Interview: Iain Gray, Leader of Scottish Labour Party

The leader of a Labour party renewed by the general election, Iain Gray is now facing the possibility – unthinkable a year ago – that he may well be the next First Minister. But what will that take?

NOTHING had changed. But everything had changed. In the Holyrood chamber last Thursday, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray was, as before, seated to the First Minister's left. As proceedings began, the doughty Gray attacked. As normal, the waspish Salmond countered. Outside, life went on.

Four hundred miles to the south, however, Nick Clegg and David Cameron had just finished unveiling their historic coalition accord. The magnetic field on the UK's political compass had palpably shifted. At Holyrood, Gray was now the only opposition party leader left. "Cuts! Cuts! Cuts!" he had shouted at his three governing party opponents the week before, revelling in his new-found status. Last week, he announced he wouldn't be accepting cuts from the "Con-Dem" government down south nor from the "Con-Man" Salmond up here. The blame game – Holyrood's favourite pastime – has become his sole possession.

A little more than a year ago, Iain Gray seemed destined to join the ranks of opposition leaders whose time in office, once they are inevitably forced to quit, sinks without trace. He would turn up for the weekly bout of First Minister's Questions to dutifully toss over a few balls to Salmond so that the First Minister could thwack them back at Labour's gloomy benches. A poll taken almost exactly a year ago put Labour on 29 per cent and the SNP on 41 per cent. A second SNP term in government at Holyrood seemed inevitable.

But almost from nowhere and (very Iain Gray this) without barely being noticed, the dust has cleared from the general election to reveal a very different picture. The SNP's Holyrood poll ratings have fallen. Labour's (very Iain Gray this) have remained pretty steady. On the latest polling evidence, John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, puts Labour on 53 seats, with the SNP on 34. There is a health warning here: the most recent polls were taken in the middle of a general election campaign in which the SNP struggled to get noticed. The point, however, is that less than a year before Scottish voters are asked to return to the polls, this time to elect their MSPs, suddenly the election is up for grabs.

"Basically the Labour Party and the SNP are neck and neck," says Curtice. "That would put Labour first because they do better in terms of seats." Over the coming few months, it is Gray who now has both the luxury of opposition to rail against the cutbacks to come. And after an election at which Scottish Labour increased its majorities and repelled all opponents, it looks increasingly like the momentum is with him. Out of the madness of the past month, a question is emerging at Holyrood as it too gears up for its own election season: Gray isn't going to win, is he?

A few hours after taking on Salmond, the Labour leader is seated in his gloomy office in the Scottish Parliament building; the light is trapped by a huge security barrier blocking most of his window 'pod'. Elected in an open leadership contest two summers ago, Gray first managed to steady the Labour ship following its tumultuous year with Wendy Alexander at the helm. Critics say he has done very little since. But the former teacher, charity worker and enterprise minister is proud of his record.

That leadership contest, he reflects now, was the turning point in Scottish Labour's fortunes: "Not because I won, but because it engaged thousands of Labour members in hustings and house meetings. We'd had the media suggesting it would be divisive, but it wasn't. We had an open discussion of where we'd gone wrong and we used that as a way to move forward."

The "tribal division" in Scottish Labour – between MPs and MSPs – has largely died away, he argues, because he was seen, having been elected, to have a mandate as the man in charge. "We went straight from the election contest to the Glenrothes by-election. The key there was we made no distinction there between who was fighting that by-election. It was just Labour in Scotland. Then we asked the people what their concerns were and we fought the election on those issues.

"You have to be honest and learn the lesson about where you went wrong. We have done that. We have focused with a great deal of discipline on the things that really fundamentally matter to people – things like safer streets, clean hospitals, literacy in our schools; apprenticeships – so people have a chance of a job. You have to focus and then stick on those and then you start to reap the benefits," he says.

