Whoever wrote Iain Gray’s speech deserves a pay rise. Alternatively Scottish Labour might want to hire out his or her services to Ed Miliband.
The mood at Scottish Labour conference on its first day was oddly flat and just a little apprehensive. No real buoyancy despite riding high in the polls, it seemed as if party members knew what the rest of us had been saying for weeks. Their leader had to step up to the plate and spell out the positive route map back to power. He had to set the mood music for the election campaign ahead and the furrowed brows betrayed doubts that Gray was perhaps not up to the task.
Well, they ken noo. On Saturday the Gray man cometh. He delivered a bravura performance that owed much to the quality of a well crafted and serious, purposeful speech. It traversed the required territory with panache and a poetic cadence. It delivered the odd jarring note but also many resounding phrases and images. It established reference points from Dienekes through Dewar, Burns and Jimmy Reid to Robert Kennedy. The burd was way more impressed than she intended to be.
“So where stands Scottish Labour now?” Iain Gray pondered throughout his speech. More Scottish than it is used to being for one thing. There were more saltires in Oban than have been in evidence for years at SNP gatherings. Labour is reclaiming its Scottish roots and will wrap itself in nationalistic references to fight the SNP on territory it has long claimed for itself. The concept provoked debate in the bars on Friday evening, with many clearly discomfited by their party adopting the trappings of patriotism. Yet it formed the warp of Gray’s speech.
Gray’s speech was liberally splashed with notions of nation building, of pride and passion, and harnessing potential. It cleverly, if erroneously, claimed three big distinctive Scottish policy solutions – land reform, free personal care and banning smoking – as Labour’s own. It even managed to traduce Salmond through Burns, taunting the timidity of SNP aims for Scotland. “I love my country too much to be a Nationalist” epitomised the theme and almost earned a standing ovation. You don’t have to like it to admire its chutzpah, nor see how key a concept this will be in the next six months. And to allay delegates’ fears he deftly bridged old Labour with his new Scottish Labour vision: “ours is a cause steeled in the forge of community and solidarity when times are hard”.
The weft in Gray’s speech was a radical edge with some meaty policy announcements. An innovative literacy policy that cleverly will also tackle the under employment of graduate teachers, a new social care service to improve care and make better use of resources for older people AND disabled children, a single national police force, guaranteed employment, training, volunteering or work for all school leavers – these are all BIG proposals. Yes, “there is always space for progress”, as he indicated at the top of his speech. But is this retro progress? Old Labour habits would appear to die hard, for ring fencing is back, as is top down reform and big government. Out go notions of community development and co-production. This territory will form the key policy dividing line between the SNP and Scottish Labour in the election campaign.
And we know all about Iain now. The attack on Salmond was highly personalised but also quite funny: “if there was a nobel prize for dining with nobel prize winners Salmond would be on his way to Stockholm”. Ouch. Salmond was portrayed as a First Minister in love with the notions and symbols of power, while Gray detailed how he is fuelled by a different substance. And it is a powerful hinterland. His time spent as Minister for health and in particular, out in the troublespots of the world, experiencing injustice first hand have shaped his views: ” I learned that there is no oppression so strong, no disaster so great, no conflict so deep that the human spirit cannot be lifted up to find a way to carve a better future out of a terrible past.” Not sure if Scotland is quite in such dire straits yet though.
“Where stands Scottish Labour now”? In a very different place from election contests of old. With a leader who has grasped the thistle and shown his mettle. “Ready to work, ready to fight and ready to serve”.
The long and winding road to power in Holyrood just got a whole lot more exciting. Bring it on.