At their conference in Glasgow this weekend the Scottish National Party faithful are doing their best to keep their spirits up. Everything to play for. Polls ambiguous. Alex will see us right. No one thinks Iain Gray is a leader. Perhaps not. But the SNP is up against one of the greatest challenges in modern political history. How to break the link between Labour and the soul of Scotland. The Scottish Labour Part my be bereft of ideas, lost for leaders, out of touch and fearful of office. But almost inspite of themselves, Labour still look like being the favourites to win the Scottish election in May. The bond of sentiment is just too strong with the Scottish voters. When the Tories are in office in Westminster, Scotland just votes Labour.
What do the SNP have to do?
There’s a sense of hurt among SNP ministers as the opinion polls pile on the agony on the eve of the last SNP conference before the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Last month’s ipsos/mori poll, suggesting that the nationalists had reversed their opinion poll slide certainly looks pretty roguish, now that two further polls, from Yougov and the TNS-BMRB poll in the Herald have restored Labour’s double digit lead.
It isnae fair! The SNP believe they have by far the best leader, in Alex Salmond, and strength in depth on the ministerial front row. Didn’t John Swinney send the opposition parties home to think again over the Scottish budget last month? Haven’t the SNP been in the lead in calling for a fuel-price stabiliser, saving jobs at Campbeltown wind turbines? Where have Labour been in the latest row over football sectarianism?
The SNP are particularly peeved about Iain Gray’s dramatic U-turn last week on tuition fees. The Labour leader cheekily challenged Mr Salmond at the weekend to “back Labour’s commitment to free higher education”.
Yet only a few months ago, Labour were saying the present system of tax payer-funded higher education was “not sustainable” and that a financial contribution from graduates was inevitable. Not any more. Labour realised that losing a couple of hundred thousand student votes in May was even less sustainable. They have now declared themselves the belated champions of the democratic intellect by ruling out any “price tag on learning” for the duration of the next parliament.
Salmond will make free higher education a centrepiece of his speech to the SNP conference this weekend in Glasgow – but this is no longer looking like the vote-winner it was. The SNP will also make big play on the other core election issue: health. Haven’t the SNP just honoured their key manifesto pledge and abolished prescription charges? They’ve promised to increase health spending in real terms for the life of the next parliament, again receiving little thanks from the media or the general public. Ungrateful lot.
It’s the same story with the council tax freeze – a promise honoured and a commitment given to keeping a lid on local taxes. It wasn’t their fault – complain the SNP – that they weren’t allowed to introduce their local income tax, after they were out-voted in Holyrood by the opposition parties. And yes there have been lost promises on abolishing all student debt (possibly the daftest policy in any recent party manifesto) and cutting class sizes.
Then there was the non-event of the referendum on independence. But since no one in Scotland is particularly interested in independence right now, that’s hardly a big loss. As for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi – the issue that some commentators said could lose the SNP the election – well the boot is now on the other foot following the revelations about Gordon Brown’s dealings with Colonel Gaddafi.
So, the SNP are feeling pretty sore about the fickleness of politics, and rapidly falling out of love with the electorate. They’re not quite at the point of dismissing the Scottish voters as “90-minute patriots” as their former deputy leader, Jim Sillars, famously did 30 years ago. But they do feel that they should be getting more credit for what they’ve done – that they’ve given real leadership and demonstrated that Scots are quite capable of governing themselves. What more could they be expected to do?
Now, I don’t expect any of this tetchiness will actually surface in the SNP’s election campaign that effectively begins this weekend. Despite a couple of bad polls, the Nationalists reassure themselves that there is still “everything to play for” since there remain large numbers of undecided voters.
They console themselves that Salmond is still the most popular leader. But it is difficult to think of what else they can do now to claw back votes.
There will no doubt be many more businesspeople and celebrities, such as David Murray, giving testimonials to the SNP’s performance in office. They have Brian Souter’s money and probably the best organisation on the ground.
But there is a sense that things are slipping away. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is preparing to make a big play for votes in Scotland in the coming weeks and months. In this Holyrood election, Labour’s strongest hand is the UK connection – a complete reversal of the Blair years, when Scottish Labour’s link to London Labour was a huge negative in Scotland.
Labour will focus on the threat from the Tory cuts and the need to provide a challenge to the “Con-Dem” coalition. This may seem bizarre in a Scottish election where the Tories are a marginal force, but the appeal to the old anti-Tory sentiment of the Scots is a strong one. When Tories are in power in Westminster, Scotland votes Labour.
Since the failure of the SNP’s referendum bill, the steam has gone out of the constitutional issue. Labour have helped fill the void by promoting – in last week’s Scotland Bill committee report – a kind of blueprint for ‘fiscal federalism’ between Scotland and the UK. Yes, this is a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Bill, but Labour launched the Calman process and Ed Miliband is keen to adopt anything that will make his party seem more Scottish in Scotland, so important is this Holyrood victory for the new Labour leader’s own fate. He needs to win this election.
If the proposals for new borrowing powers, the ability to raise money through bond issues, joint authority over the Inland Revenue and even a new deal on corporation tax are approved by Westminster, the SNP’s case for fiscal independence will look a lot weaker. However, it’s much too early to write off the SNP. Polling day is a long way off.
The SNP can legitimately claim that, had it not been for them, tuition fees would have been restored, there would have been no Calman or the Scotland Bill, prescription charges would still be high and council tax even higher. But politics isn’t fair, and the voters have the last word. And right now, it looks like they seem minded to snap back to their default position, and put their faith in Labour again.