Steve Richards: A powerful role exists for a disciplined third party
When I interviewed the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, recently, I asked him what had struck him most about the new parliament that had been elected in May.
Without hesitation, Bercow replied: “The discipline, commitment and mutual supportiveness of the new SNP members… they attend debates in large numbers… when one of their colleagues is speaking, they are in the chamber to support him or her… they have clear messages and are very disciplined.”
Bercow added that the SNP MPs might not want to be part of a Westminster parliament – for the obvious reason that they seek an independent Scotland – but there were lessons for the bigger UK parties in their approach.
There certainly are lessons. The most significant debate since the UK general election was over the newly elected government’s proposed welfare cuts. Labour was in disarray and unsure how to respond, with its acting leader, Harriet Harman, urging them to support key proposals, or to at least abstain. Of the party’s leadership candidates, only Jeremy Corbyn voted against, an act of defiance that played a part in his extraordinary rise.
But in the chamber it was not Corbyn that provided coherent opposition; he was part of Labour’s incoherence. It was the SNP, with its spokeswoman Hannah Bardell leading the charge against the cuts. Anyone watching from Mars would have assumed the SNP was the official opposition, self-confident in its arguments and demeanour, compared with Labour’s nervy bewilderment.
Such assertiveness is reflected also in the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. Now it is the SNP leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, who gets to ask two questions. He has used the opportunity to probe David Cameron on a range of issues not always solely related to Scotland, the same figure standing there each Wednesday, compared with Labour who is on to its second leader and the Liberal Democrats, now reduced to eight MPs, pathetically marginalised.
As Bercow suggests, the discipline and commitment are both impressive and something of a novelty. MPs from other parties are less assiduous attenders of debates. Whips struggle with dissenters. Labour in particular is in the bizarre position of having a leader who was a parliamentary rebel having to cope with MPs who were previously loyal but who are the new dissenters. With Corbyn struggling to win over his MPs, the discipline of the SNP at Westminster is about to become more marked.
The style of the SNP parliamentary party at Westminster is not without precedent. There was much misleading talk in the media at the time about the control freakery of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In reality, the new intake was more than content to be loyal.
They were excited to be there and in some cases pleasantly surprised, the scale of the victory being beyond what some had thought possible. They were ambitious and gratefully in awe of a leadership that had been so electorally triumphant.
The same applies to some SNP MPs at Westminster, wondering quite what has happened to their suddenly transformed working lives, and more than content to follow the instructions of the leadership in Scotland or Westminster.
Discipline, loyalty and unity are powerful weapons in the current House of Commons. The London-based media is so excited about the Conservatives winning an overall majority, presenting David Cameron and George Osborne as invincible titans, it is easy to forget the current government has a majority of twelve, less than John Major secured in 1992, an election victory that triggered five years of parliamentary hell for him.
The current parliament will probably not be as stormy, or at least will not be so turbulent in quite the same way. Nonetheless, the tiny majority gives a disciplined third party much more of a powerful role. There will be moments when the SNP will change government policy.
It already played a significant role in reversing Cameron’s plans to bring back fox hunting. Much will depend on the capacity of opposition parties to work together, not an easy task when Labour struggles to unite over several policy areas.
Will the disciplined, assiduous approach of the SNP at Westminster last once the spellbinding novelty has faded? Obviously the MPs act in the context of a wider rosy political context, a period of remarkable dominance under the leadership first of Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon.
However, rosy political contexts do not last forever. At some point, the background noise will become more challenging, leaders will suffer a dip in their authority, MPs will find it easier to be restless and more wary.
Perhaps also the irony of performing effectively in a UK parliament while seeking independence will become more of a burden than a source of satisfaction. Issues will test the unity of a disparate band of MPs.
But these are mostly changes that are bound to impact on any party, as they did when New Labour lost its brilliant shine after 1997. The basic factors will be in place for some time: SNP popularity in Scotland, effective leadership and a parliamentary party more at ease with itself than those parties that support the continued existence of a UK parliament.
Steve Richards is a political columnist, broadcaster, author
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