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.