Keith Aitchison was a staunch Labour Party supporter as a young man in Glasgow. He even campaigned for the party ahead of elections. Now retired to the small Highland city of Inverness, Mr. Aitchison is still politically active, but he has switched allegiance to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.
“I came to the conclusion that within the Westminster political system you can’t change things because everything is pointed towards the need for votes in the south of England,” Aitchison says while volunteering at the local “Yes” shop, a souvenir store that opened in the run-up to Scotland’s failed independence referendum last September.
Aitchison is one of thousands of former Labour supporters expected to back the SNP in Britain’s general election on May 7. As support for the party grows – having quadrupled to more than 100,000 members since the referendum – it threatens to loosen Labour’s perennial grip on Scottish politics and become a major player in Westminster.
Labour’s popularity plummeted in Scotland after it joined forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against independence. Voters felt betrayed by the move, leading them to embrace the SNP as the true torchbearer of Scottish interests.
Meanwhile, many of Labour’s Scottish “big beasts,” including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are leaving the Westminster political scene. Their departures have further weakened the party’s appeal to its onetime supporters.
The mass defection to SNP all but extinguishes Labour leader Ed Miliband’s hope of securing a majority government in Westminster. Recent polls suggest the SNP could win up to 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats in British Parliament, an unprecedented six-fold increase from its current number.
The rise of the SNP
The SNP has controlled the Scottish Parliament since 2007. As a sign of its growing popularity, it boasts the only party leader with a positive approval rating.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Minister of Scotland and head of the SNP, has won praise across Britain for her fluent and composed performances in recent televised election debates between party leaders.
In the most recent debate on Thursday, Ms. Sturgeon set out the terms of a deal to work with Mr. Miliband and “lock out” the Conservatives from government. Pledging to “help Labour be bolder,” she told voters that the SNP would be willing to form an “anti-austerity alliance” to loosen the fiscal tightening that has occurred over the last five years.
The SNP has ruled out forming a coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party supports the continuation of Britain’s nuclear submarine program, which is based in Scotland. But Sturgeon has kept open the possibility of a looser post-election pact.
Miliband has said he will not countenance a deal with a party dedicated to breaking up Britain. But in the face of a potential hung Parliament, he could be forced to reach an agreement with the SNP, especially if Labour loses many of its 40 Scottish seats.
While Labour has long dominated Scotland's representation in London – it won 42 percent of the vote in the last general election in 2010 – the party's standing in Scottish Parliament has steadily declined over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011.
The weakening of Labour in its former Scottish heartlands – and the rise of the SNP – has been a long term phenomenon, says Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of “The Strange Death of Labour Scotland.” He says its roots extend far beyond last year’s referendum.
“Scottish Labour haven't answered the question of what [the party] is for beyond its own self-preservation,” Mr. Hassan says.
A second referendum?
Jim Sillars, a former Labour member of Parliament who left the party in the mid-1970s and eventually joined the SNP, predicts that a SNP victory in Scotland next month would reinvigorate the independence movement.
“If we can remove Labour from central Scotland this will be transformational and could lead to independence in a much shorter time frame than people realize,” says Mr. Sillars.
But success next month could bring headaches for the SNP. Party leaders are concerned that taking seats from Labour could provide a route for Prime Minister David Cameron to stay in office.
“Any party in Scotland seen to be actively facilitating Tory success gets brutally punished by the Scottish electorate," says Jamie Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator for the New Statesman. “We have seen that time and again.”
SNP leaders have said that they could support a Labour government in Westminster on an issue-by-issue basis. But that too brings political risks. If the SNP is blamed for government failings in London, it could be punished in next year’s parliamentary elections in Scotland.
Retaining control of the Scottish Parliament remains the SNP’s main focus. The only way to ensure another independence referendum is to have a majority of pro-independence lawmakers in Edinburgh. And for most of the people who come to the “Yes” shop in Inverness to pick up SNP stickers and leaflets, that's what really matters.
"Sooner or later we will get the result we want.” says SNP activist Norman Will.