When Labour lost the Scottish elections in 2007, the burd watched bemused as the party floundered, unaccustomed as they were, to being in opposition. Constantly I was reminded of an old history question about the demise of the British empire, which I paraphrased as “Labour has lost an empire and has yet to find a role”. Dumped out of power at national and local government level (in all but the most diehard areas), it was clear that the party had far to travel to recover. Three years down the line, how are they doing?
Well, it took a while, but they seem to have worked out their role in opposition, though possibly they have warmed to the task a little too well. No issue is too big nor too small, too meaningful nor meaningless to inspire outrage and flecked spittle from Labour benches. For a while, reading their press releases was painful and required ear muffs and dark glasses. BEING SHOUTED AT IN CAPITALS loses its impact after a while. Some of their positions are sensible, a few are contradictory, others have been contrary, the odd one is downright nonsensical. But it appears to have worked. Or has it?
It is a well known truism that oppositions do not win elections, governments can only lose them. The wheels coming off the SNP Government express train have clearly contributed to Labour’s gain in the polls. A policy of blanket opposition has helped add to the SNP’s pain and sharpened the focus on key manifesto failings. But such a strategy can only go so far; there comes a time when it’s not enough for voters to know what you are against. The electorate needs – and deserves – to know what your party is for. And to date, we are none the wiser.
They accuse the SNP of failing to meet their class size targets, of cutting the numbers of teachers in post, of not refurbishing or building enough schools. Does this mean they believe in smaller class sizes? To increase the number of teachers in schools and how would they fund that? And while we know Labour favours PFI for infrastructure investment – still? – they keep it quiet, perhaps because of the Scottish people’s antipathy to the concept.
We know too that they don’t like a lot of things in the health service, thanks to the ability of Jackie Baillie, their spokesperson to wring every drop of publicity from a series of thoughtful and well placed Freedom of Information requests. But what are they proposing to do differently, particularly when some things, like more nurses, would appear to be about increasing spending at a time when the money has run out?
And on the subject of the cuts, continuing to call for the SNP to publish its budget AND DO IT NOW! is clearly going to run out of steam in mid November. We might actually be looking for a response of greater substance after John Swinney has sat down.
Timing is everything of course. Scottish Labour, if it wants to maintain its lead in the polls all the way into the actual election, must get the timing pitch perfect. Start to show its hand too early, and the SNP has the chance to dissect and undermine the proposals. Go too late and there is not enough time for the electorate to get and understand the message. Is the best option then to do nothing and allow the natural momentum for change to do its work? The burd is not convinced we are in such electoral territory for the 2011 elections. We were there in 2007 but that’s not the mood this time round. People want to know who they can trust to guide us through the choppy waters. They are cheesed off with the SNP’s failure to deliver in some key policy areas but perhaps not enough, not to give them a second chance. Particularly if the party can pull together a threadbare manifesto that at least offers safe navigation through the cuts storm and nods in the direction of people’s aspirations.
A do nothing strategy would be a dangerous one, particularly when Iain Gray has still to make real inroads into the public’s consciousness as a potential First Minister in waiting. Continuing to be the party against everything might push voters away from the SNP, but will do little to draw them back into the Labour fold. And if he is to set out Scottish Labour’s stall – what they stand for – he needs to outline his thinking, at least in broadbrush terms. He must make a move soon and this weekend’s conference in Oban would be the ideal place to start.