Just Iain Gray’s luck. He makes his best conference speech since becoming leader, and is upstaged by a ginger rodent. Harriet Harman’s extraordinary attack on the Liberal Democrat finance minister, Danny Alexander, as a redheaded rat inevitably stole the headlines at the Scottish Labour Conference in Oban. There was no way that the Iain Gray was going to be able to top that. But he did at least try.
Look, the Scottish Labour leader is never going win any prizes for public speaking - Gray by name, grey by nature. But this was a solid speech which went some way towards filling the aching void that is Labour policy in Scotland. A National Care Service, single police force, fewer health boards. No, it’s not going to set the heather on fire in the marginals, but it will light a bonfire under Scotland’s complacent local bureaucracies that have grown fat during the devolution years. But does he realise what he is taking on? A legion of Labour worthies, sitting in smart offices across Scotland, will be losing their jobs if Gray is serious about his streamlining the state. The polis will be after him too.
Gray’s attempt to start a negative bidding war with Alex Salmond, by saying he would take a 5% pay cut if he was elected First Minister, could be counterproductive, however. It rather invites people to ask whether the Labour leader really is worth £134,000 - five times the average wage. Outside Labour circles, where he is genuinely respected, Iain Gray is almost completely obscure and this speech won’t change that. He leads the most anonymous Labour front bench in living memory. Ask yourself: just who is the finance spokesperson, education, health? Ten years ago, when Donald Dewar was leader, you had Wendy Alexander, Susan Deacon, Malcolm Chisholm, Jack McConnell – people who were recognisable, wave makers.
Now, Labour insiders say they aren't worried about this. In fact, there is a virtue in anonymity, which is that people don't blame you for things. Voters are turned off by Salmond's bumptiousness, and arrogance, especially women voters. All Iain has to do is keep a low profile, avoid making mistakes and Labour will cruise back into power in May 2011 thanks to the ConDem coalition's cuts , Salmond's broken promises and the eternal swing of the political pendulum. Well, it's a strategy that's worked pretty well so far.
But when it comes to election time, I think Labour will have to do a bit more than just being there. Public recognition can be as important as policy. The SNP front bench has Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Mike Russell, Kenny MacAskill and of course Alex Salmond. Like them or loathe them, they are national figures. In the polling booths, who would you want fighting Scotland's corner?
But credit where it is due: this weekend, Gray and the new leader, Ed Miliband, have gone some way towards raising Labour’s game in Scotland. At least they’re not just banging on about how wee Scotland could never survive on her own .
However, there aren't a lot of votes in increasing council tax, cutting the NHS, restoring prescription charges or reintroducing university tuition fees ( or something similar) . And these are the policies that the SNP will hang around Gray’s neck. Putting a 2% cap in any increase in council tax just draws attention to the policy. Whatever happened to Labour's promise to make the council tax fairer by extending the tax bands to take account of the rise in house prices?
Apprenticeships, yes, everyone wants those. But the pay freeze in the public sector is not going to win many votes and takes the heat of John Swinney who will have to do the same. The seven pound minimum wage for council workers is humane, but one wonders if this really is the right moment to introduce it. Many low paid workers outside the public sector may feel excluded. Labour must avoid the charge that it is just the party of public sector workers.
Ending ring fencing of the NHS may have made sense from a public spending point of view, but it is bad politics, surely, when opposing the ConDem cuts, to be talking about cutting the one area the Tories are avoiding. Labour's general approach to the cuts is to deny that they'll ever happen - except, strangely, in the National Health Services. Maybe, Gray will come up with something better before May, but time is running short. Yes , Iain Grey is the favourite to win – but I still don't find a lot of people actually putting their money on it. The ginger rodent is 100/1 bar.