by Hazel Lewry
The Holyrood campaign has been underway at full steam for less than ten days after the official kick-off point of the dissolution of Parliament. There are about 34 days remaining, so we’re about 20% of the way into campaiging.
We’ve now had some live leaders’ debates. There was the STV prime time exhibition that some could call an SNP/Tory draw, but most gave the edge to Alex Salmond by a nose. This was followed within 48 hours by the Scotsman’s debate with a hand-picked audience. The apparent political bias of the Johnson Press group is well advertised through its reporting; therefore Iain Gray should have had a much better outing. Sadly it was evidently not the case, although Iain Gray again avoided a major meltdown.
Being kind to Mr. Gray the most credit that could be given him for the last 24 hours would be state that he apparently managed to limit any additional harm to his party’s cause. These live debates are being marked by multiple photo ops each day with the leaders and their most significant lieutenants being paraded for the media. Visibility is increasing, for some not a good thing perhaps.
The highlights of the Scotsman debate were relatively simple, kicking off referencing housing in the opening remarks and returning later in depth, Auntie Annabel stated she believes in social housing but wants to introduce a modified right to buy scheme – something of an apparent contradiction. Tavish wants shared housing amongst other options. Certainly there’s a few who would enjoy his back room, but will he give up his privacy? Alex and Ian are apparently relatively quiet on the subject, only acknowledging something’s required, but without giving specifics.
Iain’s opening remarks made an attempt to paint Labour as the party of small business, choosing to neglect the tax breaks initiated by the SNP. Alex was up next and set a different tone referring to Scotland as a “lucky country” through her abundance of natural resources and continued positively by stating how those resources could be best used by Scots. If we had the appropriate powers of course.
The debate continued on this theme, with the pledges and assertions largely following the party lines previously laid out. The next point made by Bella is lack of banking expertise in Scotland without Westminster support, ignoring the fact that it was that Westminster support and lack of oversight (de-regulation) that precipitated the crisis.
With everyone except the Tories now apparently following the SNP lead on the free education bandwagon, the only differences are Lib Dem’s largely copying the SNP, and Labour inferring that it might only apply to certain courses. The SNP are the main group who appear to have data backing their position on this firm commitment. The Tories are still proposing a graduate contribution that’s earning’s based, apparently not realizing that’s already paid. It’s commonly called income tax.
Bella and Iain are both supporting nuclear, Tavish is wobbling around the middle ground trying to find something acceptable to the voting public, while Alex is throwing hard numbers stating Scotland can soon have ten times its energy needs provided by from green sources, so why bother with nuclear. Gray wobbled again in closing by trying a middle tack without promising anything.
Surprisingly as the debate winds down Bella acknowledges Scotland “isn’t being subsidized” but wants Calman to be the framework for more fiscal powers, which she supports. Alex agreed with her simply asking, “Why else do they want to hang on to us?” Neither Iain or Tavish disagree with the fact that Scotland needs no subsidy, but are both of a like mind: “We all need to share [Scotland’s resources] inside the union”.
In the closing statements Gray tried a few, failed, final shots at Salmond. But the highlight was the question of an SNP-LAB coalition. Alex saying, “although he wouldn’t rule it out it wasn’t likely”, but Iain just simply “wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it”. Again an inference that one will do what is best for Scotland, while the other will most likely do what they are told.
The Scotsman debate was worthless in many ways as it was so stage managed and limited. In my opinion it was significantly more of a publicity stunt for Johnson Press than a worthwhile informative exercise for the nation. That said we do now know this vital item of information, the Tories are pro-nuclear, as is Labour, and a Union vote will put new English nuclear plants in Scotland. This is why Westminster wants to claw back planning permission.
Certainly there was nothing in this stage managed damage limitation exercise to provide a Labour upsurge.
So where does this leave Ian Gray and the Labour Party in Scotland in general, or could they simply be preparing to lose a general?
Through a purely Labour perspective, from the viewpoint of Gray’s London overlords, the campaign here in Scotland is progressing woefully. When the campaign started, his party were odds on favourites to form the next government. The bookies are now in the process of reversing the bias in the odds. Parachutes from London are already reported to be opening over Scotland.
In the weeks leading up to the dissolution of Parliament the worst poll showing for Labour was a report of the SNP “closing the gap”, the best had them nearly fifteen points ahead – an absolute landslide in the political world. A clear ten percent margin seemed about par for the course. At this level, London was content, weddings could be planned in Scotland and celebrations ensue to show we’re all just one big happy family. The latest count in Scotland was dire on two fronts – only a handful of street parties are planned to celebrate “the Royles” and Labour is now showing to be trailing in the polls.
This is Scotland sending a very unequivocal message to London, firstly a royal wedding isn’t a big deal here, though many will enjoy the day and most won’t wish the couple any ill will. Secondly that in politics Scotland is very different from the UK. The major worry for Whitehall is that Holyrood voting trends will cross to UK voting trends or that if polling trends continue we’ll end up with a majority of our MSPs who will favour renegotiation of the Union Treaty at a minimum.
Weighing these aspects, what does the Union in general and Labour in particular do about Iain Gray? Stick with him, or just cut their losses and parachute in a heavyweight? It should be safe to say that discussion has taken place several times over the last few months at Labour HQ. Unfortunately Labour in particular and the Union parties in general have several conundrums.
Alex Salmond is certainly continuing to demonstrate he’s in a league apart from Iain Gray. Sadly for Labour he’s also operating in a different stratosphere to anyone else in the Labour Party in Scotland, and at least a head in front of almost any MP in Westminster. That fact alone, more than any other, should allow Iain Gray to keep his job, until at least May 6th.
In the event that May 5th produces a Labour victory of any kind, Gray will then likely retain his position until just before the next election. Barring gross stupidity, which can’t be discounted. Gray is exactly what the real body politic within the party need – a yes man in Scotland. It’s not that Labour don’t want to replace Iain Gray, they simply don’t have a sacrificial lamb pre-groomed and ready for the task. If Labour do win in May, look for a new Labour Leader before the next Scottish election, with Gray probably resigning at the end of his term to take up a position in the Lords.
It’s a reasonable chain of events as it wasn’t so long ago that Ms. Goldie was reported to be in trouble with her London lot. The media abounded with tales of leadership elections in the Tory camp. But who would they choose, as Bella is probably their most capable. Certainly based on her demonstrated debating skills and simply being able to say “I’m just telling you how I see it”, while actually managing to sound sincere, Auntie Annabel can be said to have survived for the same reason that Gray should make it through the campaign. The difference is she’ll likely be around after May 5th.