It was a bad day for monkeys. It has long been said that, in large parts of Scotland, you if you put a red rosette on a monkey it would still win in most Labour constituencies, especially when there is a Conservative government in Westminster. The old rule certainly appeared to be holding following the general election in May when Labour stacked up over a million votes in Scotland and knocked the stuffing out of Alex Salmond. But the day of the primate may be over.
If the latest opinion poll from Ipsos Mori is right, and the SNP has clawed back the 10 point lead Labour had over them as recently as November, Labour may have to start looking for a better species of candidate.
Now, obviously this is only one opinion poll – it's hard to make sense of Scottish politics nowadays since no one seems to do them here any more. However, it is a credible poll of 1,000 voters and comes at a key moment in the political cycle, as the Nationalists gear up for the Scottish parliament elections in May. For the last year we've all been working on the assumption that, as Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University.put it last summer, Labour has established a 'settled' lead over the SNP of around ten points. Anecdotally, it didn't seem that way, since there seemed remarkably little enthusiasm for or even knowledge of Labour's Scottish leader, Iain Gray among adult Scots. But you couldn't argue with the numbers, and Labour seemed to be coasting to victory. Not any more.
If this latest poll is not a rogue, it helps answer one of the puzzles of recent Scottish politics, which is why the SNP has been so much less popular than its leader. Alex Salmond remains by far the most popular party leader in Scotland with an approval rating that is greater than all the other main party leaders combined. Ipsos Mori put Salmond's approval rating at plus 51% against Labour's Iain Gray at 33% with almost as many apparently unsure who he is. Salmond's popularity has hardly changed in four years, which is extremely unusual for a political leader in office. Given Labour's apparent recent polling lead, you would expect the position to be reversed on the eve of an election. So, it might be that we have a Westminster effect here that it beginning to wear off. Now that Scottish voters are starting to think Holyrood, instead of the Tories in Westminster, knee-jerk support for Labour may be fading.
Timing is everything in politics and this poll comes at the end of a spell in which the SNP have been making the political weather again in a way that had seemed to have eluded them in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. John Swinney managed to bring his fourth and final budget safely into land, thanks to some highly effective,if financially inconsequential, concessions to the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Labour voted against the budget on the usual sectarian lines, even though they were offered significant concessions on modern apprenticeships and training. It means that when Labour insist that they, and only they, make jobs and training the number one priority, the SNP can say that when Labour had the opportunity to do precisely this, they voted against it.
Then there's Megrahi. The revelation that Labour in Westminster were actively seeking the return of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya, even as Labour in Holyrood were condemning the SNP for allowing his release on compassionate grounds, has been a significant moral blow to Labour's standing in Scotland. Party politics aside, this was a disreputable exercise in political cynicism that leaves a particularly bad taste in Scotland.
Mind you, so do political donations. Brian Souter has offered to give up to £500,000 to the SNP for fighting the election – but only if they can match his cash through their own fund-raising efforts. No one is more critical of businessmen buying politics than I am, but I have to say this is at least an attempt to make it more acceptable. The hard reality is that parties need cash to fight election. The Nationalists had very little to spend in the May election and it showed; they will be much better off in May.
So, what should Labour do to counter this apparent nationalist advance? Well, doing something would be a start. The Labour strategy appears to have been to keep their heads down, say nothing and hope that the voters install Iain Gray in Bute House on the monkey principle that if Tories are in power in London, Labour must be in power in Scotland. This was always a risky approach for a party with a weak leadership and a confused programme up against a politician of the stature of Alex Salmond. He isn't Scotland's favourite politician for nothing. To take on such a commanding political personality you have to have either strength in depth as a party, or you have to have a highly attractive agenda of policies. Labour has neither.
John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon, Kenny MacAskill, Mike Russell are heavyweight politicians with a strong recognition factor. Labour has a largely anonymous front bench, apart from Andy Kerr and Wendy Alexander. As far as policy is concerned, I am mystified as to what Labour's programme actually is. The party has been so desperate to avoid any mistakes, such as the council tax imbroglio that upset Jack McConnell's campaign in 2007, that they've tried to say as little as possible. They are for jobs and, well, jobs, and shorter cancer waiting times – though Labour's performance in office in reducing cancer waiting was unimpressive. A national care commission and merged police forces are bureaucratic issues that have little resonance. Their determination to remove knife criminals is a populist policy, but not an election winner .
The SNP will go into the election having abolished prescription charges entirely (by April) promising to continue a council tax freeze that has lasted now for four years. They will promise also to increase health spending in real terms for the next parliament, introduce 25,000 apprenticeships next year, and keep higher education tuition free for Scottish school leavers. Yes, they have broken promises on student debt and class sizes. But they have a pretty impressive record – and if Labour want to earn their victory in May, they need to stop monkeying around and come up with a proper response.