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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: Labour and the SNP

It seems sensible to consider these manifestos together as sections of the media are convinced that the battle between these two parties is all that matters in Scottish politics. It is almost improbable that either Alex Salmond or Iain Gray will not be the next first Minister, so it’s not only useful to examine the contents of the respective manifesto – it’s absolutely vital for anyone who has an interest in the likely policy direction of the incoming government.

In the case of Scottish Labour, it’s curious that their manifesto contains commitments which, only weeks ago, were completely alien to Labour Party policy. For example, Fighting for what really matters promises to “maintain A&E services at Monklands and Ayr hospitals”, “no up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students” and “freeze council tax for the next two years”. It’s not always a bad tactic to take the populist option on key issues only days before an election campaign, but it makes the whole feeling of Labour’s manifesto somehow fraudulent. Scottish Labour have spent years opposing the very policies they have been advocating for the last few days.

In terms of presentation, the Labour manifesto is truly atrocious. There must be graphic designers in Scotland who don’t feel that Cold War era / Monty Pythonesque artwork is fitting for the cover of a progressive party’s manifesto in the 21st century. It gets steadily worse, however. Despite being a whopping 91 pages in length, Fighting for what really matters is policy-light and looks more like the weekend supplements of tabloid newspapers. Full of pictures and celebrity endorsements, it fails to inspire – unless you are genuinely impressed by Queen of the South manager Kenny Brannigan’s expression of support for Iain Gray. No, thought not. The SNP, on the other hand, understand the importance of professional presentation and their product, entitled simply and optimistically Re-elect, is certainly more visually impacting. In a mere 44 pages it outlines the SNP’s vision concisely and comprehensively and typifies the kind of professionalised style we come to expect of the SNP. It is let down, however, by the inevitable emphasis on Alex Salmond and other senior figures. That Salmond is a huge asset is undeniable, but the SNP should take note that personalising the manifesto, in a similar way to the Conservatives in 1945, doesn’t necessarily yield the expected result.

Let’s take a look at policies. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Labour actually had some, even if they were largely borrowed or stolen from other parties. I’m not too sure that this will help Iain Gray. Too little distinctive ground on policy between Labour and the SNP doesn’t give anyone much of a reason for wanting to elect Iain Gray as the next First Minister...

We’ll start with the economy. Like the Socialist parties and the Greens, Labour want us to go back to 1945. They’re critical of cuts they describe as “ideological”. More importantly, they plan to “rebuild our economy, so that it is fairer, greener and buoyant with opportunity. We will make the Scottish Parliament a place of action, to stand up for young people and set out a new agenda. With the Green New Deal, the Scottish Future Jobs Fund (SFJF) and the apprenticeship guarantee, we will put job creation front and centre of all we do”. Which sounds very positive. More specific pledges include a minimum wage of £7.15 per hour, 10,000 work placements for young people through the SFJF and “robust efficiency savings” (which, of course, are not ideological!)

The SNP, on the other hand, have a detailed - and, it seems, more considered – plan to “deliver new jobs and new opportunities for Scots”. They have ambitious plans to re-industrialise Scotland, to invest in new growth markets and provide increased support for small businesses. Like Labour, the SNP aim to tackle youth unemployment and have proposed that “Community Jobs Scotland will provide 2000 new work opportunities in Scotland’s third sector, a £10 million investment in young people’s futures as part of our wider youth employment and training support.” It might be tempting to think that this is less ambitious than Labour’s SFJF but that would be unfair: this is simply one link in the chain of the SNP’s plan to restore Scotland’s economic competitiveness. There is more detail in both parties’ manifestos including welcome proposals for facilitating investment in innovation from the SNP and Labour’s pledge to build a prosperous future. There is, needless to say, much common ground. The chief differences are not in the wider policy but in the level of detail outlined in the manifestos : Labour’s too often resorts to generalities and their proposals at times appear to be hastily thought out. More tellingly, the SNP are keen to depict a future Scotland in which our hopes and aspirations can be fulfilled, while Labour are more keen to denigrate and criticise today’s Scotland and paint a negative picture of our nation in a similar way to Cameron’s portrayal of Britain as “broken”.

On health, Labour promise to give patients “the right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks”. That is welcome, but it’s effectively the only substantial positive pledge they make. They also propose a new Scottish National Care Service which, broadly speaking, appears similar to what the Liberal Democrats proposed in the 2010 General Election, although I would like to see some further information in respect to costs and operational detail. It may be a positive idea, but COSLA has already come out against it so perhaps needs considering in more depth. Labour also promise “no compulsory redundancies for NHS staff [and] to maintain the focus on the highest standards of care for patients.” They want to save money by centralising administration (reducing the number of health boards) . They also make some extremely useful observations about the need to eradicate healthcare associated infections, tackling health inequality and moving towards a new system of preventative healthcare. Unfortunately, however, on the first two points at least Labour have no serious suggestions as to how to make improvement.

The SNP’s emphasis is on facilitating well-being rather than on services. But they have more discernably practical ideas on tackling health inequalities, especially in regards deaf and blind people. The SNP is opposed to privatisation of the NHS, is unsurprisingly committed to retaining free prescriptions and has plans for Family Nurse Partnerships which “provides substantial nursing support to mothers in the final six months of their pregnancy and continues to give support for two years thereafter”. I like the sound of this, as I do much of the SNP’s manifesto, but would be interested in establishing how such a radical new service can be adequately funded.

