It took me until the end of Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister to realise this, but Labour really has only 2 core messages it uses at a UK General Election. Never mind any high-minded social democratic impulses about fairness, equality or improvement - in opposition the message is to say 'vote Labour and get the Tories out', while in Government it becomes 'vote Labour and keep the Tories out'.
Subtle or sophisticated it ain't. Nevertheless, when taken up with gusto by the Daily Record and played alongside the usual Yookay meeja obsession about who'll be occupying 10 Downing Street, it's always had the desired effect, at least in Scotland. For a combination of reasons, however, that might just be about to change.
We've seen Labour appear to defy electoral gravity for so long in Scotland that it's hard to believe that anything might dislodge them from their perch in many Westminster constituencies. Yet equally, we've all seen the post-indyref rise of SNP voting intentions for Westminster at the expense of Labour and importantly, seen the polls stay there long enough to get the feeling that something big could be happening this time round.
For all the wild talk of how many seats the SNP could potentially win, the idea has now got ‘out there’ that the SNP could be about to replace Labour as the dominant Scottish party at Westminster, possibly even holding the balance of power. Crucially, the voters - at least Scottish voters anyway - seem quite comfortable with the idea.
A new politics of engaged disillusionment is clashing head on with politics as ‘business as usual’ on both sides of the border. Leaving the national question aside, much of it has to do with the way that Labour and the Tories continue to pursue the sort of Midland and South-East swing voters who have always won elections for them in the past. It’s a strategy which relies on your 'core' vote staying loyal because its got no-one else worth voting for.
Except this is now shaping up nicely as the election where these voters actually do go somewhere else. Right now, Labour and the Tories are mired in the low to mid thirties of the UK opinion polls while UKIP and the Greens are capturing the disillusioned in sufficient numbers to outpoll the Lib Dems. Factor in the rise of the SNP and you have a perfect storm, where no-one gets a majority and all sorts of deals become possible, subject to the numbers on the floor of the house.
This time, the SNP has come up with a credible counter to the ‘keep the Tories out’ line. If you send an SNP MP to Westminster instead of a Labour MP, not only will we get more powers for Scotland, we’ll also help keep the Tories out of power. Since the Tories have no chance of winning in most of Scotland, a vote for the SNP is also a vote to keep the Tories out and to make sure Scotland gets a better deal than Labour will ever deliver alone.
What’s really set the cat amongst the pigeons however is Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion that the SNP would end its self-denying ordinance by voting on ‘English’ matters in the House of Commons. Predictably the Tories are apoplectic and once more muttering darkly about the West Lothian Question and a strange creature calling itself ‘English Votes for English Laws’.
Except it’s near impossible as things stand to have any such thing as an ‘English only’ matter. The Scottish block grant is calculated as a percentage of the public spending which takes place in England. Make a decision which cuts spending in England and whether we like it or not, that cut will feed through to Scotland’s budget as well.
Overnight, by making it clear that its MPs are prepared to vote on more than just reserved matters, the SNP has put itself into contention as a serious governing partner of whatever kind at Westminster. By doing so, it should be able - if the numbers are right - to extract some significant concessions for Scotland over the course of the next parliament.
The dilemma for Labour is obvious. However, the strategy is not without its own pitfalls from an SNP perspective either. For if a UK Government depends on SNP members for its survival, where’s the incentive to offer Scotland the sort of financial autonomy which would decouple Scottish spending from English policy decisions, if by granting those powers it removes the main incentive for the SNP having agreed to support that government in the first place?
There’s ways around that one, but it’s going to force Labour to confront the question of how much they want to regain power at Westminster and how much autonomy they are willing to see Scotland assume. It’s possible to see the outlines of deals which might be done, but much depends on who gets to negotiate for Labour and how much authority they will have within their party to do so.
When it comes to seeing the bigger picture and finding some common ground with the SNP even when its in their interests to do so, Labour’s leaders seldom seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Some in Labour, no doubt, would under those circumstances prefer to do their ‘patriotic’ duty as they saw it and form instead a ‘National’ government along with the Conservatives. I wonder if they’ll rule that out before May?