There is no denying the fact that Scottish Labour’s campaign has been uninspiring, ill-conceived and unsuccessful.
A lead in the opinion polls has been squandered and it seems increasingly likely that the SNP will be re-elected with more MSPs than ever before. The recent Scotland on Sunday/YouGov poll has given the SNP a 13% lead over Labour in the constituency vote and a 10% lead in the regional list though polls should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
With just ten days until polls open, Iain Gray is relaunching the Labour campaign. This state of affairs is frustrating; a campaign which had the potential to show Labour rejuvenated instead indicates that lessons have not been learned. Here I will highlight four main areas where I think the campaign has come short: the anti-Tory, then anti-SNP, stance; the absence of distinctiveness; the lack of realism; and the leadership problem.
The recurring motif of most of the Labour campaign thus far has been “now that the Tories are back.”
The idea, presumably, was to reawaken latent Scottish fear and hatred of the Conservatives, and insist that only Labour could save Scotland from the cuts. The problem with this strategy is firstly that the Tories are not the main opponents in these elections, the SNP are. Secondly, there is no clear evidence to show that the Scottish people believe Labour rather than the SNP are best placed to “protect” Scotland from the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.
Many of the SNP’s main players are veterans of the campaign against the poll tax and are, or were, torchbearers for the party’s leftwing. Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill are now mainstream politicians but were part of the socialist 79 Group and were expelled from the SNP in 1982. Though less explicitly anti-Tory than Labour’s rather clumsy effort, the SNP have, of course, continuously positioned themselves as defenders of Scotland and proclaim that they will oppose or mitigate the “Westminster imposed cuts.”
The SNP’s slogan is “A Scottish Government working for Scotland” and this appeal to national-ism is arguably more effective than Labour’s politically partisan approach. Of course Labour has now switched tactics and is focusing its attacks on the SNP, but once again they have misjudged the national mood.
This leads on to the second problem with the Labour campaign: the lack of distinctiveness. Iain MacWhirter has dubbed this the ‘me too’ election, noting that whatever the Nats pledge Labour follow suit. This back-fired somewhat when Labour adopted the SNP policy of a council tax freeze, despite earlier opposition, promising to extend it by two years. The SNP then went on to promise a five year extension.
Both the SNP and Labour are centre-left parties and to most their manifestos appear identical. Now that Labour has turned their fire from the Tories onto the SNP the main, if only, ammunition they can use is to denounce independence. The difficulty with this is, however, that voting SNP, as we all now know, does not lead to independ-ence; it might lead to a referendum, but the SNP have proven that they can govern and that they are not a one issue party.
Labour cannot simply rely on the issue of independence to scare Scottish voters into choosing them over the SNP; it is patronising, deceptive and reveals a fundamental lack of vision. Labour needs to move away from negative campaigning – portraying the Tories and the Nats as bogeymen – and instead stress its distinctive vision for Scotland.
The SNP are an umbrella group for a range of politicians whose fundamental belief is that Scotland should be an independent nation. This is essentially their only ideology; though they are currently pursuing a populist, pro-business centre-left programme this can and will change as the makeup of the party alters. Labour’s is a democratic socialist party, however that is defined; it has the ideological, intellectual and cultural tools to deconstruct and oppose the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s policies.
The third problem is one common to almost all the major parties: the fantastical qualities of their manifestos, most of which avoid any mention of the fact that the Scottish Government’s budget is falling by £1.3 billion in 2011-2012 alone.
In a repetition of the 2010 General Election, Scottish politicians seem to believe that the public will buy the notion that “efficiency savings” will make up most of the shortfall. Labour has suggested it can find £4.8 billion efficiency savings in order to fund its manifesto along with the money saved by merging police forces, creating a single fire service, cutting the number of health boards and other reforms.
With such wildly optimistic figures, Iain Gray’s attack on Salmond appears misguided. “Listening to this man is like watching Tomorrow’s World in the 1970s when we were all promised jetpacks – just like we were promised all student debt would be scrapped, teacher numbers would be maintained, and our school building programme would be matched,” he will say, but the Scottish public is no more confident that Labour are in touch with reality.
Any analysis of Scottish Labour’s campaign has to touch on the issue of leadership. There is no avoiding the fact that Alex Salmond is a confident, capable and intelligent politician probably without equal in Scotland. The SNP will face a charisma vacuum when he eventually goes, but for now he is their greatest asset.
Iain Gray, on the other hand, well-intentioned and agreeable though he seems, has difficulty articulating the Labour message, though the fault arguably lies more with his advisers and strategists. The debacle at Central Station may be the Gillian Duffy moment of this campaign, imprinting the image of Gray as a man lacking conviction, unable to defend or even express his policies, onto the nation’s psyche.
Misquoted figures and even spelling mistakes in Labour’s manifesto emphasise this image of a poorly managed party, more interested in focus-group issues than in constructing a plan for the future of Scotland.
The campaign is not yet over, but I believe the election is already lost. Labour has once again reverted to the easy option of attacking first the Tories then the SNP without producing a coherent, costed and inspiring vision for Scotland. The rebuilding of the Labour party in England is developing apace after the defeat of last May; Scottish Labour have will have to begin that process if they are to retake Holyrood.