There are two areas I would like to contrast between the two parties: their approaches towards mental health and alcoholism. On mental health, the SNP say simply that “Improving the quality of life of those experiencing mental illness is vital to doing just that. We are sympathetic to calls for a new Mental Health Bill and we will consult on what should be included as part of the wider development of a national Mental Health strategy.” The current Mental Health Act is unfit for purpose and urgently needs replacing, and the thrust of the SNP’s rhetoric is positive but it is frustratingly lacking in specifics. Labour, on the other hand, stress the need for improvements in advocacy provision, action on eating disorders, more effective use of “talking therapies” and support for people with Alzheimer’s. This isn’t quite the full package of reform I would like but it is an unexpectedly positive set of ideas from Scottish Labour.

Labour’s attitude towards alcohol differs to that of the SNP. Labour plan to pilot Alcohol Testing and Treatment Orders and “ensure those who have serious alcohol problems get the help they need”. This is positive, but too much of the rhetoric in the manifesto is negative, using terms such as “cracking down” and “abusive behaviour”. Labour appears not to grasp the relationship between alcoholism and mental ill health or that the best way to eradicate the former is to invest heavily in combating the latter. The SNP recognise the problem and believe their proposals for minimum pricing will go some way to dealing with it (something also proposed by the Liberal Democrats in our 2010 general election manifesto – I still think it’s a good policy). I don’t question the evidence base behind this proposal: I used to work in A&E and understand the human and social consequences of not reviewing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. However, while minimum pricing would be a positive step, it is in itself only a small measure with limited scope for effectiveness. Instead, there should be a serious conversation about how best to introduce a range of measures to reduce alcoholism and its effects - which should surely include Labour’s sensible proposals to support individuals out of alcoholism.

I don’t intend to go through every section of the respective manifestos, highlighting the minor but sometimes significant differences on policy issues. Many of the differences are simply a matter of presentation (on which the SNP wins easily). But there is one key difference between Labour and the SNP – their approaches to crime.

Labour play on public fear, pledging to “crack down on knife criminals. We will take strong action and introduce mandatory minimum custodial sentences for knife crime in Scotland. We are very clear – if you carry a knife, you should go to jail.” This is, in a word, irresponsible – it’s also not evidence based, as initiatives such as No Knives, Better Lives are actively reducing knife crime. Labour’s “tough” approach comes through elsewhere – they hope to extend the discredited and unworkable ASBOs to “crack down...on anti-social behaviour”. This sums up Labour’s attitide towards evidence-based policy. While there are some interesting ideas to “make prisons work properly” - i.e. saying the same things as the Liberal Democrats but less coherently and without the same conviction - Labour’s attitude towards crime is simply reactive. They seem to have gone backwards from Blair’s famous “tough on the causes of crime” statement; more focused on picking up easy votes than creating solutions, Labour are playing the politics of fear. It isn’t clever.

On the other hand, the SNP’s approach to crime is more considered and far more reasonable. On knife crime, they “will extend the tried and tested methods that work in reducing knife crime. We have doubled funding for the highly successful ‘No Knives, Better Lives’ scheme, a project that has seen a 35% drop in knife crime through raising awareness of the dangers of knife crime amongst young people, and will roll it out across the country.” The emphasis on education and crime prevention might not win votes but it’s the responsible approach. The SNP also realise that ASBOs don’t work and instead plan to “extend and enhance the CashBack for Communities scheme, which has taken £40 million of the ill-gotten gains from organised crime and invested it in sport and cultural projects for young people in exactly those areas that are worst affected by crime and deprivation.” It’s not entirely dissimilar to our own proposals for community-centred means of tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. The SNP also plan to increase the use of Community Payback Orders, which is something I would welcome as a means of ensuring the justice system actually works effectively.

I could continue to go through each section of the parties’ manifestos comparing each of their policy platforms in detail. There is no need to do that. There is clearly a great deal in both with which Liberal Democrats can identify – especially on education and in particular with the SNP when it comes to Green matters. In fact, there is a certain amount of common ground between the SNP’s and Labour’s manifestos – not to mention that each in its own way seems like an uncosted shopping list. The real difference, and the reason I dislike Labour’s manifesto so much, is the disparity between the SNP’s positivity and Labour’s campaign of fear and cynical negativity. It’s not so much Labour’s policy for Scotland that I struggle with as Labour’s attitude towards Scotland – and Scots. Their manifesto isn’t bad; it’s just that its overriding cynicism undermines much of the useful policy ideas they’re putting forward.

While its manifesto has a regrettable emphasis on personalities and seems more like a polished publicity product than an agenda for political change, the SNP has at least put together a programme that will appeal to those with aspiration, ambition, hope and belief. Where I disagree with it, it is largely because I don’t feel the party goes far enough in its solutions, or because I am unsure how many of the ambitious initiatives can be funded.

In one sense, it is disappointing that there are very few big issues dividing the main parties – or at least the Lib Dems, Labour and the SNP. On another level, it is proof of the broad social democratic consensus that exists in Scottish politics. Given Labour’s abject negativity and lack of professionalism in either their campaign or their manifesto it won’t surprise me too much if the latest opinion polls prove accurate. Negative visions don’t deserve to win elections, and Labour definitely doesn’t deserve to win this one.

Having now reviewed five manifestos, I would rank them in the following order:

1) Liberal Democrats
2) Green Party
3) SNP
4) Labour
5) Conservative

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