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politics. SNP. opinion polls. Ipsos Mori. Alex Salmond. Iain Gray. Holyrood elections.

SNP are back. Bad day for monkeys.

It was a bad day for monkeys. It has long been said that, in large parts of Scotland, you if you put a red rosette on a monkey it would still win in most Labour constituencies, especially when there is a Conservative government in Westminster. The old rule certainly appeared to be holding following the general election in May when Labour stacked up over a million votes in Scotland and knocked the stuffing out of Alex Salmond. But the day of the primate may be over. 
If the latest opinion poll from Ipsos Mori is right, and the SNP has clawed back the 10 point lead Labour had over them as recently as November, Labour may have to start looking for a better species of candidate.

    Now, obviously this is only one opinion poll – it’s hard to make sense of Scottish politics nowadays since no one seems to do them here any more. However, it is a credible poll of 1,000 voters and comes at a key moment in the political cycle, as the Nationalists gear up for the Scottish parliament elections in May. For the last year we’ve all been working on the assumption that, as Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University.put it last summer, Labour has established a ‘settled’ lead over the SNP of around ten points. Anecdotally, it didn’t seem that way, since there seemed remarkably little enthusiasm for or even knowledge of Labour’s Scottish leader, Iain Gray among adult Scots. But you couldn’t argue with the numbers, and Labour seemed to be coasting to victory. Not any more. 

If this latest poll is not a rogue, it helps answer one of the puzzles of recent Scottish politics, which is why the SNP has been so much less popular than its leader. Alex Salmond remains by far the most popular party leader in Scotland with an approval rating that is greater than all the other main party leaders combined. Ipsos Mori put Salmond’s approval rating at plus 51% against Labour’s Iain Gray at 33% with almost as many apparently unsure who he is. Salmond’s popularity has hardly changed in four years, which is extremely unusual for a political leader in office.  Given Labour’s apparent recent polling lead, you would expect the position to be reversed on the eve of an election.  So, it might be that we have a Westminster effect here that it beginning to wear off. Now that Scottish voters are starting to think Holyrood, instead of the Tories in Westminster, knee-jerk support for Labour may be fading. 

Timing is everything in politics and this poll comes at the end of a spell in which the SNP have been making the political weather again in a way that had seemed to have eluded them in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. John Swinney managed to bring his fourth and final budget safely into land, thanks to some highly effective,if financially inconsequential, concessions to the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Labour voted against the budget on the usual sectarian lines, even though they were offered significant concessions on modern apprenticeships and training. It means that when Labour insist that they, and only they, make jobs and training the number one priority, the SNP can say that when Labour had the opportunity to do precisely this, they voted against it. 

Then theres Megrahi. The revelation that Labour in Westminster were actively seeking the return of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya, even as Labour in Holyrood were condemning the SNP for allowing his release on compassionate grounds, has been a significant moral blow to Labour’s standing in Scotland. Party politics aside, this was a disreputable exercise in political cynicism that leaves a particularly bad taste in Scotland.

  Mind you, so do political donations.  Brian Souter has offered to give up to £500,000 to the SNP for fighting the election – but only if they can match his cash through their own fund-raising efforts. No one is more critical of businessmen buying politics than I am, but I have to say this is at least an attempt to make it more acceptable. The hard reality is that parties need cash to fight election. The Nationalists had very little to spend in the May election and it showed; they will be much better off in May.

So, what should Labour do to counter this apparent nationalist advance? Well, doing something would be a start. The Labour strategy appears to have been to keep their heads down, say nothing and hope that the voters install Iain Gray in Bute House on the monkey principle that if Tories are in power in London, Labour must be in power in Scotland. This was always a risky approach for a party with a weak leadership and a confused programme up against a politician of the stature of Alex Salmond. He isn’t Scotland’s favourite politician for nothing. To take on such a commanding political personality you have to have either strength in depth as a party, or you have to have a highly attractive agenda of policies. Labour has neither. 

John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon, Kenny MacAskill, Mike Russell are heavyweight politicians with a strong recognition factor. Labour has a largely anonymous front bench, apart from Andy Kerr and Wendy Alexander. As far as policy is concerned, I am mystified as to what Labour’s programme actually is. The party has been so desperate to avoid any mistakes, such as the council tax imbroglio that upset Jack McConnell’s campaign in 2007, that they’ve tried to say as little as possible. They are for jobs and, well, jobs, and shorter cancer waiting times – though Labour’s performance in office in reducing cancer waiting was unimpressive. A national care commission and merged police forces are bureaucratic issues that have little resonance. Their determination to remove knife criminals is a populist policy, but not an election winner . 

The SNP will go into the election having abolished prescription charges entirely (by April) promising to continue a council tax freeze that has lasted now for four years. They will promise also to increase health spending in real terms for the next parliament, introduce 25,000 apprenticeships next year, and keep higher education tuition free for Scottish school leavers. Yes, they have broken promises on student debt and class sizes. But they have a pretty impressive record – and if Labour want to earn their victory in May, they need to stop monkeying around and come up with a proper response.  

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?


10 thoughts on “SNP are back. Bad day for monkeys.

