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politics. SNP. Scottish election. Alex Salmond. Holyrood election campaign. Scottish Parliament elections.

From the killing fields of Cambodia to the meatball marinara.

From the killing fields if Cambodia to the perilous platforms of Glasgow Central Station, Iain Gray has demonstrated how not to win an election campaign.  It was the image that will define the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election campaign.  Pursued by anti-cuts protesters, the Scottish Labour leader fearlessly retreated into a Subway sandwich bar, before being evac’d by taxi to a Labour mobile field hospital where medics conducted emergency surgery on his wounded ego.  Labour made things even worse by putting out  that line about Iain Gray’s war-zone experiences  “Teaching in Mozambique during a bloody civil war… doing aid work in Rwanda 2 months after the genocide etc”.  But the first rule about being bold is not to boast about it. The second is not to get others to boast about it on your behalf. 

     The  meatball marinara massacre was the nadir of the Scottish Labour campaign, leaving Iain Gray looking as accident-prone as Gordon Brown last May. The manifesto launch  was beset by fire alarm and lashing rain.  The former Labour MP, Dennis Canavan, and the Labourite actor Brian Cox, then came out in support of Alex Salmond for First Minister.     The press rubbished Iain Gray’s give-away manifesto, with its promises to reward every special interest, public sector union and lobby group in the land at a time of unprecedented public spending restraint.  

  Indeed, you couldn’t help feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for Mr Gray being barracked for cuts in spending when his manifesto was promising precisely the reverse.  Labour  tried to conduct their campaign as if they were fighting the Tories in Westminster, rather than the SNP in Holyrood.   Like the killing fields of Cambodia, this is rather remote from the Scottish electoral reality.  Mind you, I believe there was mileage in the “fight the Tories” strategy, had it been effectively deployed.   Similarly, the fact that his promise to “abolish” youth unemployment is almost certainly unachievable  is beside the point.  It’s what many voters want to hear right now with nearly one in five young people out of work.  Maybe, in the final week of the campaign, this approach may swing the polls back toward Labour, at least marginally. Not that it will do Mr Gray a lot of good. Throwing away a ten point opinion poll lead during an election campaign is simply unacceptable and unforgiveable.  There is no way he should remain leader after this debacle.  

 What voters didn’t want to hear was that their children were going to be released from school at 14 or, if they stay on, will have to pay £4,000 a year tuition fees at university. Nor do they want to hear about bringing back prescription charges and other cuts in benefits.  Which is why, for my money, the Tories had a worse campaign than Labour, even though their leader, Annabel Goldie, gave a good account of herself.  The Scottish Tories lost out, not because they didn’t get their message across, but because they did – only too well.     I fear the Scottish Conservatives continue to listen to those influential voices within their movement who believe that Scotland should be punished for devolution, the Barnett Formula and high public spending.

     But at least the Tories can console themselves that the Scottish Liberal Democrats did even worse. You can almost feel the hostility radiating from the voters.  The LibDem poll numbers are dreadful, vying for fourth place with the Greens and  I don’t see them improving much by polling day. The Scottish LibDem leader, Tavish Scott, seems to have lost his voice, and even his identity, with voters apparently mistaking him for snooker player, Steve Davis, and even  Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland infamy. His attempt to turn his fire on his party’s coalition partners, the Tories, struck a discordant note.  Scott claimed that the Tories wanted to “burn Scotland at the stake” in the name of free market ideology.  But if they are such right wing, heartless fire-raisers, the question remains why the Liberal Democrats have anything to do with them.

  One consolation for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is that their manifesto proposal to finance job-creation by selling off the debt of Scottish Water, is looking rather more credible now than when it was first announced, having been given a boost last week by the Glasgow University Centre for Public Policy in the Regions.   Initially, the sell-off or ‘mutualisation’ sounded like the kind of three card financial trick that hedge funds played during the credit boom.  But even the  former SNP finance secretary, John Swinney, has admitted that it could raise at least £1.2 billion – though it’s not clear yet whether the UK Treasury might not simply deduct this from the Barnett payments.    I think this idea is taken more seriously in SNP circles than they are letting on.   But anyway it’s too late now, for the Lib Dems and for Tavish Scott who will be lucky to hang on as leader after this debacle. They could  lose a third of their seats.

