IN an election rendered leaden by predictable themes and pulled punches the Bernard Ponsonby sessions have been a jaggy delight. STV’s formidable political editor has established himself as the nation’s de facto opposition with a series of grimly compelling one-to-one television interviews with our main party political leaders. These could not have caused each of them any less discomfort than if they had been clasped in irons and made to dook for chips. He was gentlest, of course, on Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie; not because the big man himself once stood for that party but because, well… what would have been the point? Ruth Davidson and Patrick Harvie were each gruffly acquainted with political reality while David Coburn seemed, perversely, to revel in the role of pantomime clown.
Appropriately, the last two interviews were reserved for Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon, the leaders of the two biggest parties in the last parliamentary session. At several points STV’s grand inquisitor had them squirming as they tried to recall numbers and policy statements matching those that Ponsonby wielded gleefully in his fist as though he were a Texan hanging judge. Dugdale had difficulty with the numbers of jobs at risk from her stated aim of scrapping Trident while Sturgeon was floundering on GP training and her party’s failure to abolish the Council Tax.
In observing though, how each coped with their nightmare moments when the numbers swam before their eyes and eluded all desperate attempts to bring them to heel, we could see a little of why the SNP seem impervious to adversity and why Scottish Labour seem married to it. The First Minister simply told her startled inquisitor he was talking nonsense at one point, bringing to the rebuke the full authority of her office and at another point reduced Ponsonby to giggles over the silver pigmentation of his hair. In the corners of Dugdale’s eyes at these moments, there was a batsqueak of desperation and panic.
This is not to judge the Labour leader harshly; most of the time she was calm and confident and has visibly grown into this most wretched of political jobs. I’m not sure that she would have coped as well under such intense examination a year or so ago. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon’s delivery and performance in these scenarios has been tested in two cabinet posts and the deputy leadership of her party. Immediately prior to becoming First Minister she ran the Yes campaign for Scottish independence. Since entering Holyrood in 1999 she has never spent a day on the SNP’s backbenches. There are none more schooled in the cut and thrust of Holyrood debate. She has had a gilded political career and one that has not yet encountered a sustained period of adversity. Kezia Dugdale’s political career was born in adversity and turmoil and there was little or nothing in her experience before succeeding Jim Murphy that could have prepared her for the challenges of her first 12 months as leader. In this period she has had to learn what Ms Sturgeon, 10 years her senior, has taken nine years to amass.
The real test of Ms Dugdale’s leadership starts next Friday, the day after the Holyrood election. Obviously, it would be better for Scottish Labour if she embarks on this task still as leader of the opposition but, in the long term, it ought not to matter a great deal if her party finishes third. If the Tories are returned as the official opposition at Holyrood they will subsequently have nowhere else to go but down. Over the next four years Sottish Labour will have tens of thousands of the SNP’s newly-acquired battalions to aim for and a fair chunk of the Greens.
Ms Dugdale also needs a senior party advisor whom she can trust and whom she can turn to 24 hours of every day. One former advisor told me this week that there was no-one in her party the Scottish Labour leader could phone at two o’ clock in the morning with a problem, confident in the knowledge it would be dealt with by the time she awoke. A good start would be to purge the party in Scotland north of the Border of all those advisors and strategists who thought it was a good idea to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories during the referendum campaign.
It has taken far too long for Labour in Scotland to understand why it has fallen so spectacularly and so quickly. When everyone else could see the water around them bubble and boil too many of the party’s leadership thought that it was just getting a bit warm. Well, they ken noo. Labour’s campaign for Holyrood 2016 has seen a much-needed return to basics. Their proposed 1p on income tax is exactly what a proper, Socialist party ought to be doing, as are their plans to reduce educational inequality in Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Labour’s two main problems though, are currently outwith their control. The legions of their former supporters who have been annexed by the SNP are in no mood to forgive them their decades of hubris, entitlement and gross misjudgement any time soon. And, in Nicola Sturgeon, they must also deal with one of the most skilful politicians that Scotland has ever produced. Many Scots, especially women, who may not be well-disposed to the SNP or the idea of Scottish independence, are nonetheless proud that the country is being represented by a woman like this. She commands a degree of affection and admiration across political and cultural divides beyond anything that Alex Salmond was ever able to muster. So Labour must wait and, in the meantime, establish a clutch of imaginative policies on health, education, justice and land reform.
You can pledge as much money as you like; you can embark on as many smart wee initiatives and impose targets to address health and educational inequality in Scotland. But until you begin properly to unstitch the patterns of privilege and unearned wealth and influence that still reign in this country none of these will work. After 17 years of unbroken left-wing devolved government Scotland remains a country of extremes, whether it be land ownership and foodbanks or the 20-year gap in life expectancy that exists between our cities’ richest and poorest citizens.
Establishing an authentic and radical plan of reform to succeed in such an undertaking requires a degree of diligence, imagination and intellectual rigour that has proved to be well beyond Scottish Labour’s capabilities thus far. The SNP’s rhetoric and honeyed phrases on delivering long-term improvement in the lives of our poorest neighbours far outstrips anything they have thus far achieved in government. It will be on this battleground that Labour’s fight to regain its lost legions will be won and lost.