AS Labour heads for what looks like almost certain defeat in the Scottish Parliament election this week, the recriminations have already begun.
How could Iain Gray have thrown away a clear double-digit lead in the opinion polls in only three weeks? Is there anything he could do in the final days that could turn the tide? Actually, I think there is something that Labour could do, but first we need to understand why things have gone so wrong.
It isn’t just Gray’s fault. He’s hardly Mr Charisma, but this was a political not a personal fiasco. With a decent campaign, Gray might have been in with a chance in a political culture that is instinctively hostile to big political egos. Alex Salmond, brilliant operator though he is, always teeters on the edge of being dismissed as “Smart Alex”, a politician who just thinks a bit too much of himself.
Of course, Gray didn’t do himself any favours on the campaign trail. The defining image of the 2011 Holyrood election will be the Scottish Labour leader being pursued into a sandwich bar by anti-cuts protesters. A more self-confident politician would have refused to be bustled away by his political aides and faced the protesters down, as the Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, had done the previous week. Labour compounded the problem by putting out the line that Gray was a man of action who has “walked the killing fields of Cambodia” – as if the Holyrood election campaign could be compared with genocide in southeast Asia.
But the damage had already been done well before the meatball marinara episode. Labour’s first mistake was shamelessly to adopt the SNP’s headline policies on tuition fees, council tax etc, on the very eve of the campaign. This made them look like unprincipled opportunists, and left Labour very little to say that was distinctive on policy. This inevitably threw the focus of the campaign on to who would make the best first minister. Alex Salmond’s approval ratings have been consistently high since 2007, so why play to his strength?
Labour entered the campaign in March with what looked like an unassailable lead. But Alex Salmond’s personal popularity was the SNP’s secret weapon. They only needed to translate this personal vote into votes for the SNP and the party would be contenders. This is exactly what happened, and Labour did a lot to make it possible, not least by focusing its campaign not on Holyrood and the SNP, but on Westminster and the Coalition.
“Now that the Tories are back,” said Gray, “we need a Labour government to fight for things that matter.” But the Tories are not back in Scotland; the Tories are nowhere in Scotland, and everyone knows that. The Scottish election is not about “sending a message to Westminster” as the Labour leader, Ed Miliband repeated last week. It is first of all about electing the best government in the Scottish Parliament. Scotland sent its message to Westminster last May in the General Election. The Scottish electorate is one of the most sophisticated in the world, and has been adept at tactical voting – mainly against the Tories – for the last 30 years. In treating them as if they were sheep who could be herded into the Labour fold by Tory scare-stories, Labour was treating its own voters with contempt.
Labour’s election manifesto was also heavily criticised for its “think of a number” approach to economic policy. It promised to “abolish” youth unemployment and create 250,000 new jobs. But this sounded like Labour telling the voters what they wanted to hear, not what was going to happen – and that’s exactly what all the UK parties were (rightly) accused of doing at last May’s election. Voters are sick and tired of politicians’ empty promises. They know perfectly well that, with £1.6 billion in cuts on the way, no party can make such a commitment with any confidence of it being honoured.
What Labour failed to do was focus the campaign on the SNP’s soft underbelly of independence. The SNP’s brand of Celtic neoliberalism was dealt a devastating blow by the financial crisis of 2008-10, which has left Iceland, Ireland and most of the “Arc of Insolvency” sinking beneath the debts of their bankrupt banks. Scotland had two of the biggest banking failures in the world, but has sailed on, thanks to a £1 trillion bail-out organised by the UK Government. Yet, most of the Scottish people believe that the UK Government was largely to blame for the recession.
But is there anything, at the 11th hour, that Labour can do about this? Gray is being advised by some Labour insiders to turn “nasty” in the final days and portray the SNP as soft on crime. But once again, this would be treating the Scottish voters as idiots. What he has to do is take a risk, walk on the wild side, slap this election in the face. During this week’s leaders’ debate on BBC Television, Gray should announce that he is prepared to accept a referendum on independence – challenging Salmond to put his constitutional money where his mouth is.
Well, what has Labour left to lose? If Salmond wins two straight elections, he’ll have a mandate for a referendum anyway. Echoing Wendy Alexander’s call to “bring it on” would reboot the entire election campaign. It would turn all political attention, in the final 48 hours, on the SNP’s weakest issue: independence. The sandwich bars and manifestos would be forgotten, as the SNP were forced to say what they actually meant by independence. Flags and armies? The euro? Nato? Scottish passports? Customs posts?
Only around a third of Scottish voters want to leave the UK; the vast majority just want a more powerful parliament. A referendum would instantly make independence a political reality, rather than an abstraction. Labour could then paint a picture of where an independent Scotland would be now, two years after the crash. It would be the ultimate U-turn, but when you are going over a cliff edge, the only sensible thing is to turn back.