The best thing for Jack McConnell right now would be a Conservative revival in Scotland. That’s the message of the English local elections. The voters are in an ugly mood and want to give Labour a kicking for a whole range of Westminster misdemeanours. But the maths look particularly bad for Scottish Labour because of the failure of the David Cameron effect north of the border.
In England, the onward march of the Liberal Democrats has been halted by the new improved Tory party. It left the new Liberal leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, struggling to explain why his party failed to win many seats when Labour was in such disarray.
In Scotland, by contrast, the Conservative vote collapsed in the Moray and Dunfermline by elections, and seems to be going equally to the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. They are now breathing heavily down the back of Jack McConnell’s neck. The Scottish Labour Party’s own internal polls, revealed in the Times last week, suggest that McConnell could lose twelve Holyrood seats next May. That means Labour is firmly in the danger zone and risks losing office to a Nat/Lib/Green popular front.
At times like these, when the voters have lost confidence in and respect for an administration, they look to kick the most obvious target. In London in was the Brents and Lambeths. And the next backside to present itself will be Jack McConnell’s in exactly twelve months’ time.
London Labour has been deeply hurt by the loss of some of its showcase local councils, like Camden, Ealing. Hammersmith and Fulham. How dare the voters kick us when we are up, they say? Don’t they realise that these are some of the best performing local authorities in England? Perhaps, but politics isn’t fair.
So, how does Jack McConnell avoid being swept away with the tide of resentment that is flowing so rapidly against Tony Blair’s regime in Westminster? Well, Labour ministers can be forgiven for saying: what haven’t they done? If they’re going to be turfed out now, when the Scottish Executive is performing better than at any time since 1999, there really is no justice. At least, that’s how they see it.
Certainly, the Executive and McConnell are getting a better press than at any time I can remember. This may partly be down to changes in the structure and ownership of the Scottish media which has drained some of the poison out of its coverage of Scottish politics. But it is also because the Executive has - in a very real sense - managed to get its act together.
There hasn’t been a scandal of any significance in the Scottish Parliament for a whole eighteen months - if you exclude the Tory leader David McLetchie’s taxi chits - since McConnell’s holiday chez Kirsty Wark’s, which wasn’t a scandal at all. McConnell’s challenge to MSPs who might be using their living allowance to speculate on Edinburgh property is a sign of his new confidence. Labour is losing its desperate fear of the press that so marked the early years and gave McConnell a reputation as a shallow populist only interested in appeasing the media.
McConnell has been standing up for himself and Scotland over prisoner release, and he even faced down Gordon Brown when the Chancellor tried to bounce him into ruling out congestion charging on the Forth Road Bridge. The smoking ban was a considerable achievement; the moves to improve nutritional standards in schools has also won widespread praise, and even attracted representatives of the French education ministry to Scotland to see how it is done. The NHS is improving, population decline has been halted, for now, and Scottish economic growth has improved.
So, the FM has cause to feel aggrieved that he’s not getting obvious political benefit from all this. But there’s no point in moaning about the electoral weather - you just have to deal with it. So,again, what can he do? Well, Gordon Brown’s verdict on Friday morning is instructive. He said that Labour had to seek “renewal”; had to show that it was capable of addressing the pressing issues of today, not the issues of a decade ago. This is what McConnell must now do in Holyrood.
Ten years ago, devolution was all about keeping the nationalists out of power. That has, in a sense, already been achieved, in that the SNP is no longer a separatist party in the traditional sense (though it remains a potent electoral threat). Nor is there any doubt about the permanence of devolution. There is no indication that the Scottish voters want the Scotland Act revoked. Rather, they want a more effective Scottish democracy than what has been on offer for the last seven years.
Somehow, Labour must come to terms with this new phase, “devolution 2.0”, and develop policies accordingly. At a presentational level, McConnell has tried to do this by branding himself as more distinctively Scottish, through the global Scot initiative and the campaign for the 2014 Commonwealth Game. But he has to do more than wrap himself in the Saltire. McConnell needs address the deficiencies in the Scottish democracy, the sections of the Scotland Act which were designed as a unionist fail-safe against nationalism. The Scottish Parliament must find its own revenue base and be seen to raise more of the money it spends.
This is hardly revolutionary. The leader of the conservative CDU in Lower Saxony, David McAllister, was in the Scottish Parliament last week explaining the various taxes raised by the regional laender government in Germany, including a proportion of income tax and VAT. Lower Saxony also has a beer tax, which might make sense in Scotland, where damage from alcohol remains one of our most serious health problems.
The Scottish parliament also needs to wrest control of policies like energy policy, immigration and broadcasting from Westminster. In each of these areas, Scotland faces a very different set of issues. We need policies which promote renewable energy and easier immigration, rather than nuclear power and border controls. BBC Scotland risks being lost in the new British Broadband Corporation being fashioned by the DG Mark Thompson.
There is no reverse gear - devolution can only go forward. And if it doesn’t? The figures conform what this column has been arguing for some time: that the logic of coalitions is that, sooner or later, they have to change. Labour has no divine right to rule in Scotland and, even if it remains the largest party next May, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Greens have every justification in trying to lock them out. Time is short. And McConnell can’t expect the flat-lining Conservatives to ride to his rescue.