For the first time in modern Scottish political history a Conservative party leader has become more popular than a Labour party leader. According to an ICM poll, conducted between 13 and 14 March, of 1003 Scottish voters Iain Gray is now less popular than Scottish Conservative leader Annabelle Goldie.
The poll asked: “Putting aside your own party preference, which one [party leader] of the following do you think is best qualified to be First Minister of Scotland?” Respondents put SNP leader Alex Salmond way out in the lead on 43% with nearest rival Annabel Goldie registering 10% just ahead of Iain gray on 9%. Worryingly for the Lib Dems their leader in Scotland Tavish Scott barely blips on the radar attracting a mere 3% of voters just ahead of the Green’s Patrick Harvie on 1% with don’t knows and ‘none’ on 28% and 6% respectively.
Given that the election is only six weeks off the results will set Labour strategists’ alarm bells ringing. With the same poll showing the SNP closing, what had been at one point a 15% gap in voting intentions, to just 4% the election is now wide open and likely to be won by the party who can win over voters with weaker or no party allegiance. A key indicator to attracting this category is the recognition and popularity of party leaders.
One key problem for Labour’s Iain Gray is that during his tenure as the party’s Holyrood group leader the bulk of Labour’s time has been spent trying to undermine the SNP Government’s credibility. In so doing the party has not focused on associating key positive issues with their leader in the minds of the electorate.
The price for such obsessive oppositionalism is that the party must face the electorate with little in the way of a coherent and positive message. It recently emerged that the party’s manifesto was uncosted and undergoing a complete rewrite. Clearly, as an election winning strategy, this kind of preparation is not fit-for-purpose. Reports of divisions within the Holyrood leadership and former Leader’s Wendy Alexander’s refusal to endorse her own party indicate that all is not well on planet Labour.
For their part the SNP will be only too happy to help Labour implode. The nationalist campaign will focus on comparing Alex Salmond’s experience, competence and popularity to that of the other leaders whilst drawing attention to Labour’s splits and seeming disarray on the policy front.
Danger also lurks for Gray if he tries to come out fighting on the economy front. With figures showing unemployment falling in Scotland while the UK economy continues to contract Gray will find it tough to outmanoeuvre Salmond – a former economist. The latter can point to the success and popularity of its small business bonus scheme as evidence of sound economic management while arguing that if Labour want to improve Scotland’s economy then it should back the popular desire among Scots to have full tax powers transferred to the Scottish parliament.
Given that the incumbent government party tends to recover popularity during the heat of election campaigns Labour must quickly find a message which will resonate strongly with the Scottish electorate. With a leader lacking in voter identification and with his party’s confused electoral message, Gray must quickly show that he is master of his brief or the electorate will not so much punish him as continue to be oblivious to his public persona.