Remember when Clinton’s ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ slogan seemed to tick a lot of boxes when it came to planning successful election strategy over here? Now that in Scotland the word “economy” in that sentence could be interchangeable with “constitution” or even “trust”, things have become a little less certain. The consequences of that shift were ever more apparent this week.
Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown sought to grasp the initiative on Monday, announcing a fresh raft of devolution commitments to allow the Scottish Parliament to top up welfare, control housing benefit and give councils levers from the Work Programme (dubbed ‘Vow Plus’ to us let know they’re serious this time?). Yet before he knew it Brown was back at Westminster decrying an alternative vision for devolved responsibility – William Hague’s plans to hand a veto to English MPs on English Laws – as “the fuse which ultimately blows the Union apart”.
A core problem for Murphy and Brown is that not enough voters are listening and the evidence suggests that those who do are becoming less and less inclined to trust the Labour case. Certainly that has been the message from newspaper polls in recent times, apparently confirmed by Lord Ashcroft’s comprehensive survey of 1,000 voters in each of 16 SNP target seats, primarily situated in traditional Glasgow Labour – as well as Lib Dem – heartlands.
Ashcroft’s analysis saw the SNP ahead in fifteen of the sixteen seats, with big-hitters like Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran, Anas Sarwar and Danny Alexander collectively prompted to watch stellar political lives flash before their eyes. In the Labour-held constituencies the overall swing to the SNP was a whopping 25.4 per cent, while Ashcroft predicts that across Scotland on 7 May, Labour would lose 35 of its 41 seats.
The thing is, while Labour’s promises on the constitution will never be enough in many constituencies that leant toward full independence last September, their UK-wide general election messages just aren’t doing them enough favours in Scotland. As a case in point, while Ed Miliband sees traction in “weaponising” the NHS, he does so in the wake of the SNP’s own success in mastering the same tactics ahead of the referendum last year.
So while Kezia Dugdale was able to deliver yet another assured performance on the Scottish Government’s handling of the NHS duringFirst Minister’s Questions on Thursday, she was battling against two countervailing factors. Not only has further Ashcroft polling shown that voters, on balance, remain prepared to trust the SNP on healthcare in spite of its setbacks; John Swinney had also just pledged an additional £127m for frontline NHS services to tackle many of its problems during the previous day’s stage 3 passage of the Budget Bill.
Jim Murphy has insisted that there is yet time to stop the slide and hold Labour’s seats. He may be right. After all, every ballot in Scotland these days carries the sense that past form matters not a jot and that predictive polls are there to be defied once the voting begins. That said, as this week showed, he has a lot to do in a very short time to reverse the slide.