Election could be big crunch for Labour and SNP

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, April 30th 2011

The Scottish elections have been shaped by two diametrically opposed campaigns, with two different themes and moods, one SNP and one Labour.

They have met with very differing responses from voters, with the SNP surging ahead in the polls as Labour have badly stumbled and blown a double-digit lead.

Alex Salmond has talked of the SNP offering ‘a positive vision of the future’, one filled with optimism and hope. This is of course the language and rationale that the Nationalists used in the run-in to their 2007 victory.

Then the party leadership shifted their collective mindset to one which emphasised positivity and what Scotland could achieve, rather than the traditional message of what’s wrong. The party took this into office, were thrown off it by the bankers crash in 2008, but now look to have returned to it.

Is this up-beat feel the reason for the SNP bandwagon in the current election? We know there isn’t a stampede for independence, whose support remains at one-third of all voters, and is hardly a priority for them or the Nationalist campaign.

The SNP have been a competent administration which has acted and felt like Scotland’s Government. And yet we have to recognise that voter attitudes on the record of the SNP on policy is ambivalent to unproven at the least; from health to education, the economy and law and order, only minorities think the party has changed Scotland for the better.

In the election campaign the SNP’s main policy prospectuses are a mix of headline grabbing, voter pleasing measures of the kind which make up modern politics. They show that the SNP is cut from the same cloth as Scottish Labour, the only difference being that the Nationalists are now better at it.

If we can discount an independence wave, the SNP record in office, or their future offer policy wise, what is left to explain the Salmond surge? Is it all down to ‘big Alex’ and positivity? Maybe they are just a ‘one man band’?

The different appeals of the two prospective First Ministers, Alex Salmond and Iain Gray, tell us about them as leaders, but also about their parties. Salmond is now hugely ahead of Gray in terms of a choice between the two for the office of First Minister.

On every characteristic, Salmond leads Gray and is viewed more favourably (apart from conceit). Salmond leads Gray by 62% to 12% on who will most stand up for Scotland, and this is not just about individual capabilities, but the party context.

The appeal of Scottish Nationalism has to be seen in the context of the last forty years. It was the SNP which brought Scottish politics as we currently know it back to life from the high point of British politics in the 1950s. Scottish Labour had to be dragged back to devolution in the 1970s under the threat of electoral pressure from the Nationalists, and to this day, Scottish Labour is not an autonomous, distinct party.

The SNP has claimed the political terrain of standing up for Scotland’s interests. This is aided in this election by Labour abandoning this territory and fighting an election against the Tories. Labour strategists should have learnt the lessons of Blair and Cameron: address your political weak spots and camp on your opponent’s terrain to limit their advantage. This is what Blair did on the economy and Cameron on the NHS.

There is a wider advantage to the Nationalists which has grown under devolution. Voting for the SNP is seen as a way of expressing a Scottish identity, or knowing that this is the best way to stand up to Westminster. This along with Labour’s ineptness has allowed the SNP to make the pitch that voting Nationalist is a way which aids people feeling good and special about being Scottish.

The Nationalists are a catch-all party, part-centre-left, part-market friendly, both populist and opportunist in the way they think and act. They are a party of radical intent, the break-up of the United Kingdom, but in many respects a profoundly British party, respectable, conservative, honouring tradition and precedent.

The SNP’s manifesto gives a sense of this careful balancing act, with new spending commitments mixed with tax cuts and a sense of aspiration. This is all surrounded by the story of the Nationalists: of party weddings and births over the last four years, and the account of the party’s past from humble beginnings. What this tells us is that the Nats see that their history says they have a past, present and future. It says the Nationalists aren’t like other political parties; one can almost hear Sister Sledge’s ‘We are Family’ as the Nationalist theme tune.

Aiding all this is the Labour election campaign with one underlying principle: fear and trying to play up the Tory bogeyman. Then there is their obsession with the Nats, the enemy they detest so much they decided not to mention them once in their 96 page manifesto. Scottish Labour may dislike Tories, but they have a grudging respect for them; with the Nats it is almost a blood feud, tribal and irrational, and this severely disables Labour’s judgement in its strategy towards the SNP.

Labour approached this election attempted for the fourth Scottish Parliament elections in a row to use a politics of fear and playing on the anti-Nationalist sentiment. First this was to be implicit, but now as they panic they have rushed back to their past strategies. What they haven’t recognised is that they lost in 2007, and that this approach is one of diminishing returns.

The last few years in Scottish politics have seen many changes and surprises. After the SNP victory four years ago and Nationalist honeymoon, the party won Glasgow East by 365 votes from Labour. Then Iain Gray came along, Labour learnt to compete in by-elections, won Glenrothes and Glasgow North East, and performed well in the 2010 Westminster elections.

Just as the SNP believed their own hype in 2007, so too did Labour in 2010, aided by the party moving into the lead in the Scottish Parliament election polls, a lead the party did not earn, but which merely reflected anxieties with the Tory led Government. The moment voters concentrated on Holyrood and the SNP got their act together, Labour’s lead evaporated.

Next week’s election is going to tell us many things. That Labour can’t win on its core vote alone. That the ‘old Labour’ approach is dying. And the party has little idea what to do.

That the Nationalist victory and coalition of 2007 wasn’t a flash in the pan. That the SNP are competent and a permanent fixture. And yet at the same time, at what could be the height of their popularity, this will be the ultimate testing of the party’s emotional resonance, the catch-all nature of its appeal, and Alex Salmond’s leadership. Whatever happens next Thursday the SNP and Labour will never be the same again.