Lesley Riddoch: SNP in need of effective opponents

Nicola Sturgeon with the SNP's 56 MPs at South Queensferry, against the backdrop of the Forth Bridge. Picture: Getty
Nicola Sturgeon with the SNP's 56 MPs at South Queensferry, against the backdrop of the Forth Bridge. Picture: Getty
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SELF-STARTING community activists with a positive vision of change are filling vacuum left at Holyrood, writes Lesley Riddoch

Is Scotland now a one-party state? This is one of the ludicrous accusations being thrown at the all-conquering SNP. Like a stone hurled in anger at a missed train, it appears hopeless, tokenistic and more likely to damage the impotent stone-thrower.

‘Ya boo sucks’ opposition from Labour and the Lib Dems is now completely unacceptable

Yet, beyond the huffing and puffing of sore losers, there is a point. Scotland needs an opposition to the SNP – indeed democracy demands it. It’s not the victor’s fault they have cleared up so thoroughly – but even diehard SNP supporters acknowledge Scotland needs strong leadership and robust scrutiny delivered by an effective opposition to thrive.

Currently – thanks to the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems at the general election and despite the best efforts of the Greens – we have only one out of two, and that’s not good enough.

Of course, there’s no formal connection between last week’s cull of MPs and the mood amongst MSPs in the same parties. Ask the Tories. They’ve got 15 MSPs and an effective leader despite having just one Scottish MP. But they’ve had 18 years to adjust to “panda politics” and decades to realise that English electorate-friendly policies tend to go down like lead balloons here. The Tories are toxic in Scotland. They know it and have learned to live with it. Labour and the Lib Dems have not.

Despite successive Holyrood defeats, Labour has dominated at Westminster, where the “big beasts” made it clear they had no interest in standing for the “pretendy parliament.” Defeat for “high command” in London has therefore been disorientating and dispiriting.

Labour and Lib Dem MSPs now face wounding and divisive leadership battles, but Scottish Labour faces an even bigger hurdle – the stubborn refusal of Jim Murphy to resign.

How can Labour hope to lead the opposition at Holyrood with a man who put the chance of a Westminster seat above the Scottish Parliament and has now lost the chance to govern in either? No matter how much Mr Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie repeat the old mantra about learning from mistakes, they can’t progress unless they accept a few home truths.

In the eyes of most Scots – especially the No voters who backed Nicola Sturgeon – demonising the SNP is daft, and refusing to back their anti-austerity demands at Westminster is even dafter.

So never mind scaremongering about a one-party state – what kind of opposition does Scotland need and where is it likely to come from?

Another five years of “ya boo sucks” opposition from Labour and the Lib Dems is now completely unacceptable. To borrow from Monty Python, “argument isn’t just contradiction – it’s a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition. Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”

The sad thing is that since the SNP became the Scottish Government in 2007, political opposition has too often meant automatic gainsaying or half-hearted new policy directions which lack coherence, vision or approval from London.

The media is no better, peddling cynicism at every turn instead of matching the public mood for new solutions. As a result, civil society groups are now acting as policy hothouses – not political parties. And it may only be a matter of time before they decide to stand for Holyrood as well.

Thus, while Jim Murphy talked about taking power beyond Holyrood and councils through informal talking shops led by local businesses, community activists from Argyll have taken the initiative themselves to devise a new template for local democracy in Scotland. Infuriated by the absolute power and unaccountable nature of Argyll and Bute Council, which rejected a community takeover bid for Castle Toward last year, the folk behind the “People’s Council” are determined to see something positive come from the whole sorry debacle.

Inspired by the Icelandic crowd-sourced constitution process, they’ve invited community activists from across Scotland to a one-day event on 6 June – the aim is to end decades of top-down governance by officials with six-figure salaries in the largest, most distant councils in Europe. It’s a different political direction to that pursued by the SNP whose unpopular police reforms centralised control and whose Community Empowerment Bill won’t reverse that trend, won’t give power and budgets to new town and island councils, won’t abolish community councils or give them statutory powers but will make it easier for the strongest communities to take over the ownership and management of key local assets.

Why can’t Scots, stifled by vast council bureaucracies, expect an opposition party to find a workable plan to steer Scotland closer to the far smaller European model?

Equally, where is the leadership on land reform? Landowners suggest the current Land Reform Bill is a “Mugabe-style land raid” when in fact it’s unlikely to slash prices fast enough to stop another generation of young Scots from leaving because of unaffordable housing and unavailable land. So there are plans to make the late August Bank Holiday a “land action weekend” where local groups across Scotland highlight the dangers of letting 532 people own half of Scotland for another ten or 20 years. Again, this drive is not being led by any of Scotland’s political parties but by “ordinary” Scots, stirred by the referendum and organising within Common Weal, Women for Independence and Radical Independence groups.

Nature abhors a vacuum. But Scotland’s opposition parties seem to abhor the donkey-work needed to fill it. So self-starting Scots are doing it for themselves.

Labour may think they can sit back and adopt those policies once activists have put in the hours, months and maybe years to gather opinion, create, fund and support an alternative media to disseminate ideas and produce a viable template for a new local democracy of small, dynamic “bureaucracy-lite” councils and far-reaching land reform within the next decade. After all, Jim Murphy managed to claim credit for stopping construction of a new women’s prison in Greenock after Women for Independence started the campaign. But times have suddenly changed. If Labour and the Lib Dems think opposition means sitting inert behind the curve of Scottish public opinion, they should think again. New constructive alternatives are being trialled across Scotland right now.