Scottish Labour needs a strategy as sophisticated as Scots themselves

Martin McCluskey

Since Scottish Labour’s change of leadership in December, our ability to engage in the big issues beyond the constitution has markedly improved, but the reaction to this week’s cover of the Economist shows that some in Scottish Labour – activists and politicians alike – are still missing the point. There’s still a long way to go if we are to elevate our sights beyond the tactical wins and on to long term strategy, building on the themes that Johann and Ed outlined at conference in March.

There are two linked arguments in play. Both need to be pursued together and in that way we can drag the frame of the debate away from the SNP’s comfort zone. One is about the future of Scotland and we need to win it to secure a no vote in the referendum. The other is about the effectiveness of the SNP as a Government and what we offer instead, which we need to win to secure a mandate to govern.

As Margaret Curran has said before, people in Scotland want us to be taking the fight to the SNP and they want to see us holding them to account. In doing this it’s more important than ever that we clearly focus on who our target is: not just the SNP as a pressure group intent on separation, but the SNP as a Government with the responsibility to change people’s lives. We shouldn’t pass up any opportunity to remind people who is in charge in Scotland and what they have and haven’t done with the powers available to them.

The Economist’s lead article rightly posed many of the questions that Alex Salmond has to answer about the prospects of a separate Scotland: how do you account for dwindling oil revenues? How do you sustain significant public sector employment on the back of proposed corporation tax cuts? Can renewable energy alone really provide the basis for indefinite growth and jobs? We need to engage with these questions and challenge the SNP, but we also need to debate Scotland as it is as well as Scotland as it could be.

While Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond foamed at the mouth on radio and television on Friday, it could have been an ideal opportunity to point out their chronic mismanagement of the Scottish economy over the past five years. Take a glance at the Scottish Government’s own Purpose Targets and you’ll see that there are very few with improving performance. In fact, when you look beyond even the few that show “no change” since 2010 and take a look at some of the data behind, you see that even on the targets they set themselves, the SNP are failing.

So where they pledged to reduce the gap in employment with the best performing OECD countries, that gap has widened. While they said they would reduce the inequality in labour market participation between Scotland’s best and worst performing regions, the gap has increased from 15.5% when Labour left office to close to 19% now. And while they committed to increasing the proportion of income in the hands of Scotland’s poorest, they’ve instead presided over a period when that proportion has declined by close to 1%.

As the Economist’s article points out, the future of the economy is going to be one of the deciding factors for Scottish voters when they come to cast their ballot in the referendum. Similarly, the experience of families facing the squeeze across Scotland now, and Labour’s response, will be one of the factors weighing on people’s minds when they opt for a party to govern after 2016. While the economy will have primacy in both campaigns, Scottish Labour must remember that Scots are a canny bunch, capable, indeed eager, to allocate different votes in different elections on different bases. Scotland has changed: in 2012 Scottish Labour needs a strategy as sophisticated as Scots themselves.

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