Lesley Riddoch: New year, new leaders, new tests

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is neither a communist nor a caped crusader ' but she'll be called worse. Picture: Getty

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is neither a communist nor a caped crusader ' but she'll be called worse. Picture: Getty

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The SNP will have its work cut out as ‘new’ Scottish Labour tries to rebuild support ahead of election, writes Lesley Riddoch.

BIG challenges face the SNP in 2015, even as they fly at Icarus-like heights in the opinion polls. Clearly Nicola Sturgeon made hay as the sun shone over an utterly demoralised Scottish Labour party, without effective leadership or political purpose despite its referendum triumph.

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It seems the party remorselessly deployed fear over hope for much of 2014 – then wound up catching the virus. But with Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale eager to prove themselves, Scottish Labour will doubtless rebuild some of its lost support. How meaningfully in this “winner-takes-all” first-past-the-post General Election – no-one knows.

UK media narratives may not help the SNP either in the build-up to May’s ballot. If a Scottish Labour meltdown is widely envisaged it may overplay the SNP’s strength and make them look like unassailable top dogs. Each minor setback will then be billed as evidence of terminal decline. Equally, if UK-wide Labour defeat is on the cards – and there’s already scaremongering talk of a run on the pound if Ed Miliband becomes prime minister – that could add urgency to Labour’s plea for “one last push” to maintain its current number of Scottish MPs. Can that old narrative find traction one more time? Once again – no-one knows.

Meanwhile, there are bound to be more rancorous rows over SNP candidate selection for Westminster seats – hardly surprising as almost 100,000 people with widely differing views and life experience select just over 50 representatives. For every Craig Murray – the former ambassador apparently rejected because he was “not a team player” – there will be dozens more who fail to find nomination or clinch candidacy. Even within a disciplined party, that’s a lot of potential resentment.

The SNP has also required that one woman at least is shortlisted in every seat – several steps short of Labour’s twinning mechanism which guaranteed an equal number of actual candidates, not just aspiring applicants. The danger for the SNP is that capable women get pipped at the post almost everywhere, along with “unconventional” candidates favoured by the movement but not the leadership. Nicola Sturgeon’s ground-breaking gender-equal cabinet was instantly copied by Jim Murphy – a flattering act of imitation but also a raising of the stakes. The final gender balance and general diversity of the SNP’s candidate list will be much commented upon.

The new First Minister plans to hang more artwork produced by women in Bute House. This laudable, symbolic move has one possible downside – the untimely return to the National Galleries of the fine portrait of wartime Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston. It would be a shame to lose the steadying presence of the canny operator who used the exigencies of war to bring “Power to the Glens” despite the protests of reluctant landowners. Particularly in 2015, when the Scottish Government’s land reform proposals will attract new scaremongering of truly Better Together proportions.

Nicola Sturgeon is apparently already regarded as a “communist” in well-heeled parts of rural Scotland because of her plans to “interfere” with the hitherto private landholdings of dukes, absentee owners, quangos, investment companies, billionaires, titled families and large farmers. Most Scots would find that label ridiculous. After all, the latest Land Reform Bill only transplants a tiny fraction of European-style land restrictions to Scotland.

Ministers will be allowed to intervene when landowners are grossly negligent or buy up large parts of Scotland; children will acquire equal rights to inherit land but will avoid splitting and destroying small family farms and local people will become a mandatory part of sporting estate management without prompting the mass sacking of gamekeepers and ghillies. Doubtless though, these moderate changes will be whipped up to resemble a “Mugabe-style land raid” in influential quarters.

And even though the argument should be easier to win among urban voters, it’s important for all progressive Scots that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t get bogged down in this issue as Wendy Alexander got bogged down defending Section 28.

So this is the challenge for Scots. Nicola Sturgeon must be a First Minister for the whole of Scotland – she cannot accomplish the relatively modest social change represented by the Land Reform Bill, improved childcare and quotas for women on public boards, if she is attacked by opponents as “communist” and lauded by supporters as a caped socialist crusader when she is neither.

In truth, the SNP instinctively seeks the middle ground on any issue except independence. But if the Left goes quiet in 2015, they risk leaving Nicola Sturgeon looking like a wild-eyed revolutionary when she is not and cannot be in her role. She needs pressure, constructive criticism and encouragement to go further from outside the government and the SNP.

Many land campaigners, for example, would like to see the council tax replaced with a land value tax. Others – like the far from revolutionary Convention of Scottish Local Authorities – would like to scrap the present top-down system of remote local government by creating more than 100 genuinely community-sized councils. If civic society doesn’t press the Holyrood parties to engage with these important but currently “stuck” policy areas, they will skip to the back of the queue while issues with broad agreement – like land reform, childcare, minimum alcohol pricing (if it survives the SWA’s European Court of Justice challenge in January) and gender equality on boards – are fiercely debated.

The SNP has its work cut out in 2015 – but so too does the new consensus-seeking Scottish Labour Party and the struggling Lib Dems. If they can support long overdue changes in 2015, policy battle can focus on new ideas – like genuine devolution beyond Holyrood and a wholesale review of the size and powers of local councils.

If they don’t, the Scottish Parliament will be stuck in a Groundhog Day, alienating the massive post-referendum electorate with each cliché, exercise in nit-picking or stale act of “clever opposition”.

There’s a challenge for the Yes movement too. Green, SSP and SNP candidates will stand against each other in a small number of seats. Will that smother the impulse for joint campaigning among Scots who want home-rule powers and see 2015 as the best chance to get them? Or will people power surprise pundits and politicians once again?

2014 was a transformational year for Scotland. 2015 is just as full of potential.

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