voters in last year’s referendum and those who never voted for the SNP before “to come together” on May and vote for SNP candidates, Ms Sturgeon said: “Let us seize this historic moment.”
Traditionally the SNP, increasingly dominant in the Holyrood parliament, has struggled against Labour in Westminster elections, where it has not been seen as relevant to the numbers. However, that has changed, and Labour's hold on traditional heartland constituencies – where bookmarkers rated it as 500/1 on chances five years ago– is now seen, even within Labour, to be under threat.
Strikingly, the SNP agrees with some of Labour’s main pledges: the scrapping of the bedroom tax, which penalises local authority tenants for having too much space, the return of the 50p tax rate for high earners and scrapping zero-hour contracts.
However, the SNP demands that Labour abandons its agreement to £30 billion more in spending cuts and, instead, signs up a 0.5 per cent annual increase in public spending – which would see £180 billion of borrowing.
Claiming the Conservatives had "strangled the recovery", SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie said British chancellor George Osborne is determined that cuts should be even steeper if he is returned to the treasury.
"A vote for the SNP is a vote to say 'Enough is Enough' to Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrats austerity cuts. A vote for the SNP will give the people of Scotland the power to achieve real change," he said.
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon – speaking at the SNP conference in Glasgow – insisted she would be in charge of post-election negotiations, not her predecessor, Alex Salmond, who has been increasingly vocal in recent weeks.
“He will be a big voice in the Westminster parliament. I think you can see by the reactions of both the Tories and Labour that Alex Salmond frightens the life out of them, and long may that continue, Ms Sturgeon said.
“I’m the leader of the SNP, I will lead negotiations; I will lead my party and hopefully I’ll continue as first minister of Scotland even after the Scottish parliamentary elections next year,” she said.
Privately, senior SNP figures insist Mr Salmond is “not off the reservation”, arguing that his language may be more aggressive than Ms Sturgeon’s but there is no difference in underlying messages.
Nevertheless, there are some signs that tensions do exist. A session with Mr Salmond about his new book was not included in conference programme proper. A small stage had been set up by the side of the main platform for Mr Salmond’s event, but he quickly abandoned it when party supporters told him that they could not see where he was standing. By the end, the hall was two-thirds full.
Mr Salmond is running again for Westminster. Privately, he has said that he will not seek to become leader of the party's Westminster group of MPs, led by Moray MP, Angus Robertson.
In preparation for increased MP numbers, the party yesterday laid down whipping rules that require that all its MPs pledge not “to publicly criticise” party decisions.