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Campaign Commentary Week 1

The first week of any election campaign is usually an anticlimax, and this one was no exception. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came north to warn again of the economic cost of independence, the SNP tried to keep their heads down, the Tories tried to persuade themselves that they still exist.

But the image of the week has to be the Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, brandishing that giant toothbrush. The idea was to underline the collapse of NHS dentistry in Scotland, but since the Liberal Democrats were part of the administration responsible for the situation, it didn’t really wash.

The opportunism of the Liberal Democrats has been an intense irration for the SNP and Labour. Nicol Stephen unceremoniously dumped his party’s policy on congestion charging after discovering that it was a vote loser. Shades of the Edinburgh congestion referendum three years ago. Their comments on local authority finance have been so sparing you would hardly believe that they supported a local income tax.

The Liberal Democrats may be small fry but they are immensely important politically. They came fourth in 2003 but they are the only party in this race which is more or less guaranteed a share in any coalition government. The more votes they win the greater their influence.

The big parties are convinced the Liberal Democrats are doing better than their dismal poll figures suggest. The SNP and Labour fear, with justification, that while they slug it out in the forefront, the LibDems will sneak off with lots of votes behind their backs by pretending to be the ‘none of the above’ party. Hiding behind Nicol Stephen’s smile, they will get through the campaign with minimal scrutiny of their policies.

Mind you, the SNP, for their part, were also trying to avoid policy scrutiny last week. Indeed, they seemed to have disappeared mid week, when their biggest draw appeared to be a photo-opportunity in Bathgate. They studiously avoided rising to any of the barrage of economic challenges hurled in their direction by the Chancellor.

Of course, the SNP realise that they are the ones with the most to lose in this contest and they are in the business of avoiding unforced errors. In a curious role reversal, it is Labour who are the underdogs and the SNP who are burdened by the expectation of victory, based on a run of six opinion polls which came to an abrupt halt on Friday.

The Herald poll showing apparently showing Labour back in the lead surprised everyone, psephologists included, who had expected a continuation of the SNP winning streak. The polling organisation, MRUK wasn’t one of the usual suspect, and the SNP insisted that their was something decidedly murky about their sampling technique. They had put the questions in 23-25 March and then sat on them for a fortnight.

But rogue or not, polls like this are significant in terms of morale. Traditionally, the SNP have shown a brittle self-confidence that is easily shattered by unexpected events and set backs. This is a testing time for them, and that is no bad thing. There was a hint of triumphalism entering into their rhetoric which would do them no good at all.

They may have been showing a consistent lead in recent polls, but there was always a question mark about how reliable those polls actually, given the low visibility of Holyrood politics and the large number of ‘don’t knows’. In short, most people hadn’t realised there was an election on until last week. It is only now, as the parties really get into gear with their manifesto launches this week, that the public will begin to sit up and, fitfully, take note.

Labour knows this only too well, which is why they fielded their ‘big guns’ Gordon Brown and Tony Blair again in what was almost a repeat showing of last month’s engagement. Their message was the same as before, same as it ever was: the SNP economics don’t work; independence would cost every Scottish family #5,000; Scotland would be the highest taxed region of Britain; and anyway they will keep the pound so they aren’t really nationalist.

Gordon Brown went ballistic over the SNP currency policy in his visit to Glasgow, denouncing the nationalist policy of remaining with sterling for leaving Scotland at the mercy of the Bank of England. But the real damage was inflicted on the SNP’s plans for a local income tax. The Institute for Fiscal Studies – the accepted authority on such issues – redid the numbers and claimed that it would take a 5p in the pound increase in income tax to raise the equivalent revenue of the existing council tax.

LIT could turn into the equivalent of the SNP’s “penny for Scotland” back in 1999. It is always dangerous to propose new taxes, even if they involve the scrapping of existing ones. For all its faults, council tax has been around for many years and people are used to paying it, however reluctantly.

The problem with shifting the burden from property to income is that it will look like, well, an income tax It may be progressive, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fairer. It will hit people on low earnings who pay no council tax at present, students and houses with multiple occupants. Council tax is unpopular, but the SNP have yet to explain how their system will be less so.

The irony of course is that the low paid who would be hit by the SNP’s local income tax were also clobbered by the Chancellor’s axing of the 10p income tax rate. This is not a good time to be on the minimum wage. The political parties seem to have given up on the poor, now that everyone has become infatuated with the business vote. There is an assumption from the SNP and from Labour that what is good for businessmen is good for the country.

However, a useful corrective to this media preoccupation was provided by the BBC’s election poll this week. Top of the electoral pops for Scottish voters in 2007 appears to be ensuring that hospitals and schools are built and run by the public sector. I take this to be less about opposing PFI – though there’s no indication that it is particularly popular – and more about the Scots continuing commitment to collective provision.

Scottish Labour has been absolutely correct in resisting the market reforms which have been introduced south of the border – even though Number Ten was not impressed by their decision. Scots still hold to traditional Labour values, even if New Labour does not.

Even on council tax want pensioners to be exempted in the belief that this would alleviate hardship. Crime and schools are next on the list, and it’s no secret that they will feature prominently on Labour’s manifesto when it is published on Tuesday. McConnell will promise to give Scotland the best schools in the world, to crack down on crime, to make the council tax bands more progressive and, of course, to keep Scotland in the union.

Last week the SNP kept its head down; this week we will see the bullets fly. This will be the decisive week of the campaign, when Scotland finally awakes to the choice it has to make in four weeks time.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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