Euan McColm: Labour tax won’t dent flawless SNP

Kezia Dugdale realises that voters remain cautious and self-interested. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Kezia Dugdale realises that voters remain cautious and self-interested. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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IT’S the lack of self-awareness that hits you; a failure to grasp that his politics can only help keep Labour out of power at both Westminster and Holyrood.

The scene is Twitter, shortly after Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale had challenged the SNP to use new powers on the way to Holyrood to raise income tax. And the clueless character in question is Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who tweeted that an income tax increase proposed by his party would mean one in four workers paying no more than they do now.

The jaw drops at the sight of a politician who believes the way to win back popular support is to promote a policy that would mean tax rises for three-quarters of workers.

The SNP has shored up its position on the centre ground of Scottish politics by actively helping the middle classes save a few bob. These are the voters who will decide the result of May’s Holyrood election and let’s not be surprised when they stick with the Scottish Nationalists.

Scottish Labour sources concede their tax proposal isn’t going to win popular support. So why propose it?

The logic runs that by focusing on tax, Labour can expose the myth that the SNP’s is a radical agenda. The Scottish Nationalists have got away with claiming to be left-wing while acting centrist for too long and Labour’s going to set people right about that.

That might work if the voters who are keeping the SNP in power were at all interested in hearing that they’ve been conned. They are not. Nobody wants to hear that they are an idiot, let me tell you.

Well, maybe, say Labour sources. But their party has to do something. It has to come up with policies or die.

And this is true: even if the Labour Party stands no chance of winning this year’s Scottish parliamentary election, it has to continue to live and breathe. The proposal to raise taxes is, at least, something. Even if that something isn’t at all appealing to voters.

But then, could Scottish Labour suggest any policy that might bring back those who have deserted it? Not at the moment, it couldn’t.

Labour’s brand is so badly damaged in Scotland that it could promise every voter a holiday home in Spain and most would reply “we wanted Portugal, you red Tory bastards”. In the eyes of so many voters, Labour can do no right for doing wrong.

It is tempting to declare Scottish Labour terminally ill, to predict that the party that only a decade ago dominated our political landscape, is spluttering its last.

Having watched the Tory party at a UK level appear to go through its death throes after humiliating defeat in the 1997 general election landslide, I’m not inclined to write off Scottish Labour just yet.

If, however, it is to survive, it will take more than its own actions to achieve this.

Following Labour’s landslide in 1997, the Tory party had little idea what to do with itself. It went though a series of completely unsuitable leaders – William Hague, then Iain Duncan Smith, then Michael Howard – each of whom failed to engage enough voters to make the Conservatives look anything like a serious political force. As recently as 2005, the Tories were on course to elect another leader who polled badly with voters. David Davis was the candidate in question and even the most loyal Tory would concede that his leadership would have done little to bring their party back on to the centre ground of politics (where, time and again, elections are won or lost).

It was the emergence of a relatively unknown and seemingly different kind of Tory in the shape of David Cameron that gave the Tories something of a boost. And, even then, Cameron required the assistance of the Labour Party – which had begun to look tired and uncertain in government – to see him across the finish line to victory in 2010.

So, all that’s required for Scottish Labour to get back on its feet is one simple thing. The SNP has to start screwing up – and be seen to do so.

There’s a problem, here, for Labour. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, are the preeminent political figures of their generation. They’re smart, focused and ruthless. No opposition party can yet match their combined strengths.

Labour, then, requires to play a waiting game. There is little sign of vulnerability at the top of the SNP, right now.

Sturgeon is a more popular politician than Alex Salmond, the person who led the party to its first election victory in 2007, and polls continue to show that, while there might not yet be a majority in favour of Scottish independence, more than half of all Scottish voters plan to back the nationalists in May.

But, with the prospect of a second independence referendum off the table (Sturgeon wants to see several months of polls showing at least 60-40 in favour of breaking up the United Kingdom before she asks that question, again), the SNP may be a little more vulnerable than it has been in recent years.

Sturgeon will win a majority in May, of course, but after that she’ll have to maintain support while conspicuously not delivering that second referendum. With the focus off the constitution, perhaps flaws in the SNP’s domestic agenda (and these flaws do exist) will start to become apparent.

And if the SNP looks at all vulnerable then there may be some small opportunity for Scottish Labour.

Kezia Dugdale’s political instincts are not so very different to those possessed by Nicola Sturgeon. Both understand that, regardless of the left-wing rhetoric that we hear so often in our political debate, voters remain cautious and self-­interested.

The Labour leader is not, instinctively, drawn to raising taxes but her new policy makes the reasonable point that the SNP may be left-wing in word but it isn’t in deed.

Labour last week ensured it had a place in the debate. The party even managed to set the agenda for a couple of days.

But if Scottish Labour is to have a hope of recovery, it requires the SNP to start failing. And there’s little sign that’s going to happen any time soon. «