LABOUR have been at the beach this week. Watching the tide ebb and flow across the sand must feel like analysing opinion polls.
The recent UK-wide assessments of public opinion have not been great for Labour. Despite the inevitable problems of the UK government, the opposition are not charging ahead. That explains a policy-heavy party conference.
Labour are right to publicise their policies. The public may give them a fairer hearing if Labour say what they want to do. Ed Miliband does not command public support as a leader. So the strategy appears to have switched to building up the policies the country might consider supporting. This did come unstuck on high speed rail – no-one now knows whether Labour are for or against the billions needed to push fast rail links north from London. It would be better to be against this spiralling investment and in favour of freezing energy prices. Voters would understand that and millions of families would support it.
Labour need a lift in the opinion polls, but so do others. The Yes campaign for independence seems becalmed. Despite a week of Nationalist assertion on Post Office nationalisation and pensions there is no discernible lift in support. People now know the SNP will say absolutely anything to further independence. A school ballot in Aberdeenshire of young people who will be eligible to vote next September was a humiliating defeat for the SNP, and Alex Salmond in particular. But nothing should be taken for granted.
That is why the mood music from Labour this week has been worrying. The Scottish Leader’s address to the faithful looked forward to next year’s Labour conference and a triumphant rejection of nationalism. At an islands conference in Kirkwall last weekend, Ian Davidson MP, the Labour chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, said it was all over. He cited polls, bookies and the young people of Aberdeen in support of his contention that separation would be rejected.
But it is not that easy. The one element that may give the Nationalists hope is complacency from the Better Together campaign. Alistair Darling has been commendably forthright on this. “Nothing is over until it is over” is his clarion call, and he is right. But his party gives every impression of having already declared the result. The UK polls on party strength should surely be reason not to be complacent, as should the 2011 Scottish general election result. As should any objective assessment of the run-in to the 1997 Labour landslide. Then, with polls showing a massivelead over a discredited Tory government, Labour left nothing to chance.
So Labour need to get their act together on the referendum. There needs to be a consistent message. Best of both worlds is good. People do want a stronger Parliament in Edinburgh with more powers, but within the UK. But no vote can be taken for granted. That is the road to separation.
• Tavish Scott is Scottish Liberal Democrats MSP for the Shetland Islands