George Galloway for the Scottish Parliament? Bring it on. At least he’d liven things up a bit - and no catty remarks at the back, please. Nor should "Georgeous George", who announced his candidature this week, be underestimated. He was the youngest ever chair of the Scottish Labour Party and one of the most vibrant Labour politicians of his generation in Westminster, before he went off to the wilder shores of minority politics.
If Galloway is elected on the Glasgow list - and he only needs around 11,000 votes - he’s made clear he will be supporting the Labour leader Iain Gray on the big issues of the day - on public spending cuts and the constitution. And truth be told, Labour needs someone with a bit of charisma even though, as a Respect candidate, Galloway won’t be sitting on the Labour benches or taking the party whip. There is an air of complacency, of entitlement, about the Scottish Labour Party right now which isn't justified. Iain Gray is supremely confident of coasting to Bute House on the wave of opposition to the Tory-led coalition in Westminster. Ed Miliband has pencilled in victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections in May as the next milestone on his road back to power. It's all too easy.
Yes, the polls may be going their way, but Labour have yet to earn their return to government, and a surprising number of Labour supporters, and not a few politicians, will privately admit this. Where is the vision? Iain Gray has confined himself to safety-first policies like a National Care Service, merger of police forces and more apprenticeships. Plans to radically reform council tax have been dumped. Labour is still committed to implementing the Calman tax reforms enshrined in the Scotland Bill, though it’s hard to tell. Nothing Iain Gray has said in the past year that has added significantly to the debate about how the new tax powers should be adapted to meet economic reality. Or even whether Labour intends to use them. Labour MSPs have confined themselves to tweaking the noses of economists, like Professors Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott, for giving intellectual comfort to the hated Nats.
Where do Labour stand on the central question of whether or not the Calman reforms would be deflationary and or leave Scotland worse off than under the Barnett Formula? I don’t know. Would Iain Gray consider actually using the tax powers to reverse service cuts, or finance things like higher education? Pesumably not. It might be too much to expect Labour to go into the election promising to increase income tax, but they’re prepared to increase council tax to please their mates in local government. The Calman tax powers may not be implemented before 2015, but they will be the key constitutional issue before the next parliament. We need to know.
Labour were quick to attack the SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, for failing to keep his eye on the ball over the Tartan Tax. Before Christmas, Labour MSPs accused him of “abolishing” the Scottish parliament's tax-varying powers by not paying for the IT to be upgraded. It has since emerged, thanks to FOI documents, that Swinney couldn’t have implemented the tax even if he’d wanted to because the Revenue’s machinery simply wasn’t up to it. This contrived row typifies Labour’s essentially sectarian approach to politics. We saw this most egregiously with their blockng of the legislation on minimum pricing of alcohol. Labour railed about the iniquity of Nat plans to pinch the working man’s pint; about how the supermarkets would make a killing; and how anyway it ‘wouldnae work’. Well, we now learn that minimum pricing will be introduced south of the border because every known authority, from the police to the BMA, knows that it will.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you despair of politics. Tribalism defines Labour’s approach to every issue from the weather to business taxes. Iain Gray has leapt to protect the very supermarkets from the SNP’s levy on out of town superstores. The tribunes of the people have gone to the barricades to defend Tesco and Sainsbury’s against Swinney’s £30m “tax on success”, as if the mega-markets would even notice this insignificant dent in their vast profits. As with alcohol princing, this was just opposition for oppositon’s sake. As was the ludcrous row over the snow. Scotland became an international laughing stock as the first country to lose a transport minister because he got the weather forecast wrong.
Now, I’m not blaming Labour for opposing the government. If the circumstances were reversed, the SNP would be doing much the same. However, there has been a particularly mindless quality to Labour’s oppositionism that is deeply dispiriting. The SNP, remember, supported Labour’s smoking ban. It doesn’t do democracy any favours to seek to displace ministers over acts of God, or the inaction of the Inland Revenue.
What makes this particularly annoying is the knowledge that Labour and the SNP actually agree on most things: like the deficit reduction programme, comprehensive education, funding universities largely through taxation. The Tories have made zero progress in Scotland. There’s no demand here for free schools or GP commissioning or any of the measures that are dominating politics south of the Border. The Liberal Democrats have committed hara kiri in Scotland by supporting £9,000 fees. Scotland is and will remain dominated by two essentially social democratic parties who have been condemend by their histories to attack each other, even as they pursue identical policies.
It’s my impression from speaking to people in civic Scotland from both sides of the tribal divide over New Year that there is now a yearning for an end to brain-dead oppositionism, and for the parties to seek some form of co-operation - like in Wales, where Labour and Plaid Cymru are in coalition. There’s no natural law that says Labour and the SNP have to disagree on everything. As Scotland faces a very uncertain economic future, and as the cuts begin to bite, Scottish voters are going to look to some kind of collective response from Labour and the SNP.
Of course, it’s not going to happen before May. But the very emptiness of this forthcoming campaign, and the paucity of real vision, will generate, I believe, real anger among Scots. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians. Perhaps George Galloway might be the man to broker some rapprochement between the two tribes of Scotland. Then again, perhaps not.