Labour leadership candidates, including Ed Miliband, said the UK Labour party must learn from Scottish Labour’s convincing 2010 general election victory. Scottish Labour won 41 seats. The SNP won six. Labour also won back Glasgow East from the SNP with a thumping 12,000 majority.
Salmond’s claim that he would win 20 seats now looks foolish. Labour’s Jim Murphy MP, on the other hand, was nominated for The Herald’s politician of the year award for his stewardship of Scottish Labour’s general election campaign.
Recent polling also backs a Labour victory. Ipsos MORI, YouGov and System3 all show Labour with clear leads over the SNP
Salmond is losing popularity. His excuses for a long list of broken promises are wearing thin. Pledges on local income tax, smaller class sizes, extending free school meals, school building programme, teacher numbers, writing off student debt, housing grants for first-time buyers, even their referendum on independence – and this is not a full list – have all either run into difficulties, or been ditched as part of a political strategy.
Its no accident that the majority of Scottish Labour MSPs supported Ed Miliband for leader. The SNP are still trying to work out how to respond to him. Past Salmond conference speeches were tirades against Blair, Iraq, Dunvagel (an immigration detention centre), rendition flights and everything New Labour. Salmond’s 2010 conference speech made one reference to Ed Miliband with only nuclear weapons being mentioned as a dividing line.
While this should all give Scottish Labour cause for optimism someone needs to inject a real note of caution.
Salmond knows he is in for the fight for his political life and he likes nothing better than to campaign as the underdog against the big bad London parties.
Polls can also be turned around. Jack McConnell faced similar polling in 2006. Except in his case Labour had been in power in Scotland for eight years, he was fighting for a third Labour term, with an unpopular UK Labour government, an unpopular war in Iraq, and with the TB-GBs at their height. Jack McConnell still managed to pull it back to Labour losing by one seat – Cunninghame North – by 48 votes.
Alex Salmond polls better than his party. He will do all he can to make it about him and not the SNP. Middle income middle-aged men, in particular, like the way he ‘stands up for Scotland’. The winner in 2011 is likely to be the party who best stand up against the Westminster coalition.
The polls also show the Scottish Liberal Democrats doing badly and they clearly fear a ‘mauling’ by the electorate in 2011. While in UK politics we can assume some of the progressive liberal vote going to Labour, in Scotland’s multiparty system it is more complex.
At their 2010 conference SNP ministers continued their strategy to convince voters they have a strong record on climate change and renewable energy – a clear pitch to disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters to ‘lend’ the SNP their vote. Now that Salmond has ditched his independence referendum many of them may be tempted.
Scottish Labour should not get too self-congratulatory about the 2010 general election. The SNP did not spend big funds on their general election campaign. Their campaign launch was low key, there were no standout policies and, as a small minority party, in the UK they struggle to get media coverage. Surely they calculated it was better to save funds and policy ideas for the 2011 election which they need to win.
The SNP have received criticism for an embarrassing light legislative programme for their final parliamentary term. Opponents claim they have run out of ideas, but maybe the SNP have learned from Labour who tied their MSPs up in parliamentary business right up to eve of the 2007 election campaign. This way SNP MSPs are full time campaigners working hard in their constituencies.
Salmond also has the government media machine which he will use ruthlessly until purdah. We can expect a plethora of announcements up to April 2011 celebrating SNP ‘achievements’ which give Salmond the opportunity to be pictured out and about with the people of Scotland.
Conversely – as the SNP’s John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon can testify – it is very difficult for opposition leaders to get anything like the same coverage in the Scottish media. There is no Scottish equivalent to GMTV, Football Focus, Richard and Judy, or Piers Morgan – where Scots can get to know their political leaders. Opposition leaders tend to be third item on the Scottish evening news, in politician mode, in the parliament, pointing the finger, complaining about the latest government action.
This time Labour UK need to understand what Labour in Scotland are up against. Salmond’s SNP are not struggling, out of ideas, tired, or beaten. They are relentlessly political, strategic and up for the fight.
Labour UK need to get this in 2011. Which, frankly, Labour UK didn’t in 2007. Ed Miliband seems to get that this is as crucial as any UK election for him and Labour. If he loses in 2011 the UK media will question his leadership. If he wins Labour will have momentum.
If the SNP lose badly Salmond will stand down. The SNP will go back to their internal squabbles about the type of nationalist party they are, and with no ‘big beast’ to lead them they could struggle for the generation to come.
The outcome of the 2011 election is far from decided. It’s going to be close. Labour UK must back Iain Gray and put resources behind his election strategy. If they don’t, the consequences are serious. Ed Miliband may ‘get Scotland’ but Scotland could quite easily ‘get him’.
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