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Is this the SNP’s 1992 revival?

Herald: 8/4/07

It’s not been a happy Easter for Labour. Another weekend poll, this time in the Mail on Sunday, showed the SNP twelve points ahead in the race for Holyrood. There were stories about Brown and Blair arguing in the back of their limo over the impending electoral disaster; there was renewed speculation about Jack McConnell’s future; and Labour insiders were saying that their own internal polls show Labour is trailing the SNP.

In other words, everything is going to plan. Yes, Labour are remarkably relaxed about their poor poll showings and negative press. They seem almost to be talking up the SNP as a tactic, the better to bring them down later in the campaign. There is method to this madness.

Labour’s poll guru, Philip Gould, in Scotland last week compared the Scottish elections to the 1992 general election campaign. At this stage in ‘92, Labour appeared to have a comfortable lead over the Tories. But as soon as voters looked at the small print of Labour’s economic policies, they took fright and threw in their lot with the devil they knew: the Conservatives.

If history is repeating itself, then it makes sense to play up the prospect of an SNP victory the better to concentrate the minds of the electorate on their policies. Mind you, it’s pretty hard on Gordon Brown and the late John Smith who were responsible for the 1992 shadow budget which Gould says didn’t add up.

But is it a legitimate comparison? I remember the 1992 general election campaign well, since I was working in Westminster at the time. At this stage the early polls certainly placed Labour ahead by around five points. There was an infectious air of excitement in the media, just as today, at the prospect of a historic change of government.

It never happened of course, and Labour’s economic policies probably played a part. However, it was a very different economic and political climate. Britain was still in the depths of recession and house prices were collapsing across the South of England. Scotland today is booming and most people in work have never had it so good.

Moreover, I seem to recall that the decisive moment in that 1992 campaign was the infamous Sheffield rally, where Neil Kinnock let his hair down – metaphorically speaking – and started punching the air crying “well, all right…” like a superannuated soul singer. Maybe Sheffield’s significance was exaggerated, but Kinnock certainly feels he blew Labour’s chances by exposing a side of his character that was not sufficiently prime ministerial.

You couldn’t imagine Alex Salmond doing the same – or could you? Remember the “unpardonable folly” remark about the bombing of Belgrade during the 1999 Scottish election campaign. Labour certainly believe that Salmond has it in him to make a series of arrogant gaffes, and a lot of effort will to to into provoke him into delivering one. Hence Jack McConnell’s repeated taunts about how the SNP leader cut and run to Westminster in 2000 because he couldn’t hack it in the Scottish Parliament.

However, the SNP leader has been showing considerable restraint in this election so far. Salmond’s minders have been impressing upon him the need to leave his “guerilla opposition” days behind him and take on the mantle of sober statesmanship. Stop scoring cheap points in debate, curb his soundbites and avoid leaping onto the air waves to rebut every Labour slight. Seems to be working so far.

Last week Salmond and most of his party virtually absented themselves from the entire campaign, allowing the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, free rein to rubbish their monetary and fiscal policies. It culminated in an astonishing attack at the weekend by Professor Arthur Midwinter of Edinburgh University, an adviser on fiscal matters to the Scottish parliament’s finance committee, who told a sunday newspaper that the SNP “are not fit to govern” because they have not been able to defend their policies on local income tax.

Now, in the past, you would have expected a whole series of SNP figures to be leaping up like Jock-in-the-boxes, to defend their policies on council tax, the deficit and keeping the pound. John Swinney, Jim Mather, Alex Salmond to name but three. They would unintentionally have contradicted each other in subtle ways, which the press and Labour would have been able to exploit. In other words, their interventions would have kept the story running, and allowed the focus to fall on the areas where they are weakest.

Instead of that, the nationalists kept their own council, avoided the airwaves and simply released a couple of alternative academic papers, one from Professor David Simpson, former chief adviser to Standard Life and one from Professor Neil Kay, of Strathclyde University, arguing that the SNP numbers are sound. Or at any rate, no more unsound than anyone else’s’.

Salmond has kept his ammunition dry until a press conference in Aberdeen today, where he promises to deal with the issue, on his own, point by point. This is not the febrile SNP we have seen in the past. It represents the kind of self discipline that Labour showed, not in 1992 perhaps, but in 1997.

Of course, the SNP will have to get their act together. The charge is that local income tax would make Scotland the highest taxed region in Britain, would discourage investment, and would hit poorer people hardest. There are some very dodgy numbers flying around about just how much local income tax would have be levied.

The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies says 5p on the basic rate. Salmond says, and will say again today, that – assuming the existing council tax benefits are retained which is by no means certain – the increase would only be 3p plus efficiency savings of around half a billion pounds. Hmm. Whenever a politician resorts to efficiency savings to fund policies, economists reach for their revolvers.

Midwinter points out that government in history has ever achieved cost reductions of that scale, equivalent to 1.5% of total spending. Mind you, the Chancellor is supposedly applying efficiency savings of 2.5% under the existing Gershon review, so I suppose Gordon Brown isn’t fit to be in government either. Or Jack McConnell, who promised to cut Scottish spending in the last CSR round by more than Gershon.

Labour have now made a dramatic promise to halve and eventually abolish water and sewerage charges. There will be more tomorrow from Labour at their manifesto launch about making council tax fairer and more progressive. By the end of the week, it will not just be the SNP who will have to show that they can get their numbers to add up.

However, to return to 1992 and all that, there is another very big difference. In 92, Labour were bidding to be the government of the UK, not coalition partners in a regional legislature. Voters know that the SNP would have to share power with the Liberal Democrats and that Scotland would have to vote for independence in a referendum in 2010. Labour’s task is to convince an electorate fed up with them that it cannot afford to take even this limited risk with the future.

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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