Scottish Labour conference: Superheroes and villains

Batman and Superman Image copyright Reuters

So what's on then? A DC double bill? Man of Steel? And Batman v Superman? Well, just lead me to it! What's that? The cinema's closed? For the Labour conference?

The cinematographic atmosphere seemed to infest the event itself. Indeed, one over enthusiastic chap stripped off his shirt to perform a parody of Superman. Perhaps he couldn't find a phone box. Delegates studied their nails or their feet, according to taste.

Plus, throughout the day, the audience were treated to umpteen Manichean movies, extolling the virtues of Labour and the intrinsic villainy of their rivals.

It was like watching a series of shorts, featuring Randolph Scott and a whole bunch of baddies.

But which baddies? The conference speakers couldn't quite seem to make up their minds. Lex Luthor or the Penguin? The SNP or the Tories?

Much of the morning seemed to be taken up with castigating the Conservatives. I think there were three broad reasons for this.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The audience appeared to love Kezia Dugdale's speech

One, the remarkable resignation of IDS reminded Labour of their entrenched enemy. And the cause of his departure - make that the stated cause - was welfare, the founding distinction between Labour and the Tories.

It was no surprise in this atmosphere that so many delegates chose to target the Tories. But there are two other reasons.

Having a go at the Tories is familiar territory for Labour. It is a comfort blanket in a confusing political world where they are no longer dominant in Scotland, no longer the number one party. The venue - the Imax at the Glasgow Science Centre - sits on Clydeside, Red or differently hued.

Then another point. One journalistic colleague leaned over to me during these morning speeches and asked: "Why are they spending so much time attacking the Tories? The SNP are their main rivals in Scotland." Instantly we said together: "Or are they?" In cinematic style, this joint declaration was accompanied by an ironic, echoing laugh.

Alleged wickedness

Was there a sense that the party fears it might be overtaken by the Conservatives in the Holyrood elections? Certainly, that fear lurks in the background, like Peter Lorre in an early horror movie.

But there is a more subtle version. Labour want to stress the alleged wickedness of the Tories - only to position themselves as a more plausible way of countering UK Conservative policies, as a bastion - by contrast, they claim, with the SNP.

Which brought us to Kezia Dugdale's speech. It was delivered in a simplistic, straight-talking style which could either seem jejune or direct, naïve or empathetic.

Certainly, the audience loved it. They believe - they have to believe - that she has the potential to make progress for the party after so many false starts and retrenchments.

Image caption Super Labour Man - also known as Argyll and Bute candidate Mick Rice - was one of the early talking points of the conference

Perhaps it is her youth - as she noted, she can scarcely be castigate for that. Perhaps it is the proximity of the elections: 47 days leaves relatively little room for nuance. But she opted to speak without caveats.

Labour would ensure that everyone could see a GP within 48 hours. More ambitiously still, she promised that everyone waiting for assistance in hospital would get an assessment and a care package within a week. No ifs, no buts, as she said in another context.

Further, she focused upon education. The extra 1% on income tax across all bands would help rescue and restore Scotland's education system. No ifs, no…..we've done that one.

Further still, she called herself a Socialist. They loved that, perhaps some remembering the days when Tony Blair used to declare his support for social-ism. With a long pause at the hyphen.

But she sought to contrast her Socialism with Nationalism, offering what her SNP rivals would say is a caricature of their approach, suggesting that they only care about boundaries while Labour cares about people.

In response, Nationalists would say that they make choices within Scotland - as well as primarily choosing Scotland.

Bluntly and directly

And it should be noted that Ms Dugdale has emphasised that Labour must now put Scotland first in these Scottish elections, must stand up for Scotland. Which, in a way, is drawing boundaries.

Still, no matter. Ms Dugdale was setting out - plainly, bluntly and directly - the fundamental offer which will dominate these coming elections.

Labour, she said, would use tax powers to counter cuts. Labour would "use the real powers we have to deliver real change". By contrast, she accused the SNP of timidity.

We will learn Nicola Sturgeon's detailed thoughts on tax next week. But she will not sanction an increase in the standard rate of income tax, condemning that again today as "tax hikes on low-earning households." The SNP insist their package will involve the defence of vital services.

And there we have it. Other parties will play a very significant role. The Tories say Scotland should pay no more tax than elsewhere in the UK - and they offer to form a bulwark to that effect. The Lib Dems offer a penny for education. The Greens, UKIP, others will have their say.

But today Labour's Kezia Dugdale sought to set out a key dynamic in this election in direct contradistinction to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Indeed, she personalised the contest on occasion in her speech.

Perhaps they should make a Superhero movie. Maybe not, eh, maybe not.

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