  1. Thank you, Iain, for a fair, well-pitched view of the political picture in Scotland at the moment. It is difficult finding your kind of fairness in the mainstream Scottish media (MSM). I've given up on The Scotsman – and on The Herald (yes, I know/suppose your piece appeared there today but I was unable to register with the online edition in order to read what you'd written). I've also dropped all interest in BBC Scotland (and that Brian chappie and his stifling blog and so-called Big Debate … if the BBC wants to give Scots a debate, let it include our First Minister in a televised national debate). In fact, the MSM in both paper and online form are becoming less and less interesting, more and more predictable, pushing more and more a Labour agenda. It is becoming easier and easier to ignore them and reach for something more fulfilling – like Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia, Scottish Review and a string of well-written, breath-of-fresh-air blogs. Like yours. Thank you, Iain.

    Posted by European | February 17, 2011, 2:01 pm
  2. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.Kenny Chesney Tickets

    Posted by ... | February 17, 2011, 4:04 pm
  3. Very good article and said what needed to be said.As to your comment: ""As far as policy is concerned, I am mystified as to what Labour's programme actually is.""As afar as labour policy is concerned it can be summed up as: 'Whatever the SNP has done we [Labour] will do more of it – more police, more council houses etc. And as far as our own policies are concere.ned we will wait for the SNP to produce their policy proposals then we will be agin' them!"As for the council tax, I think Ian Gray has announced at least 4 policies on that from stopping the freeze, through capping any rises, then abolishing it altogether then not abolishing it at all. The last two all in the space of one week.One quibble, reducing class sizes was also Labour policy at the last election and they reneged on it completely once they lost and did nothing but ridicule the policy and deride the SNP's attempt to implement it. Now if they [Labour] had worked with the SNP on a policy they both espoused maybe we would have been further along the road of implementation.As to Mr Gray as a leader, hius complete invisibility at times such as during the recewnt Megrahi affair is hardly the mark of a leader unless you are a graduate of the Gordon Brown School of Leadership (Dean of Faculty: McCavity)

    Posted by cwh | February 17, 2011, 4:17 pm
  4. Great post except "Labour has a largely anonymous front bench, apart from Andy Kerr and Wendy Alexander"Andy Kerr?? Really? I wouldn't let Kerr run the local youth club finances let alone be in charge of Scotland's purse strings.John Swinney is an absolute financial wizard!Wendy's gone, so if the SNP only have Kerr to worry about then I think they'll still be in power come May.

    Posted by Anonymous | February 17, 2011, 4:54 pm
  5. Very nice article.I am mystified just what Iain Gray stands for. I think he must be playing it safe, pushing the traditional Labour brand in Scotland (anti-Tory/SNP, welfarism, apprenticeships etc) and with no new appreciation for the new context we find ourselves in 10 years into devolution. Otherwise he is just a straw-backed politician with nothing really to say for himself. Whereas Salmond has really gone for it in his four years, and most importantly for me, earmarked where Scotland's economy must go towards (new energy technologies)in order to carve out a place for us in the new world economy (cf Iain's blog post before). It is disheartening either way, and even as someone who is inclined to vote for the SNP and who thinks it has helped them prosper as late, I don't think it has served politics as a whole in this country well. The chance to bring about a devolution of ideas, as well as the formal political departments, seems to have been lost.Neil

    Posted by Anonymous | February 17, 2011, 8:04 pm
  6. Here, forget about the politics for a second – that guy can get me Kenny Chesney tickets! I love Kenny Chesney!

    Posted by John | February 17, 2011, 10:17 pm
  7. A very good article Iain. As a Scot living abroad I now rely (like so many others) on Newsnet Scotland, blogs like your own and to a lesser extent the Caledonian Mercury for my Scottish news. I cancelled my online subscription to the Scotsman a long time ago. As for the BBC Scotland website, well the least said the better.I think more and more folk are waking up to the idea that the real news is out there, they just have to look for it. For Scotland's sake I hope the SNP win again in May.

    Posted by Brian - Hong Kong | February 18, 2011, 1:09 am
  8. My oh my oh my are we now seeing the media finally getting to grips of how bad it will be for Scotland if Ian Gray becomes first minister ? I hope so however until the BBC stops being a Labour mouth piece ,the SNP will have to fight for every vote.Like many who want to see Scotland become a better place I also have given up on The Scotsman and The Herald which only seem to print negative stories about Scotland and now get my news online via Newsnet Scotland ,your blog Iain,Go lassie go,Bella Caledonia,Syniadau etc …

    Posted by Conway | February 18, 2011, 10:20 am
  9. I have to agree with many others, I have read and watched Iains analysis over the years on various Scottish political stories and he is by far the best bar none in terms of calling it how it is.I don't believe there is any journalist or media correspondent in Scotand who could tie his shoelaces.

    Posted by Anonymous | February 18, 2011, 4:05 pm
  10. I do hope that more truthful and unbiased reporting like this piece are forthcoming. I have not read the Scotsman or the Herald in ages as the content is too negative. Thus sites like this give me information on politics that make sense to me and my family

    Posted by Anonymous | February 20, 2011, 12:34 pm

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