The Spin Man of Substance

Who’d a thunk it?  Alastair Campbell’s column in today’s Scotland on Sunday provides much food for thought in amongst the crumbs on offer elsewhere.  Not just a master of spin, it seems, but one of substance too.  And his opinion on the shape, tone and focus for the Scottish election campaign ahead chimes melodically with the post provided for the burd by John Park MSP.
Campbell is still capable of mischief making.  Linking Salmond with Cameron AND Blair in scarcely a paragraph certainly made me chuckle and no doubt will have hit its target.  This coupling of Salmond with the Prime Minister – leading a Tory government, remember, that Scotland did not vote for – will surely become a regular feature pf Labour’s communications in the months to come.  But the burd found his analysis of the policy hinterland fascinating, particularly on the (or rather, his perceived) failure of the SNP Government to deliver on policy promises and on the methodical approach to policymaking that Iain Gray has adopted. 
Immediately after the Glenrothes by-election victory, Iain Gray established four policy commissions, involving a range of party members and independent experts and academics.  Each one was to take evidence – not just from within party walls but on a wide, ecumenical basis – deliberate and report back to the party’s policy forum.  This year’s conference approved the report from the policy forum that is brimful of ideas and detailed policy proposals.  But the process hasn’t ended there.  Cabinet spokespeople will now distil the best of these ideas and finesse them to form the manifesto platform. 
And there’s more.  Two separate commissions were set up, one on literacy and one on alcohol.  Both have furnished the party with more potential policy in these areas.  While the burd might disagree with the alcohol commission’s recommendation on creating a UK wide minimum floor for the price of alcohol, it also made some sound proposals for tackling Scotland’s relationship with alcohol and especially, parental alcohol misuse and its impact on children.  Moreover, at least one of the literacy commission’s proposals is being taken forward – that of tackling Scotland’s appalling illiteracy rates head on.  The policy announced by Iain Gray in his conference speech – that of retraining unemployed teachers as literacy advisors, and sending them into classrooms to improve children’s core skills – is the kind of policy that appeals, knitting together two thorny issues and attempting to resolve them with a single measure.
This is the “good grasp of policy detail” which Campbell attributes to Gray.  And while it might seem a little ponderous, it is at least painstaking.  Crafting good policy takes time.  It requires a lot of voices, opinions and yes, brains to produce ideas.  But these ideas need to be considered and tested if possible and then turned into workable proposals that can be delivered in government.  This is arguably the bit in the process that the SNP did not quite grasp with its 2007 manifesto.  They had some great ideas but most were untested and undeliverable without wider public sector reforms nor crucially, within a four year timescale. 
Most importantly, there has to be time in the process to work out how to communicate the policies to voters.  “May’s elections will be won by the party that speaks to people most convincingly about the issues that matter most directly to them.”  Alastair Campbell might have resorted to stating the bleeding obvious here but the burd couldn’t agree more.  The worry for the SNP is that this is the stage Scottish Labour has now reached.


5 thoughts on “The Spin Man of Substance

  1. but their policy forums are flawed – the alcohol commission was told specifically to exclude minimum pricing, purely because it was the SNP’s preferred route. Their analysis of any problem is therefore hindered by excluding options which they dislike straight from the start. I remember reading the literacy report when it came out – it wasn’t exactly going to set the heather alight, also these forums failed to identify the problems they were trying to solve were, if not created – at least worsened, over the 8 years Labour were in power in holyrood. So they set up policy forums to examine their own failures!

    • I agree entirely Kenny. But is it any different to what the SNP does?

      Mike Russell has already ruled out tuition fees from the forthcoming higher education review. Yep the literacy recommendations were pretty tame fare – are we offering anything radical as an alternative? And yup, no mea culpa from them but none from the SNP either. There are SNP led councils refusing and/or failing to implement core SNP government policy. What’s that about???

      The content and focus are one thing but for me the key issue is that Labour has a policy process that has a framework – four broad theme areas – that everyone inside the party and without is welcome to participate in. That report is ready for their Cabinet to take forward by the autumn. Where’s the SNP’s parallel process and mechanisms for coherently poring over and debating big policy ideas?

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  3. I have just read Campbell’s piece & I have to say it is utter tripe.


    He points to Labour successes like investment in schools & the NHS, but deliberately omits the inconvenient fact that Labour in Westminster had its hands on the sovereign levers of power which, as a devolved administration the SNP does not, and, crucially, Labour had a thumping majority whilst the SNP is a minority government.

    But of course, Campbell & his rotten fellow travellers will always be damned for the carnage that was the Iraq war, a war underpinned by mendacity and outright lies, the same approach to public discourse that Grey will be dancing to in the run up to May next year.

    • These are all fair points and well made, Ron. Campbell of course is not going to dwell on his party’s failings and failures – that is the job of others!

      But you also ignore the point he – and more specifically, I – was trying to make which is that Iain Gray and Scottish Labour embarked on a policy process in 2008 which might well furnish them with the policies required to take them into power in 2011. I think that is a real danger to the SNP as I am not convinced that such a robust process is in place for its policy deliberations. Though I am happy to be disabused of this notion!

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