Lesley Riddoch: Dull campaigning lacks any vision

Labour under Kezia Dugdale has backed more Early Years care and ended up in an argument over childcare. Picture: Jon Savage
Labour under Kezia Dugdale has backed more Early Years care and ended up in an argument over childcare. Picture: Jon Savage
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ASIDE from the SNP, Greens and Rise, the main parties all look pretty similar writes Lesley Riddoch

So it’s all over bar the voting and the lacklustre Holyrood 2016 election campaign is almost complete. The final TV leaders’ debate has taken place and all manifestos have been launched – even Labour’s.

There are few posters or billboard ads compared to the blizzard that accompanied the indyref and general election and no posters on lampposts – though that’s due to changed electoral law not apathy.

In truth though, this election has not been about high energy, political parties, policies or vision. It’s been a First Ministerial dressage event about styles of leadership, helped along by a broadcast media that prefers presidential-style debates to programmes that scrutinise individual issues or the quality of regional candidates. It didn’t used to be like this. As ex-Labour MP Anne McGuire commented on Radio Scotland this weekend, no poster ever said, “elect Tony Blair” even when he was Labour’s biggest electoral asset. It was the SNP that started the personality focus when “Alex Salmond for First Minister” was chosen as party name in 2011. When that worked, the die was cast. Now the SNP has cleverly conflated two contradictory themes to justify its emphasis on the personality of Nicola Sturgeon. On the one hand we are told she has yet to been explicitly chosen by the electorate as First Minister - on the other, we are being urged to re-elect the woman with the UK’s highest popularity ratings because of the good job she’s done over the past 18 months.

The SNP leader benefits from appearing both new and hugely experienced – a potent combination no rival can match. And it’s fair to say the First Minister’s comforting air of familiar novelty is not just a contrivance of the SNP. The press – ever keen on the “one singer-one song” approach – built Alex Salmond up to be the all-conquering wizard of the SNP during his years as leader, despite the fact Nicola along with her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell were serious powers behind the throne. Once Alex stood down it seemed Nicola appeared from nowhere – in fact she had been in ministerial office continuously since first entering Holyrood in 1999.

The Scottish Conservative leader has also opted for a personality-led campaign, culminating with “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition” on ballot papers this Thursday. The toxic Tory brand has been muted and the unpopular Westminster top team kept away. Still, it’s been hard for the capable Ms Davidson to do more than score occasional points about the SNP’s record. She cannot present a convincing long-term vision without touching on mantras oft-rejected by Scots voters about the need for more competition, market-domination, austerity and a smaller welfare state. Like Scottish Labour, the Scottish Tories opted not to create an organisationally separate party and so remain umbilically linked to a government that protects the rich, attacks the disabled and votes to leave 3,000 child refugees stranded in Europe. So Ms Davidson has kept her eyes on the prize – leading opposition to Nicola Sturgeon instead of advancing a competing vision of her own.

The personality cult comes less easily to Scottish Labour. For long enough the Labour Party relied on mandation, where conference delegates voted in accordance with local branch decisions, not their own. That didn’t stop powerful personality cults developing within Labour – but it was harder for Labour leaders to embrace them. So Kezia Dugdale, also uneasy with the tub-thumping legacy of Jim Murphy, has opted not to personalise her campaign and has stuck to policy. “Kids not cuts” is Scottish Labour’s slogan and that might have had resonance if there was a bold long-term policy vision on offer too. If there were words like socialism and redistribution. If Kezia had argued that income redistribution and a more equal society are the only proven guarantees of educational success – not special funds to lift up some members of the dispossessed. But there hasn’t been any of that. The proposed income tax rise was a small step in the right direction but needed to be much bolder to erase voter mistrust. Instead – like the Tories – Kezia Dugdale has been left arguing over small policy details, instead of marking out new territory of her own.

Indeed, none of the major parties has offered voters a long-term vision of how it plans to reshape Scotland except the SNP with its goal of independence and its trademark policies of scrapping Trident and raising the cost of alcohol. Beyond that though the SNP’s domestic policy goals are all too often whatever seems popular with the public. Few except the Greens and Rise can tackle this weak spot, because most of the other main parties are pretty much the same.

Scottish Labour’s greatest weakness has been the failure to either embrace independence or develop a long-term vision that can compete with that goal. The party has backed an expansion of Early Years care, for example, but stopped short of proposing a universal kindergarten stage. Instead Labour is locked into a fairly dull and uninspiring argument about slight increments in the number of hours available to specific parents and groups of children. Meanwhile Scotland’s childcare system continues to be light years behind every continental neighbour. Of course even though every leading politician agrees on the desirability of a nationwide childcare stage, they baulk at the cost which would have to come from existing budgets. To govern is to choose. But it’s far easier not to.

I appreciate the Scottish Government doesn’t have all the levers needed for ambitious, structural change. But it has enough to make bold choices that will transform health and inequality problems. Instead party leaders and most media inquisitors are just footling about. And voters know it.

Perhaps that’s why turnout might be disappointing on Thursday. Perhaps that’s also why Gary Tank Commander’s party leader interviews have become the TV highlight of the election campaign.

And perhaps that’s why some jaded voters like me will give the Greens their second votes – to encourage the development of more heartfelt vision in Holyrood.