The polls are a puzzle

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by Leslie Riddoch

At the time of writing a YouGov poll for Scotland on Sunday has the SNP resurgent – after a lead of 10 points or more, Labour is now two to three points behind the Party Known as Alex Salmond.

Why were they ever behind an Opposition that has become almost as socially reactionary as the Tories?  Labour in the Scottish Parliament has churlishly opposed progressive SNP moves like prisons reform and minimum alcohol pricing.  And yet Iain Gray has jumped happily (albeit belatedly) onto populist SNP bandwagons like no tuition fees, no rise in council tax and no closure for Lanarkshire A&E departments.

Fear.  Apparently fear of the Tories has prompted a traditional kneejerk swing back to Labour – the traditional protectors of benefits and the welfare state.

But as Alex Salmond powerfully pointed out on Question Time last week, it was Labour who saddled the NHS with billions of debt thanks to the use of PPP funding for new hospitals.  And Labour who opted not to give the English free prescriptions when they had the chance.  Labour’s Peter Hain was left blethering.  Minutes later Big Lec has delivered another salvo at the finger wagging Tory grandee Michael Howard who still has a touch of the night about him despite the grey and thinning hair.

After Howard tried to lecture Salmond about the morality of releasing the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds, the SNP leader responded calmly but forcefully accusing Howard’s Tory friends of involvement in arms sales to Libya, reminding Labour that Tony Blair was seen twice shaking hands and even hugging Gaddafi and concluding that British foreign policy was two-faced, arms-based and oil-oriented.

Fleeting cutaways of the audience suggested Alex was saying what no English politician currently dares say – both the Tories and Labour have overseen massive arms sales to dodgy regimes, both supported the war in Iraq and Bush’s War on terror and the Lib Dems have been muzzled by their membership of the Coalition.

Just as Plaid and the Greens have done in the past, Alex Salmond managed to speak for the bulk of the mainstream English audience – and restrain himself from hogging the show or looking too smug afterwards.

It was a vintage Salmond performance. And must have reassured viewers about a few things.

The SNP First Minister is at least as effective against Coalition Ministers as any English Labour Cabinet Ministers I’ve seen.  Curiously Salmond’s even more effective in a UK context because his opponents know so little about Scottish life they can’t tell if he’s bullshitting.  And Alex needs other Big Beasts to play with in Opposition, not men so scared of disagreement they hide in Subway shops when faced with Sean Clerkin.

Was it Alex’s feisty TV performance or Iain’s cowering one which turned opinion polls the SNP’s way last week?  Either way, both memorable TV moment will fade from somewhat from most people’s memories over the next 18 days till polling day.  So it’s all still there to play for.

Lesley Riddoch is an award winning journalist, commentator and broadcaster

Published with thanks to the Scottish Independence Convention