 Which brings us to the SNP’s score card in the last week of this marathon election campaign. Alex Salmond’s decision to delay his party manifesto launch for a week looks to have paid dividends.  It left the field clear for the other parties to trip over themselves. The SNP has largely left its new supporters to do the talking, like Dennis Canavan, the redoubtable former Labour MP and. John Farquhar Munro, the ex-Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, who has said that Alex Salmond would make the best First Minister.  The SNP’s opinion poll ratings began their astonishing advance.  

    The SNP’s headline promise to make electricity generation 100% from renewable energy by 2020, seemed like a bid too far.  Industrialists scoffed and the press rejected it as green fantasy. The CBI said it was “unrealistic and undesirable”,   It was somewhat disingenuous too since the forecast included power generated by nuclear power stations and whatever fossil fuel stations are still running by 2020. Since the SNP expect an oversupply of electricity generation, they can ‘deem’ the half of it that is generated by wind, wave and tidal to be sufficient to meet Scotland’s needs.  What it doesn’t mean is that Scotland’s electricity generation will be SOLELY from renewables by 2020.

   Still, they got away with it, largely because of events in Japan.  The other parties, in rejecting the ‘all-green’ forecast, were left with the impossible task of trying to justify more nuclear power stations in the middle of a Chernobyl-level catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  An impossible task, as it has turned out, since Labour has all but given up trying to deliver a coherent message on energy.  Also, a number of industry chiefs have now given backing to the SNP forecast, including Ignacio Galan the boss of Iberdrola, the Spanish company that owns Scottish Power renewables.  Well, he would wouldn’t he. 

   The SNP campaign was largely faultless.  Alex Salmond cruised through the TV debates.  For the first time since the dawn of devolution, the press gave the SNP a reasonably fair ride, with the Sun demonstrating breathtaking opportunism by backing Alex Salmond two weeks before polling day.  In the 2007 election, they placed a noose in the shape of an SNP symbol to warn voters of the dangers of backing the Nats.  Not any more.  Most of the papers gave grudging support to Alex Salmond, if not his party.  The SNP managed somehow to prevent independence becoming an issue, even though it is the raison d’etre  of the party.  The Liberal Democrats and the Tories are nowhere; Labour leaderless and bereft of distinctive policies, not least because they borrowed most of the SNP’s, lost all momentum after the sandwich bar episode.  It may be the first case of a political leader being destroyed by a meatball marinara. 

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?


11 thoughts on “From the killing fields of Cambodia to the meatball marinara.

  1. you have to ask yourself, since labour are so dire is that what scotland needs leading the country? they have no ideas, nothing positive to say about scotland and a manifesto that is such a work of fiction dan brown would be jealous. they wont be getting my vote, both are going the the SNP.

    Posted by Megz | April 27, 2011, 10:57 am
  2. It makes you wonder why anybody at all will vote for Labour. They have no solutions to anything. They have been tried and test for decades in Scotland with failure after failure. The SNP for me, they are they only show in town.

    Posted by dundeecleaning | April 27, 2011, 11:10 am
  3. Gray wasn't destroyed by a meatball sandwich in the Subway shop (I don't think Andy Kerr was even present) – the most embarrassing thing about the whole episode is that none of the Labour mob who hid in there actually bought anything, the cheapskates…

    Posted by RevStu | April 27, 2011, 11:38 am
  4. Dear diary, please forgive this sad North British Labour taleBut this mornin’s been a tough one on our wee campaignin’ trailIn red rosettes at Glesca Central, we were feelin’ smug and smart‘Til some folk wi honest values blew the whole charade apartThey surrounded puir wee Curran, and wir closin’ in on meSo like a salmon up a burn, Ah wis forced tae turn an’ fleeFrae the concourse intae Subway, Ah led as leaders doStill the buggers kept on comin’ till the place wis nearly fu’ !Now, Ah’ve been in some tough places, like Govan and RwandaAh’ve walked the Killin fields, been looked at funny by a pandaAh’ve seen off Pinochet, Ah’ve even baby-sat ma nieceBut there in yon wee shoppie, Ah wis forced tae haud ma pieceThen, with our hope and spirits fading, came the shout “Taxi for Gray!!”Like a Ninja, Ah wis oot there, in the cab and then awayThen it was business as usual after several cups o’ teaJust a few more weeks to go before Bute House belongs tae me!! 😉

    Posted by Dougie MacDuibh | April 27, 2011, 11:51 am
  5. Iain Gray has demonstrated how not to win an election campaignThe election's not won yet and I'll only believe it when the last result is declared to give the SNP a majority over Labour.…it could raise at least £1.2 billion – though it's not clear yet whether the UK Treasury might not simply deduct this from the Barnett payments.That's the bit that also destroyed the Lib-Dems. They have this wonderful scheme to raise money for Scotland to pay for lots of goodies in their manifesto and they can't get their own Lib-Dem Scottish MP, Danny Alexander, who runs the Treasury to confirm that they can actually keep the money.If Danny Alexander had failed to confirm an SNP or Labour scheme you could understand it but when it's his own party who've proposed it you get the idea that the scheme is a non-runner from the start.

