by Joan McAlpine
Miliband said as little about Scotland as he could reasonably get away with when he spoke to his party in Glasgow this weekend. An ICM poll showed that the SNP, after four years of minority government, was more popular than when it was elected in 2007 and had closed the gap with Labour to 3 points. Alex Salmond was the prefered choice for First Minister by a mile – 43% to 9% for Iain Gray who scored lower than the Tory leader Annabel Goldie. Even Labour voters prefer Salmond to Gray by 38% to 23%.
So perhaps it is understandable that Miliband devoted most of the party political sections of his speech at Labour’s Scottish conference to dealing with Westminster issues or policies south of the Border– even the future of “England’s forests” got a mention along with the plans to dismantle the NHS south of the Border. But in May we will elect a Scottish government to protect Scotland’s people and represent us in the world. Labour is treating it like a by-election to build them some advantage in Westminster. That’s insulting, but not unexpected.
The most cynical aspect of the speech, reflected in Labour’s recent campaign rhetoric, is harking back to the 1980s and the days of Thatcher. This, we are told, is why we must vote Labour. But wait a minute, if memory serves me correctly, Labour was in its strongest ever position in Scotland back then. We had the self styled “fighting 50” MPs and almost every local council was a Labour monolith. Fat lot of good it did us. There was no protection in those 18 years of Tory rule from London even as Labour weighed its vote in central Scotland.
Miliband even had the cheek to mention the Poll Tax which Labour, despite its dominance, urged people to meekly accept. The most vocal opponents of the tax were Nationalists like Kenny MacAskill, Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond – who was thrown out of the commons for interrupting the budget to protest about the tax. The tax was defeated by a mass non payment campaign lead by the far left and an army of community activists. The councils Labour controlled meanwhile pursued non-payers with a vengeance, hiring sheriff officers to invade the homes and sell the furniture of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. They were enforcers, not defenders.
All this happened when Labour in Scotland had a few big hitters such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar. Now we are expected to believe that Iain Gray and his team can offer the sort of effective leadership in Scotland that these men were unable to provide in the 1980s and 1990s. Nobody believes that. Even “bred-in-the-bone” Labour voters are changing position.
Joyce McMillan, the Scotsman columnist is one of them. This week she wrote: “The question we face is just this: when the flack begins to fly, and Scotland’s free prescriptions and university fees need to be defended, and the vision of society that underpins them needs to be articulated with energy and pride and a touch of poetry – then who do we seriously think is going to face the world with the strongest, the most confident, and the most credible case for the path we are taking? Will it be Iain Gray and Andy Kerr? Or will it be Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell? It pains me to say it, but I think the answer to that question is clear. And although my heart will always say no to the SNP, this time around my head increasingly says yes; not just for the sake of Scotland, but for the sake of the whole idea of a convivial and democratic society, which needs doughty and capable defenders now, more than at any time in our history.”
Scotland already has a government offering an alternative to the coalition. It is a Scottish government and it has used its powers to accelerate capital spending, protect the NHS and build a new economy based on green energy. It has demonstrated this over four years, not by talk but by action. We now have a million more people registered with an NHS dentist than when Labour was in power. We have met cancer treatment targets that Labour failed to achieve despite eight years in power. We abolished the student fees Labour introduced and froze the council tax they had raised by 60%. Even now, with £1.3bn of cuts from Westminster, we are alleviating the pain by good management and smaller, more efficient government. Despite all the moaning about largesse – John Swinney has protected public services while balancing the budget every year. Labour’s last minute u-turns on policy just underline the fact that they don’t have a vision and their critique in opposition had no substance. As May 5 approaches, I predict many more voters will agree with Joyce and vote SNP for the first time.