This post is all about the mess Scottish Labour got itself into this week. But let’s focus on the positives from the first week back at Holyrood.
The SNP played a blinder. Whoever came up with the ruse of wrapping independence calls around announcements on devolved matters deserves a bonus. It’s a tactic which outfoxed Labour. Tawdry politics it might be, as some have suggested, but it’s effective. And given how effective it was at producing disarray in Labour’s ranks from top to bottom, the SNP will be using it again. Labour might want to spend less time bleating and more time thinking about how not to get boxed in again.
Last week, the SNP and the Scottish Government’s leadership triumvirate of Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney showed why they are truly Scotland’s political pinball wizards. They bounced Labour around the policy board, causing them to careen off their own hastily formed opinions and positions, flicking the opposition away with the minimum of effort, ending the week with a new highest score.
And actually they didn’t have to do very much to achieve it all, for Labour inflicted a lot of the damage on itself. First, it decided that putting money into providing free school meals for children in primaries 1 to 3 was no longer a priority measure in tackling poverty. When? On Tuesday when Johann Lamont said so. Then it refused to accept the proposed extension of free early learning and childcare to more vulnerable two year olds, insisting instead that the Scottish Government should go further, even though there wasn’t enough money from the Barnett consequentials arising from the Autumn Statement to do so. Nor did it cost how to achieve its preferred policy. Possible options were mooted by one frontbench spokesperson as cutting the small business rate package.
In truth, Labour was stuck fast by the independence wrap-around in the parliamentary motion. But it should have abstained when its amendment was defeated. We anoraks all know that they voted against that bit of the motion but the public won’t. What they will recall -and what the SNP will make mischief with all the way to 2016 – is that Labour voted against key anti- poverty measures, and worse did so with the Tories.
Then, because they were working out how to pay for their childcare options on the hoof, they were caught out again, when a different frontbench spokesperson insisted they did support the additional relief rates package for small businesses. Finally, there was some confusion over council tax – as there has been for a while actually. Does it support rises as plenty, particularly at local government level, are calling for or does its 2011 manifesto pledge of sticking to the freeze still hold sway as party policy? Who knows. Labour certainly doesn’t.
The detail of this fine mess matters less than the overall impression created. Which is that Labour doesn’t have a scooby. And that where – let’s not forget, just over two years out from the next Scottish elections whatever the result of the referendum in September – there should be at least the bones of a narrative and platform to win back the hearts, minds and crucially, the votes of people, instead there is a big, black hole.
Scottish Labour’s travails are three-fold. Firstly, nae policies. Everything, it would appear, is up for grabs. Still. The only discernible thread in Labour policy is that if the SNP is for it, we must be agin it. Yet, no one yet knows what Scottish Labour is for. Of course, the role of an opposition is to respond. But all that Labour is doing currently is reacting. There is a crucial difference in behaviour and it shows in recent exchanges and indeed, the mess it got itself into this week.
At the very least, Labour needs a vision and a broad thrust of direction. And it needs to start setting the agenda – just as Ed Miliband has skilfully managed to do at UK level – through a few big ticket numbers that grab attention. Currently, Scottish Labour is on the backfoot, reacting to the Scottish Government’s agenda, allowing it to play political pinball. It needs to shift the dynamic if it wants to avoid more highest scores being posted.
Second, Labour’s youth and relative inexperience. Johann Lamont is indeed a longstanding MSP but her Ministerial experience was scant, spending all of the first parliamentary term and much of the second, on the backbenches. There is much to like about Kezia Dugdale, Drew Smith and Jenny Marra et al. They are bright, shiny young things with heaps of ideas and potential but they are being asked to pit their talents against a well honed team of SNP Ministers whose stability of tenure is a huge advantage.
Third, the Labour parliamentary group is being poorly advised. Partly this is because of a lack of parliamentary and government experience in its team: much of that left to explore pastures new after 2007 and leaders tend to usher out the hand picks of previous incumbents to bring in their own. Aside from Paul Sinclair, who is in the leader’s and group’s team? Does anyone know any of them? Are we impressed at all? It might be unfair but longevity and familiarity bring with them credibility. But whoever is formulating strategy and tactics behind the scenes needs to remove their “get SNP” blinkers which tend to, or at least appear to, cloud every stance and position taken.
Labour might point to its winning streak on parliamentary by-elections as evidence that its approach is working. But holding seats in previously staunch Labour territory is no feat worth crowing about. And it should certainly give no comfort about prospects in 2016: the polls should be showing them that. Such victories might help chip away at the SNP’s overall majority and provide a fillip for activists but without an improved performance as an Opposition – measured, joined up, coherent and rational – voters are left with the impression that little has changed since the party’s first defeat in 2007.
And that impression matters. For, there is yet another flank to the SNP’s strategy that slipped by, almost under the radar this week. Alongside the announcement of another senior Labour figure (or not as it turned out) voting for independence, Nicola Sturgeon urged Labour supporters to vote yes, suggesting that this is about much more than party politics and loyalties. Expect more wooing of this nature in coming weeks and months. If the party you’ve spent all your days identifying with appears to have nothing positive to offer, either in the here and now, or for the future, plenty will be tempted.
It’s clear from the opening skirmishes that the SNP has a plan, not just to try and win the referendum but it would appear, with a weather eye on the 2016 elections. And until Labour comes up with one of its own – which in referendum terms, needs to amount to more than warning of complacency – they can expect more weeks like this. Meanwhile, we can all sit back and enjoy the sport.