    Posted by DougtheDug | April 27, 2011, 12:58 pm
  6. Iain, I enjoy reading your blog, but for goodness sake, start using a spell checker! It constantly amazes me how poor the spelling and punctuation is on the blog of a professional journalist. "The SNP's opinions poll ratings" – what about them? You just cut yourself off mid-sentence!Incidentally, I think you're being very kind to the Lib Dems when you say they'll lose a third of their seats. At the rate they're going, they'll have done well to KEEP a third of their seats!

    Posted by Doug Daniel | April 27, 2011, 2:31 pm
  7. As a mother who has watched her son going through the sispiriting process of looking for a job and be knocked back time and again I can tell you that the last thing we want to hear is a politician deliver something he cannot deliver and which we know he cannot deliver. Especially so after the same politician voted against a budget which contained funding for aprenticeships.As to Scottish Water there is not a shred of doubt that the Treasury would keep any money from a sell off. The SNP has made it clear they are not going to sell it off.As to Scottish Water's debts they are in large part down to the various PFI schemes foisted on them by Labour and the LibDems when they formed the coalition at Holyrood. Some of the plants built under PFI appear to be unfit for purpose. Please note that Iberdola is investing £3 billion in Scotland so if the boss says renewables are doable when he has put his company's money into the energy sector in Scotland who are we to disagree. The Daily Telegraph today has an interesting energy supplement on renewables – worth reading.

    Posted by CWH | April 27, 2011, 4:25 pm
  8. Dougie Mac, bril! (Except the puir wee Curran bit: doesn't suit Maggie at all. Tell you what, had cameras not been there she'd have kicked that heckler guy up and down Central Station and the air would have been blue into the bargain!)

    Posted by Jo G | April 27, 2011, 6:05 pm
  9. Doug Daniel : re the spelling and grammar lecture, I think we can relax. Iain MacWhirter is the real deal when it comes to putting articles together and that was the case long before spell checks. This is his blog: perfection isn't required. Its where he invites us in for a talk back. It isn't a real newspaper. Come on now: he's a busy guy. Let's just be glad he's posting despite probably being busy and if he's rushing that's when typos happen and other errors.

    Posted by Jo G | April 27, 2011, 6:09 pm
  10. IainFirst off the press did not give the SNP an easy time of it. They never have and never will. The compaign also isn't yet in the past tense, its still on-going and the whole thing isn't over yet. Second, on Scottish Water, any Party in Scotland which believes the Scottish people will allow privatisation is insane. It is depressing reading your laid-back view on the prospect. I am as horrified now by the idea as I was when we had the Strathclyde Referendum on the same subject and at that time 97% of us told Thatcher Scottish Water was not being privatised. Our water is as valuable to us as oil except it is truly a natural resource. It has a central role to play in Scotland's future. No one has the right to take it out of public hands and the SNP have already confirmed it is going nowhere. That Labour are sneakily fancying the idea too is disgusting considering they led the original charge against Thatcher. In less than a year of privatisation of water in England every single company operating there was in foreign hands. We should have learned the lesson from the privatisation of domestic fuel supplies. We are now held to ransom by private companies who are scum and who exploit the customer constantly without anyone doing anything to stop it. Domestic fuel bills are now second only to the mortgage or rent in most households. That's what privatisation brought us and "competition". We didn't get competition. We got a cartel of crooks robbing us blind. It will NOT happen with Scottish Water.

    Posted by Jo G | April 27, 2011, 6:25 pm
  11. "Mind you, I believe there was mileage in the "fight the Tories" strategy, had it been effectively deployed."You're probably right about that, Iain, but it hinges on the assumption that a significant number of Scots can continue not to notice that New Labour ARE themselves a Tory party, and on many issues even further right than the official Nasty Party. Ranting against Tories is a dangerous strategy when you are Tories yourself – people are starting to notice, you know.

    Posted by Vronsky | April 28, 2011, 9:40 am

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