January 2016

We've a mountain to climb

By Jim McKechnie, CLPD Executive member

Visiting Clydebank for his union's Scottish Conference, Unite leader Len McCluskey gave his verdict on Labour's chances in May's Scottish Parliamentary Election: "The scale of the task in Scotland would almost make Ben Nevis look like Mount Everest," he said – and he was right.

The trudge back to work from New Year festivities was not lightened by Survation's first opinion poll of the year.

With 52% of the constituency vote and 42% of the list vote, the SNP are on target to win 70 seats, increasing their current complement of seats from 64.

Labour, on 21% and 20% respectively, would lose twelve seats, ending up with 26 MSPs. The pro-independence Greens would increase their cohort from two to eight, and even the Tories and Lib-Dems would get two or three more MSPs. This would give the SNP an absolute majority of eleven.

Worse for Labour, the SNP Government's performance on the six key policy areas of Justice, Education, Health, Transport, the Economy and the Environment now gets a robust positive net satisfaction rating. Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon enjoys a net favourability score of +27, miles ahead of Kezia Dugdale (-9), the Tories' Ruth Davidson (-6), Lib-Dem Willie Rennie (-7) and Patrick Harvie (0) of the Greens.

With pollsters continuing to predict that Labour will win none of the seats in the constituency section, attention has focused on the list seats, engendering an unholy scramble to be near the top of the list in each of the regions. When constituency seats are hard to win, being near the top of the Labour List almost guarantees election in many regions.

The contests have become particularly intense because this time around the Scottish Labour Executive Committee has abolished protected places at the top of the lists for sitting list MSPs. It has allowed sitting constituency MSPs to stand for the list as well as in their constituencies. Twelve out of the 13 sitting constituency Labour MSPs who are seeking re-election for their constituencies are also pursuing the safety net of a place on the lists.

In Glasgow, for example, contenders for high placings on the list encompass four sitting Constituency MSPs (including former party Leader Johann Lamont), two sitting List MSPs and a defeated MP. The SNP gleefully points out that this shows Labour has "given up" in the constituency section. Party members (who will decide the order in a postal ballot) are being bombarded with candidates' "Me for #1" publicity.

Those newcomers with left wing credentials will have a hard job to break through the parade of well-known names to make it up to the top of the lists. Adding to their difficulties, members must have joined the Party before 4th July 2015 in order to qualify to participate in the ballot, which will exclude many who joined the Party in the wake of the Corbyn campaign.

What policies might turn the tide?

Despite the SNP's approval ratings on devolved issues, there is still scope for challenging them on their record.

Perhaps the primary focus should be on the £500 million cut in Scottish Government grant to local government, together with ministers' insistence on maintaining the eight year old Council Tax freeze. There is now no doubt front line services will be drastically cut throughout the country in a way previously considered unthinkable. We need to encourage and support any Councils resisting the cuts. We also should commit to restoring decent levels of grant funding to councils. Scottish Labour needs to be brave and say loudly that a Scottish Labour Government will put an end to the Council Tax freeze in order to raise the money to protect the services that all of us, but particularly the less affluent in society, depend upon.

However, it may be that the prominent issues in this campaign are in non-devolved areas in which our image and rhetoric will be crucial.

Support for independence may well be an over-riding determinant factor for many voters, but the overwhelming need to regain the radical territory that we have lost to the SNP cannot be over-stated. We will need to be crystal clear that, at UK level, we support an anti-austerity economic strategy. We will need to stress Scottish Labour's formal policy of opposition to Trident renewal. We must re-affirm our Scottish Conference pledges to fight the Trade Union Bill and TTIP.

As McCluskey went on to say "The SNP stole most of the radical clothes that historically should have belonged to Labour. It's up to Scottish Labour to remember its heritage." If we take his advice, our prospects might, at least, be a bit brighter than the polls suggest.

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