Seizing on a policy pushed by Scottish Labour, the first minister said power from the publicly owned energy company would be sold as cheaply as possible.
“Energy would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland – renewable, of course – and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible,” she told the Scottish National party conference in Glasgow on Tuesday. “No shareholders to worry about. No corporate bonuses to consider.”
It was one of a series of populist policies aimed at bolstering her party’s appeal to leftwing and rural voters.
She said the Scottish government would allow residents on the small Hebridean island of Ulva to launch a community buyout worth about £4.25m; end council tax payments to care leavers; set up a £6m rural tourism fund; and approve Scotland’s first low-emissions zone in Glasgow. Plans for the new energy company, due to be set up by 2021, would emerge in a forthcoming energy bill.
Speaking to an emptier conference hall than usual, Sturgeon made clear her government had to prioritise new domestic policies in the short term, at the expense of preparing for another independence referendum. Many of her new policies echo the Corbynite agenda being pushed by Richard Leonard, the favourite to win the Scottish Labour leadership contest and a candidate, like Jeremy Corbyn, who is attracting pro-independence campaigners who previously voted for the SNP.
She confirmed she wanted a second independence vote staged soon after Brexit, but offered no further insight on its likely timing.
Sturgeon appeared to refer to pleas from senior SNP figures – including Ian Blackford, her Westminster leader, and Pete Wishart, the party’s longest-serving MP – to take time preparing a coherent economic and practical case for independence.
The latest YouGov poll put SNP support at 42%, which would lose it six Holyrood seats, and found support for independence was ebbing away, with more voters who backed independence in 2014 now unwilling to support a quick fresh referendum.
The poll showed Labour support rising slightly, bolstered by Corbyn’s growing popularity in Scotland.
Blackford is working with the party’s financial adviser, Andrew Wilson, on a report on Scotland’s economic and fiscal options intended to answer significant questions avoided by Alex Salmond, the former first minister, in the 2014 referendum campaign.
“Let us address concerns head on,” Sturgeon said. “And above all, let us inspire confidence in our fellow citizens that the way things are now is not the way they must always be. There is a better future to be had for all of us, if we chose to build it, together.”
“If the last year has taught us anything it is this: in an age of rapid global change we cannot afford to be bystanders. That means speaking up for universal democratic rights,” she told delegates, many of whom feel subdued after the party lost 21 Westminster seats in June, forcing Sturgeon to drop her demands for a new independence vote by spring 2019.
“And, yes, it means campaigning for independence. But it also means acting and governing today.”
Alex Rowley, Scottish Labour’s interim leader, accused Sturgeon of stealing his party’s policies on a public energy company, tackling period poverty to bursaries for science teachers, because she was out of her own ideas.
“Having attempted to photocopy Labour policies, Nicola Sturgeon now faces the real test – outlining how she will pay for them,” he said. “Only Labour is offering a progressive plan on tax that stops the cuts and allows us to invest instead.”
But Sturgeon won applause after attacking the European Union for failing to condemn police violence against Catalonians backing the region’s independence referendum 10 days ago. The EU had also quashed the SNP’s hopes an independent Scotland would retain membership, insisting it reapplied after leaving the UK.
Urging dialogue between governments in Barcelona and Madrid, she said: “We do want Scotland to stay at the heart of Europe. But that does not mean we think the EU is perfect.
“Sometimes it fails to live up to its founding values of human dignity, freedom, democracy and equality.”
Sturgeon was introduced for her speech on the final day of the conference by her deputy leader. Angus Robertson has been given an enhanced role to galvanise the party’s 120,000 members despite losing his Westminster seat to the Tories, who routed the SNP in north-east Scotland.
SNP figures have complained privately that many new members are inactive, and admit that the loss of 21 Commons seats and the collapse of Sturgeon’s referendum plans have undermined confidence.
Robertson urged activists to “get out there and work. [We] must communicate ever more effectively with voters about the issues which really matter to them.”
Robertson roused the conference by reciting a long list of SNP election victories and underlining its continued ascendancy in Scottish opinion polls. Given there was no scheduled Scottish or UK election for 1,300 days, he said, the party needed to seize the opportunity to regroup and defend its dominance.
In a sign of growing radicalism among activists, SNP delegates voted overwhelmingly for a motion calling for the royal family to lose its automatic share of profits from the crown estate, a state body which owns coastal seabed, royal parks, Ascot racecourse and shopping centres.
The motion is symbolic since the legislation is reserved, while most crown estate surplus profits in Scotland – excluding the sovereign grant – go towards Holyrood spending.
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