Last week, I saw a man, standing tall and erect, outside NHS Scotland’s offices in Edinburgh. Dressed for work with a briefcase at his feet, he was impassive and stoic, holding a handwritten card in front of him. He smiled politely at people going into their work – they all put their heads down and refused to meet his gaze – but otherwise maintained a dignified silence.
*The NHS abused my wife* read the card. It was enough to make me gasp and as you can tell, has stayed with me. I’ve been worrying the scenario, trying to elicit its meaning and implication. Young people and anarchists taking up the UK Uncut cause with noisy abandon we are used to, ditto with the dotty Mr Fraser who thought it appropriate to strip to protest at bankers’ bonuses, but this kind of protest? It’s still rare.
But I wonder if it goes on in a slightly different shape and form in living rooms and over dinner tables across the land? Certainly that would be the suggestion behind the YouGov poll findings on the SNP’s record in government, published last week in Scotland on Sunday. Indeed, everyone has a horror story to tell about their own or a family member’s experience at the hands of the NHS (read some of the comments on this breastfeeding blogpost); daily, people commute to work almost in spite of our transport systems; parents regularly regale each other with their contempt for the education system and wonder if a work-life balance is simply a myth; and while the statistics show crime, and the fear of crime, falling, that collective experience is a far cry from the individual view.
The SNP’s 2007 manifesto commitments were so ambitious in scope and scale, on some level, they were bound to disappoint. The party can trumpet all it likes that it has met 84 out of 94 of its promises but it failed on the biggies and that’s what people remember. Moreover, it may have kept its end of the deal on some key issues, but on many others, it – as Ministers found out pretty quickly – was not actually able to deliver progress or change. That responsibility lay with national and local government agencies and their foot-dragging has meant slow progress on the ground. The fact is that people have noticed very little difference in the last four years.
Thus, when put on the spot, when asked if things have improved, stayed the same or got worse under the SNP Government, most opted to show their least sunny sides. Including tax and the economy when a devolved Scottish government has limited powers in these areas was mischievous, so let’s ignore those findings (though given how the parties are fighting like ferrets in a sack over a council tax freeze, they may wish to note that only ten per cent of respondents reckoned tax had got better in the last four years).
Only on two issues – Scottish parliamentary powers and the environment – did a majority of respondents think things had got better or stayed the same. On the others, the numbers thinking things had got worse outweighed those thinking things had got better. On health: 30 per cent think worse, 27 per cent better. On crime: 38 per cent think worse, 20 per cent better. On education: 32 per cent think worse, only 18 per cent better. On transport: 38 per cent think things have got worse and a tiny 14 per cent better. And on family life and childcare: 26 per cent think worse, 12 per cent better.
The less numerically challenged of you will have noted that the overwhelming response of poll participants was a resounding meh. Despite a change in government, despite a spring in Scotland’s collective step (certainly in the first two years), despite record funding for key public services, the vast majority of people think nothing has changed in the last four years. Everything has stayed the same.
It hardly adds up to a resounding endorsement, yet the weekend’s polls show that the SNP has leapfrogged Labour in a rather dramatic turnaround. People are saying they are going to vote for the SNP to give them another term in government, even though they are not overly impressed with their record so far.
So what on earth is going on? It’s hard to pinpoint, especially when the SNP’s manifesto is promising more of the same. As in, the same sort of things it offered last time – 1000 police officers, a council tax freeze, more money for the NHS, lower class sizes, free higher education – and as in, no big changes to how we do things in Scotland. Which when you think about it is a remarkable stance from the party that wants to make the biggest change of all.
These particular poll findings, delivering a shrug of the shoulders on the SNP’s record, offer a glimmer of hope to Labour. If it can somehow shift the narrative away from personalities and polls and back on to bread and butter issues, it has a chance of stopping the SNP’s re-election express train in its tracks. So far, Labour has failed to nail the SNP’s failure to improve things on key issues and consequently, has not provided voters with compelling reasons to shift their vote. But now there is nothing left to lose but the election itself.
This rescue mission requires three steps: trash the record; then say something positive about what can be done differently; and remind people why it’s time to come home.
It might not work: too little, too late and all that. But at least the campaign would challenge something the SNP reckons is an asset and this poll suggests is most definitely not. Real life confirmation of which, can be found in the desperately sad vigil of the man outside NHS Scotland.