John McTernan: Playing nasty card might get results

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Labour's Iain Gray needs to attack the SNP's weaknesses if he hopes to become our new First Minister

'MUGGERS. Sex offenders. Burglars. Vote SNP." That would be one side of my campaign leaflet if I was running Scottish Labour's campaign. On the other would be a mock-up of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card with the strapline: "The SNP want to free 8,000 prisoners." Negative? Oh yes. A mighty row? Yep. Effective? Without a doubt.

There are a lot of myths about political campaigning. Top of these is the idea that negative campaigning never works.

A lot of people believe that because whenever they are asked the public declare that they hate negative campaigns and swear that they are never moved by them.

As is often the case, voters are saying what they'd like to believe about themselves rather than describing how they actually act. Around the world, campaign after campaign shows that fear beats hope. And why wouldn't it? After all, politics is a contact sport.

But the point, of course, is not the punch itself - it's the connection. An attack on SNP policy on crime would serve Iain Gray in a number of ways. First, it would show he is up for a fight. Anyone who has seen him in action in Holyrood at First Minister's Questions knows that he is a scrapper, not a shrinking violet. But that knowledge is currently shared only by those who watch television coverage of the Scottish Parliament, or, in other words, by pensioners, students, the unemployed and political obsessives.

Everyone who aspires to public office has to be, at least in part, an intellectual thug. It's not pretty, but the public's view is straightforward - if you won't fight for your own job, why should I believe that you'll fight for mine. Whatever you think about Alex Salmond, no-one doubts that he's up for a fight.

Second, picking on prison policy goes straight for a profound weakness in Nationalist policy. Salmond is an interesting politician. He is an intriguing combination of economic and social liberal. A genuine believer in a low tax environment for business, he thinks like a social worker when dealing with crime.

This was exposed in the row over the death of Brandon Muir. Alex Salmond defended social work saying that nothing should be changed, staff were doing the best in appallingly difficult circumstances.

Iain Gray said it was time to discuss whether we should be taking kids away from some people sooner. Populist? Yes, but also popular. Gray was speaking for the decent mainstream who wonder why the welfare state has abandoned any sense of judgment. Professionals may hate it, but the public believes that some people are not fit to be parents. Labour should channel that feeling, that anger.

The same is true in penal policy. To hear SNP ministers you would think that prison is the problem. It's not. It's crime that is, and the criminals who commit it.The McLeish Report - commissioned by Salmond, and never repudiated - that suggested releasing half of Scotland's prisoners was pervaded by a sanctimonious sentimentality. You have to be a bad person to get into prison in Scotland, releasing them may give a warm glow to a latte-sipping liberal, but it means 8,000 one-man crime-waves released in working-class communities.

A row on this would shift votes back to Labour, but as importantly would allow a neat segway into the area of maximum discomfort for the SNP - independence.

This should be the third strand of Scottish Labour's strategy. In politics you should always listen carefully to what your opponent is saying, but, more significantly, what they are not saying.

More space is dedicated to the bizarre society pages - births, deaths, marriages - in the middle of the glossy manifesto, than are spent on the topic of independence. And Salmond himself barely mentions it. Why? Internal SNP focus groups are clearly telling them what a child could have pointed out - in the fallout of the global financial crisis, the collapse of RBS and HBOS and the meltdown in Ireland and Iceland, separatism has lost its appeal. It's the political equivalent of chewing gum left on the bedpost overnight.

It is a fundamental law of political campaigning that you should always be talking about whatever it is your opponent doesn't want to mention. And the beauty is that all the material you really need has already been produced by the Scottish Government. Everything in politics comes back to money, and the most important money for voters is their own. For all that the chatterati flirt with the notion that Scotland is in some way more left-wing, more social democratic than the rest of Britain, no-one has used the tax powers of the Parliament to raise taxes.

Indeed, when the SNP proposed raising the variable rate by 1p they suffered their greatest electoral setback. So, Scots aren't really that left-wing, are they? This is why the Scottish Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the true cost of Local Income Tax.

But there are a couple of even bigger hits that can be made on the costs of independence. One is the fiscal deficit - the gap between what is spent on public services in Scotland and what is raised in taxation. Even including a fair share of oil revenues, John Swinney's most recent figures show there is a deficit of 3.8bn. Now, sometimes the mind glazes over when faced with billions. What is that in understandable terms - more than 12p on income tax. A decent scare - and true, which is the best form of attack.

The other is electricity bills. When Salmond boasts about renewables he never mentions the subsidy from English consumers that makes an expensive energy source affordable.Scotland after separation would lose that and electricity bills could treble. My second and third leaflets would be tax demands and electricity bills in an independent Scotland.

Michael Heseltine was once asked for advice by someone thinking of becoming an MP. "Don't do it," he said, "if you're only thinking of becoming one." His point - you need to want it. How do you become First Minister of Scotland? Simple. Malcolm X was right: "By any means necessary." If you're not prepared to follow his advice, you should avoid politics as a career.