Opinion: As Labour flounders, party’s problem with the SNP is its competence

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Scottish Parliament

Commentary by Derek Bateman

What is it that keeps all those goggle-eyed Nats voting SNP? The more blinkered Unionists ask themselves the same question over and over. Well, how about this for an answer. The SNP are competent.

Competence – ability, proficiency, accomplishment, expertise, skill, prowess, mastery, control, authority.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

When it comes to government, it matters. Even administrations you really don’t like and certainly didn’t vote for can earn your respect if they are clear, firm and apparently logical. If what they do makes sense to you, whether you agree on policy or not, they are a good government. You just disagree with them.

It isn’t often remarked amid the ‘Scotland changed forever’ theme and the other justifications for nationalist advance like confidence and political education, that one enduring feature of their success is competence. By and large they run a tight ship. That leads to trust. That means, in turn, that when they speak, people listen AND they’re more inclined to accept and believe what they’re told. This is electoral gold.

It also means that when there’s a slip, an off-note, or a downright error, they are easily forgiven.

How different it is with Labour. No trust – indeed the direct opposite – they are disbelieved and scorned no matter what they say. We no longer expect them to get it right – they have a lengthening history of getting it badly wrong. Their look is chaotic, often incoherent and, taking the example of Jim Murphy, contradictory and surreal.

PRIORITY

In order to make Labour respectable again the priority must surely be to look competent. It’s the basic fundamental of electoral appeal. The frightening success of Donald Trump may get its oxygen from an anti establishment message but it’s the belief among his supporters that he knows how to take down that establishment that delivers the votes. If they thought he was only a blowhard, they’d dismiss him. But he’s made a fortune in business, has firm policies (build a wall with Mexico, stop Muslims coming in) or at least he articulates a clear impression and acts like a can-do guy. So, while we recoil, he’s convincing Americans he can do it. He can challenge the Washington elite. Make America great again. He’s competent. And he’s winning.

Which is the exactly what Labour is not. This week’s about-face on recompensing those earning under £20,000 with £100 from the council is the most glaring kind of incompetence you can imagine.

In February it’s a new policy. In March, it’s abandoned. It doesn’t matter that it was only planned for one year until full income tax powers come to Edinburgh – we, and presumably Labour, knew that already. And if it was only to last for one year why abandon it in advance of that year?

If the answer really is that they don’t need that policy now because Osborne has raised allowances, it means a Tory Chancellor is writing Scottish Labour’s tax policy. Better Together with a vengeance. And we can ask: didn’t they know there was a budget coming? Changed allowances and thresholds were forecast. Did Labour miss that?

This way it’s the Tories who are making low-paid Scots better off, not Labour. Yet they’ll still have the money taken from their income so they will be paying higher taxes than the same folk over the border. Just working through the possibilities makes your head hurt. And that’s the point – policies always have an element of technical abstraction that we leave the civil servants to work out. It’s for the politicians to lay out the plan and to craft a comprehensible message to tell the voters. Labour was never able to answer the question of how the £100 would actually be delivered because the work wasn’t done.

COFFERS

There is no direct correlation between HMRC and local government in this context and it’s most likely any gift from council coffers to boost taxpayers’ accounts would be liable for tax itself. A retreat was needed before this became a thorn in Kezia’s side. But the wound is already bleeding because the impression left is of a bunch of amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing and can’t be trusted to run the country. Labour can spin till they levitate, the message to voters is: Just because we make a bold announcement one week, doesn’t mean we won’t bin it the next. It’s incompetent. Anyone with an understanding of how campaign politics works, Labour or not, knows this is messy and counter-productive and will worry there is more of the same to come. This after all is a blue ribbon policy. It draws attention away from the SNP’s position on higher rate taxation and allows them to ask Labour why they’re ‘not going to compensate the low-paid as they promised for raising their taxes.’

I also fear it looks sleekit to start reneging on the named person legislation. You can object to it as the Tories have done but you can’t give it wholehearted endorsement one week, watch it operate in parts of Scotland without comment, then another week demand that it be halted because a) some parents think it’s not working well, b) there’s an election coming. This legislation isn’t designed to antagonise middle class parents, it’s aimed at vulnerable, at-risk children who need our protection. They deserve Scotland’s arms around them not toyed with like a campaign gimmick.

They say politics is a high wire balancing act – picture Nicola on that wooden beam in the gym inching along determined to look dignified. Then think of Kezia on a plank over a plastic pool with a giant paddle falling in again and again in It’s a Knockout. That’s the level of difference we’re talking about.

Have as many policy differences with Nicola as you like – berate her for keeping the 45p rate – but don’t tell me the SNP aren’t competent to run the country. And, for the sake of sanity, don’t pretend Labour is anything but a slapstick act that would bring Holyrood into disrepute