“In 2007, we were shite, they were brilliant and they still only won by one seat.”
This is a highly technical assessment by a Labour insider of their performance at the 2007 election. But it does have a serious point to make, for it summarises succinctly the approach forming the party’s strategy towards the current campaign.
Scottish Labour has an inbuilt advantage over the SNP, in terms of the electoral system but also in the hearts and minds of the great Scottish voting public. Home is where the heart is after all, and people have been with Labour through thick and thin. The narrowness of the SNP’s victory in terms of seats belies the huge swing away from voting as they always had, to voting for something different. It was a mood that took over the nation, yet the sheer size of majorities in many central belt constituencies ensured that many Labour incumbents hung on by their fingernails.
Thus, in this election, all Labour has to do is be “less shite” and normal service will be resumed. In short, Labour does not have to be anything, or for anything to persuade voters back into the fold. Which is why in the pre-briefing for today’s Scottish Labour gathering – I’m sorry but you cannot call a one day shindig a conference – Salmond went unmentioned, the SNP was ignored and Iain Gray trained his sights on the Tory led UK government.
Invoking the ghost of Tories past is deliberate and calculated to win this election by fear and by offering Scotland a bulwark against the worst excesses of Westminster. Iain Gray is attempting to shepherd the flock into the safety pen of Holyrood by crying wolf.
The aim is to give people reasons not to vote SNP rather than for Labour. Reminding voters of what happened to Scotland under Thatcher and the last Conservative UK government is about placing Holyrood firmly within the context of the Union: who forms the Scottish Government matters in terms of our current place in the United Kingdom. We cannot ignore what is going on south of the border, as the SNP would like, because it will impact hugely on our families and livelihoods. Don’t forget – this campaign will be fought in the context of the first welfare reforms and tax credit changes starting to bite.
And so, Scotland needs someone to defend all that we hold dear and have control over against the worst excesses of Conservatism. It’s safety first – thinking and acting defensively. Now is not the time for big thoughts and ideas. It’s all about the here and now, not what might be, which is a neat way of bringing the constitutional debate into play without actually talking about independence or change.
Only Scottish Labour could have considered local bus services a suitable topic for its last chance set piece debate in this Scottish Parliamentary session. Nothing big, nothing ambitious, nothing visionary. Instead, we got a pledge to overhaul the current system and to improve access to local routes and increase the frequency of services. Now doesn’t that make your heart sing?
Which is the point really. The strategy is about showing that Labour is back in touch with its community roots and in tune with the bread and butter issues that matter on the doorstep.
Today, expect Iain Gray to invoke the worst Thatcherite totems, and by association link Salmond and the SNP. Destruction of mining communities? Oh yes, and Labour will reinstate the funding the SNP is taking away from the coalfields regeneration trusts. Thousands of young jobless? Definitely, with a neat twist of the SNP having started out with Scotland having the lowest unemployment in the UK and finishing with one of the highest rates. Bankers’ bonuses and the rich getting richer? That will be how to damn Salmond by association with the Thatcherite era, conveniently ignoring, of course, that inequality between the haves and have nots grew under previous Labour administrations in Scotland and the UK. ASBOs and knife crime? That will be Labour getting tough when the joint Conservative and SNP agenda is to go soft on offenders. Showing exactly who is on your side in the process.
Don’t expect Gray to go toe to toe in his speech with Salmond or the SNP’s agenda for this election. They will, of course, be attacked roundly but on jobs and the economy, not squarely on devolved issues. Largely, the SNP will be sidelined or ignored as Gray pits himself and Labour against Cameron and Conservatives. Don’t even expect him to blush when he mentions all the policy clothes his party has stolen from the SNP’s washing line. That activity will be pitched in terms of Scotland deserving better than what the Tories are doing elsewhere. Gray might even have the audacity to claim that Labour “speaks for Scotland”; he’ll just articulate what that means differently.
Scottish Labour is calculating that it only has to prove to voters that it is less shite than it was in 2007. Cynical? Perhaps. Disheartening? Only for the anoraks. As long as it succeeds and ushers the voters safely home, Labour won’t care.