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Labour trends

Brian Taylor | 12:36 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

This is getting to be a habit.

First, university funding; then council tax; now the future of A&E departments.

In each case, Labour has matched or copied a policy pledge advanced by the Scottish National Party.

Sundry wise quotations come to mind.

The first minister resorted to the Bible (Luke 15:7) to note that there was more joy in heaven over one repenting sinner than over 99 steadfastly righteous souls; the conclusion to the parable of the lost sheep.

Others might note that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

However, still others might look to John Maynard Keynes who said: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?"

With regard to that last one, what material facts have changed?

Beyond, presumably, an altered or enhanced perception within Labour as to which policies might do them good and which might affect them adversely.

To be fair, Labour never said explicitly or finally that it would rule out graduate contributions to university funding.

Party figures indicated they were wrestling with options in the light of the financial challenge - and that it might well be difficult to avoid a personal payment of some sort.

Tax freeze

Plus, in terms of strict timing, they got there first. But, in doing so, they were pre-empting the obvious and declared direction of travel plainly signalled by Education Secretary Michael Russell.

Then the council tax.

There were two aspects to Labour's policy announcement.

One, that they were offering to match the SNP and the Tories in promising a further two year freeze (thus obliging the LibDems to confirm that, while sceptical, they would not block such a move.)

The second element was to sing the final chorus, for now, on what has become a notably auld sang - the prospect of Labour reforming the system of local taxation.

If you will recall, such reform was signalled by Jack McConnell at the last Holyrood election - with the absence of any detail generally thought to be an electoral weakness.

Since then, Labour has been sporadically reviewing the council tax.

There was talk of new bands at the top and bottom, in order to spread the burden more evenly.

Policy focus

There was even talk of looking at the system in Northern Ireland - which they call "the rates". Remember them here?

But now reform is seemingly on hold. The policy focus is on the freeze.

The material change which Labour would cite is the impact of recession and the need to protect low-paid families.

The electoral motivation is that the SNP - which has implemented a freeze since winning power - had found a popular position.

Caution and apprehension, in short, is driving policy.

On the other side, one detects some emerging evidence of caution within the SNP over their avowed ambition of replacing council tax with local income tax.

I would not want to overstate that but, for now, their prime focus is also on the freeze.
Then comes today's announcement by Labour that they will "guarantee the future of the A&E departments at Monklands Hospital and Ayr Hospital".

Hospital closures

The SNP's overall record on health, they say, is "not good enough and Labour will do better."

In response, the SNP notes sardonically that these hospitals have "only ever been threatened with closure by Labour itself."

Their reprieve was an early act of the SNP in office.

All a source of innocent merriment to the wicked media.

We mustered in Bute House this morning to hear the first minister pronounce on labour trends, offering his view that next week's UK Budget must not destabilise efforts in Scotland to secure economic growth.

We duly asked several questions on that topic - before moving to another Labour trend.

Grinning as only he can, Alex Salmond advised his rivals to be careful lest their U-turns become boomerangs - as voters, he suggested, might tend to question Labour's credibility.

In response, Labour say that they are dealing with difficult economic circumstances as they find them in Scotland and seeking to provide a composite policy offer which helps those in the greatest difficulty.

Leadership character

Mr Salmond suggested that Labour appeared to be pursuing a strategy of Clintonian triangulation, seeking to gain from policies or positions more commonly associated with their rivals.

In which case, the FM suggested further, the election might hinge upon leadership character.

Who is the best leader, who leads the best team, not who has the best policy. (See my post on this blog on Saturday.)

Mr Salmond has repeatedly suggested in the past that he stands to gain in such a contest.

Labour, naturally, dissents.

The FM was also at his deft best in sidestepping a question from the esteemed Robbie Dinwoodie of The Herald.

The bold Robbie posited that this was the FM's last full media conference before the dissolution of Parliament.

Would he consequently care to comment one last time upon the electoral consequences of Megrahi?

Mr Salmond's reply was succinct. It wasn't his last media gig.

He's having another one on Friday.


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