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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The SNP v Labour: a choice or a dilemma for Scottish voters?

I recently hosted a poll asking who was the most effective Scottish political leader.

The results are as follows: Tavish Scott 50%, Alex Salmond 39%, Iain Gray 5%, Patrick Harvie 4%, Annabel Goldie 2%, Colin Fox 0%.

Given that this is a Lib Dem blog and that many of my visitors are likely to be Lib Dems it shouldn’t be surprising that Tavish Scott topped the poll. The regard much of the public has for Alex Salmond also seems to have been reflected in the result. Most surprisingly, however, was the low rating for Iain Gray – particularly as I know many Labour supporters take a passing look at my blog from time to time.

It isn’t just visitors to my blog who are less than impressed with Iain Gray though. Labour’s seemingly unassailable position in the opinion polls has evaporated following a terrible performance from Gray in a televised debate. One Herald journalist observed that the calibre of Scottish Labour’s leaders has been progressively worsening with each succession – from the inimitable Donald Dewar to Henry McLeish, to Jack McConnell, to Wendy Alexander and to what we shall diplomatically call Labour’s current predicament. The weaknesses of Labour’s current leader, who has neither style nor charisma nor ideas, simply play into the hands of the much cannier Alex Salmond.

That’s not a unique view. That kind of analysis has been arrived at by several journalists, as well as ordinary members of the public and – it seems – Labour supporters. Following the TV debate, several Labour supporters on twitter called for an urgent leadership election. It was all tongue-in-cheek, but the point had been made. They know Gray is a liability.

Ian Bell, writing in The Herald in 16th April, criticised Mr Gray for “purloining the opposition policies on an election’s eve”, describing him as a “political cross-dresser” and “donning clobber just denounced as the emperor’s new clothes”. It’s a fair accusation – Gray made an astonishing u-turn on a council tax freeze, tuition fees and A&E services just hours before the campaign kicked off. So much for Labour’s distinctive voice. So much for attacking Clegg for supposedly “betraying principle” – that charge looks rather hypocritical now.

It all seems rather strange that Gray had to do this, especially as at the time he appeared to be in a position of strength. Why allow Salmond (and Scott and Goldie) the chance to get in easy pot-shots about u-turns? In fact, why is a Labour leader allowing the SNP to dictate the agenda – especially on the back of a General Election in which the SNP did not fare particularly well?

Of course part of Iain Gray’s problem is that, to borrow a phrase from The Sun, he’s “as dead as a stuffed dodo”. He has as much personality as John Major. Gray by name, grey by nature. I have little time for this crude caricaturing, but the observations of the press stick and Gray just doesn’t seem capable of shrugging of the “no personality” jibes. If the polls are to be believed his party is sinking rapidly and the captain is helpless to avoid the inevitable electoral defeat.

Not only is Gray uninspiring, lacking in leadership quality and guilty of making poor judgements – he’s also leading a party that has lost its way. I have a great deal of respect for the Labour Party, even if I don’t see eye to eye with it. I value our shared social democratic heritage. I am grateful for quite a lot of what Labour achieved in government, both in Holyrood and Westminster. But what does Labour stand for now other than aspirational opportunism? It was bad enough that their principal flagship policy is imprisoning anyone in possession of a knife for a mandatory six months. It hardly inspires confidence when the same party, in a predictable knee-jerk response to headlines, pledged a “zero-tolerance approach to literacy”. To think this was once the uber-professional party of British politics, with a palpable social conscience.

Salmond is popular and a clever operator. What Gray lacks in leadership capability, Salmond possesses in abundance. But he can be infuriating and not everyone relates easily to his bluster – or his hot-headed approach. He has a talent for turning difficult situations to his advantage and in spite of serious criticism over the release of al-Megrahi, the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and the failure to deliver the promised independence referendum he has retained his personal popularity. Perhaps this is due to his force of personality and the way he seems to identify with the needs of Scottish voters. Perhaps. My personal view is that it also has a lot to do with a lack of an effective leader on the Labour benches.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had people asking me about which of the two leaders I prefer. I’ve also been asked who I’d prefer to work with in a coalition. Actually, I think Tavish Scott has it absolutely right when he says he is open to work with both the SNP and the Labour Party and, as I’ve mentioned before, speculating about likely coalitions ahead of the election when the result could be too close to call really isn’t helpful.

Historically, I have favoured closer collaboration with the Labour Party. Our parties worked together against the excesses of Conservatism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We worked together on the Scottish Constitutional Convention. We collaborated on delivering the Scottish parliament, on constitutional reform and on gay rights. We worked together in a productive coalition from 1999 until 2007. Famously, relationships between our parties were generally good and characterised by close personal friendships – think Dewar and Wallace, Blair and Ashdown, Cook and Maclennan and even McConnell and Stephen.

But those times, and those individuals, have moved on. Labour wanted closer co-operation when it suited, but were not committed to cultivating a more permanent relationship – something I believe Gordon Brown came to regret. Gray has none of Dewar’s appetite for collaboration, but it should noted in any case that Labour’s position on issues such as crime and civil liberties are not what they once were. To say a Lib Dem-Labour coalition would be a marriage of principle in the same way that it was, broadly speaking, in 1999 is stretching the point more than a little. There is probably more in the SNP’s manifesto for Liberal Democrats to identify with than there is in Labour’s.

Having said that, the SNP’s manifesto is far from perfect, having been described as “fantastical” by The Scotsman and “a crude appeal to tribalism” by The Courier. The Daily Mail got it right for once, describing it as “a menu without prices”. However, it is clear to see that there is some common ground between the SNP and the Lib Dems especially on issues such as the environment.

It’s not simply about leaders and key policies though. Take a look at the calibre of the respective front bench teams. Who would you prefer as health minister: Nicola Sturgeon or Jackie Baillie? Who would be the better justice minister: Kenny MacAskill or Richard Baker? On finance: John Swinney or Andy Kerr? On education: Michael Russell or Des McNulty?

I value historical collaboration between Labour and the Lib Dems but our party can not be a slave to the past. We are not some kind of “Labour-lite” party, or merely in existence to prop up the Scottish Labour party as some obviously believe. We are a party with a distinctive liberal identity, not a vehicle to ensure Labour can never be democratically removed from power.

Personally, I’d prefer a Lib Dem – Green alliance. It isn’t going to happen because the electoral arithmetic will never stack up. But, given the choice, I’d personally opt for working with Patrick Harvie than either Alex Salmond or Iain Gray.

The forces of tribalism ensure that the main fight is between Salmond and Gray. Conservative leader Annabel Goldie explained recently that this was “not a choice” but “a dliemma”. She’s right. I’m not a nationalist and never could be, but the prospect of Iain Gray as first minister is actually quite frightening. What do we want: more bluster from Salmond or weak leadership and confused policies from Gray?

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