Allied to that, Gray argues that the election has now halted the SNP charge. "The SNP are largely a party of momentum because they have an end point: independence day. They did manage to create a sense of momentum through 2007. But I think we've reversed that momentum. We did that in two by-elections (Glasgow North East and Glenrothes] and it was important that was sustained in the election. So, frankly, in those narrow Scottish terms, the election could hardly have been better for us."

THE SNP, under Salmond, he claims, is jaded and managerial. Perhaps, but at least Salmond is recognisable. The recurring criticism of Gray is that, by contrast, he is utterly anonymous. One sympathetic observer notes: "I think Labour has a real chance of winning next year, but then you think, it's going to come down to Gray versus Salmond. People will choose the one they know." Salmond is the first First Minister since Donald Dewar who has had obvious heft. But Iain Gray?

"There's no doubt that when I became leader I was far less well known than Alex Salmond. You would expect that – he has been a politician for 25 years. I've had two other jobs before coming into politics," he concedes. "But I think, frankly, the more people examine their record, the less impressed they are. I think it is a government that is running out of steam, and running out of ideas. I think Alex himself is looking pretty tired and out of ideas. They started off writing cheques they couldn't cash; paying off student loans, grants for first time buyers, reducing class sizes, free school meals for everyone. Now they are running Scotland on the never-never. They are trying to put off every difficult decision until 2011."

The answer is telling. Gray has a way of turning most questions about himself and Labour on to the SNP government. Asked about Labour's reforms to the council tax system (it is widely expected that Gray would implement radical changes and a revaluation), he demurs. "There should at least be reforms," is all he says. And asked how he himself would deal with the coming cuts, he adds: "We don't know what the scale of the problem is yet."

After another rant about the SNP on their own proposals to deal with the cuts, he concludes: "Yes, we have to think what our priorities are going to be when times get tough, but I will not let the First Minister off the hook." Wisely perhaps – given his own lack of profile – Gray is determined to fight the campaign ahead on his opponents' record.

A different tack: what would he be like as First Minister? Gray launches into a long and rather rambling reply. He says he will learn from his previous experience in the old Scottish Executive and "the tendency to become too managerial". With budgets likely to be hacked back, he says he will instead focus on the "fundamentals": to improve literacy, to make sure hospitals are clean, to crack down on knife crime. He says he wants to improve access to housing for first-time buyers. And he wants to create more highly skilled jobs in burgeoning industries such as renewables. "It's a vision where people can be very sure of the things they want to be sure of, where we are shifting to an economy with the kind of jobs which are sustainable and people can get the skills," he concludes.

Clearly, his manifesto requires tidying up. In the meantime, Gray makes it clear he intends to continue to focus most of his time on his opponents. For the SNP, this is just fine. "If all he's got in the locker is just a yaa-boo about 'SNP cuts' then that won't make any difference. People know that all we're doing is administering what we've been given by Westminster," says one senior Nationalist figure.

Labour MSPs, however, believe the relentless attacks on the SNP are paying off; during the general election campaign, they claim the SNP was being blamed as much as anyone for the problems heading the country's way. As a result, some Labour figures can be heard already privately assuming the election to be pretty much in the bag.

"I am not complacent," insists Gray – issuing the dreaded 'c' word. "It is clear that people in Scotland do vote differently in different elections. A lot of people who voted SNP in 2007 came back to us in 2010. Our task is to keep as many of those people with Labour again come 2011. We won't keep all of them, but I am determined that we keep a significant chunk."

He will be helped, he reveals, by the former prime minister. "I've exchanged notes with Gordon since the election and one of the things he has said to me is that he wants to help in the campaign, so I would expect that, yes, he will help," he says.

He adds: "There is a broader point which is that the MSP group in here put enormous effort into the general election campaign all over the key seats. I expect MPs will work with us in the 2011 campaign. I think that unity is certainly the best it's ever been."

That is no idle boast; and seeing the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems in power will ensure it. Being booted out of office for the first time in 13 years was never going to be a source of satisfaction for most of the Labour movement. But look who's smiling now.

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