IN POLITICS, as in most things, I prize clarity over certainty.
Instinctively, I recoil from dogmatists. Someone who harbours no doubts is not to be trusted.
Give me a politician who’ll admit that she doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, that she’s not right about everything as a matter of course, and I’m far more likely to listen.
But that politician will soon lose me if she can’t communicate clearly. Ideas can be complex things and (please tell me I’m not alone in this) I require them to be explained in the simplest possible terms.
A politician who dresses her ideas up in baroque language, in verbal fripperies, is no use to anyone.
Those sitting inside what we’re obliged to call “the political bubble” seem to find it all too easy to forget that not everyone is as obsessed with the minutiae of politics as they are. Ungrateful voters will often indulge other interests and just get on with their lives rather than focus on the latest twist or turn of the political narrative.
For this reason, among others, it is essential that politicians keep things clear and direct.
Having been elected the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party last week, Kezia Dugdale began putting together her shadow cabinet. There were not, unsurprisingly, many new faces. There is a dearth of talent in Labour’s Holyrood ranks. Dugdale had to make do with what she had.
Two of the most capable Labour MSPs – Jenny Marra and Iain Gray – were kept in the previous posts at, respectively, health and education.
But – and here’s where Dugdale might want to think about that clarity thing – their jobs had been rebranded.
Marra is no longer shadow cabinet secretary for health; now the Dundonian is shadow cabinet secretary for equality. And, where once he was shadow education secretary, Gray is shadow secretary for opportunity.
Equality and opportunity: such lovely things. Who wouldn’t be in favour of them? Only a rotter, that’s who.
But even though equality and opportunity are definitely to be desired, Dugdale was wrong to rebrand her shadow team as she has.
The last three or more years in Scottish politics have been dominated by the matter of the constitution. Whether Scotland should or should not become independent gets in the way of all else.
No subject may be debated unless it is viewed through the constitutional prism. Thus, we hear arguments from the SNP that flaws in the NHS or failing results in schools could be addressed were the Union to end, even when the fact is that the Scottish Government could be doing so much more, right now, under the current constitutional settlement.
No party has been more vocal in its frustration over this state of affairs than Labour. According to Labour, the SNP has neglected schools and hospitals in favour of pursuing its constitutional obsession.
There is some merit to this line of attack: it is undoubtedly true that the SNP has placed the independence argument at the top of its agenda. Necessarily, this means other issues – issues which voters understandably believe important – have not received the attention they might.
Labour (and, to be fair, Tory and Lib Dem) MSPs complain that what matters to the majority of Scots is not the break-up of the United Kingdom but the state of our public services. Privately, a number mutter that they don’t get a fair wind from the media on these subjects; the SNP, they allege, dictates the agenda.
If Labour wants to focus on schools and the NHS then fair play to them. These things do matter. Our schools are under-performing, with literacy and numeracy rates falling to troubling levels, while in the health service, waiting time targets – enshrined, pointlessly, in law – are missed as a matter of course. If the SNP has weak spots, then they are education and health.
They’re only words, of course. But equality and opportunity don’t clearly describe the issues that Labour should be focusing on. The party should have a shadow education secretary and a shadow health secretary and they should damned well have those titles.
I’m told that behind Dugdale’s rebranding of these two key briefs lies the desire to reassert Labour’s values. Well, that’s all very lovely, I’m sure, but it seems like an indulgence to me.
Dugdale has a long road ahead if she is to get her party back in any kind of shape. Victory in next year’s Holyrood elections would represent a miracle.
But, though the journey will be arduous and she might never reach her destination, the Scottish Labour leader must keep her focus on what matters to voters.
Rarely, while queuing for my chunky Kit-Kat of a morning, do I hear others speak about their concerns over opportunity or equality. People, I would venture, are far more likely to talk about the state of our schools and our hospitals.
There is, I should add, some disquiet in Labour ranks about this rebranding exercise. One veteran Labour figure told me he’d taken to calling Dugdale’s team SCOAN – the Shadow Cabinet Of All the Nouns -–while another muttered darkly that this was “right-on student union bollocks”.
Dugdale is a bright and engaging politician who, even her opponents in the SNP concede, gave a good account of herself while deputy leader of Scottish Labour. She showed herself to be tough and quick-witted during First Minister’s Question Time, and comes across as the likeable woman she is during TV interviews.
But what she has to prove now that she is leader is that she truly gets what’s important to voters. If we do not believe that she does then she will just be another failed leader.
The Scottish cabinet currently boasts a fairly ropey health secretary in the shape of Shona Robison and an especially unimpressive education secretary in Angela Constance.
Dugdale should have stuck to having shadows for those two key briefs. Instead, she’s created nebulous job titles that, I’m afraid, suggest she needs to sharpen up her focus on the challenges that she and her party face. «