Helen Liddell in the Press

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The phoney war is over


Labour's war against the SNP began in earnest this week. We know this because Helen Liddell said so. The phoney war is over, she announced on her return to Scotland with Tony Blair's orders to save the Union with England.

But after Monday's startling events Labour has demonstrated an impressive talent for choosing the wrong tactics. When it comes to strategy, it seems Labour just cannot get it right.

Labour's strategists will, naturally, blame the media but as Enoch Powell once remarked, a political leader blaming the media is like a ship's captain blaming the sea. There's more to it.

Two days ago Donald Dewar announced the appointment of Gus Macdonald as a potentially outstanding Scottish Office Minister for Business and Industry.

Evidently Mr Dewar expected plaudits and congratulations for an imaginative and sound appointment (which this is) but instead he had to duck under a fusillade accusations that he was abusing democracy and promoting cronyism.

Only a week after yet another comeback against the SNP marked by Blair's ministerial reshuffle, Labour is again foundering in a storm of its own creation. Even the Financial Times treated the story as an "outrage" as Mr Dewar's best-laid plans turned to fresh embarrassment.

This is a strange way to take on the SNP. In this crazy war the puny little rebel force of irregulars organised by Alex Salmond is having fun against the overwhelming firepower of Dewar's Unionists force. How can this be? Why has Labour in Scotland apparently lost touch with the people? Mr Dewar's jousting with Alex Salmond of the SNP should be almost pathetic to behold. A leader of 56 against a leader of six. Big Donald versus Wee Eck should be no contest. Meanwhile the SNP's lead in the popularity stakes appears to be increasing. Some explanation is required.

Monday's events were symptomatic of everything which has gone wrong for Labour in Scotland. The plot to appoint Macdonald was hatched in total secrecy - until the news was given in London by Downing Street just in time to take the surprise out of the new Minister's smiling entrance on the Scottish political scene.

Great care had been taken to make the presentation fault-free. Even the reaction had been orchestrated in advance by Labour. Pointing out the "warm" reception to an announcement as it is still being made, as Mr Dewar did in Glasgow, is a neat trick even by Labour Party spin-doctoring standards.

Quick telephone calls to the Scottish CBI and the STUC had elicited suitably glowing responses which allowed Mr Dewar to brief journalists on how well his latest initiative was going down in important places.

But as the media gathered to have Downing Street's announcement confirmed officially by the Scottish Office, there was already head-shaking and disbelief among correspondents that Mr Dewar was apparently unprepared for the full force of the inevitable flack. Mr Macdonald might indeed make a redoubtable Minister but the manner of his arrival was the stuff of yet more lurid headlines of the type Labour has suffered in the miserable year or so since Mr Dewar was walking on water as the most popular politician in Scottish history.

This amounted to more than just a political misjudgment. Either this was a wilful disregard for public and media reaction or it was a woeful example of a government hopelessly out of touch and unable to comprehend its vulnerability. It was exactly the type of presentational blunder which the full panoply of Labour's media-manipulation machine was supposed to avoid.

Consider: Labour in Scotland has seven Ministers, the largest team ever assembled in St Andrew's House, just when the lot will be gone within months as the Scottish Parliament takes over their responsibilities (although some will doubtless resurface in a Scottish Cabinet if Labour wins control in Holyrood).

These seven - including tough, streetwise politicians like Helen Liddell and Henry McLeish - are backed by a huge army of highly-paid experts and advisers not to mention the might of the British Government itself allied to generous party funding drawn from across the United Kingdom. Those in the front line include David Whitton, a former newspaper and television journalist, who is the Secretary of State's special adviser, and Roger Williams, who was recruited by the Scottish Office as head of its information service after the controversial and forced departure of its chief, Liz Drummond. Together, Whitton and Williams are like bodyguards for Mr Dewar, accompanying him on almost all of his duties, fielding inquiries, alert to potential media embarrassments.

Back in Scottish Labour HQ in Keir Hardie House there is a fresh and purely party political media team headed by Lorraine Davidson, formerly a television reporter, who like all Donald Dewar's other media advisers, is wise in the ways of curious correspondents. She is assisted by John McLaren, the party's new economics director who pops up at media briefings to reinforce Labour MPs' attacks on SNP spending policies. Also at Mr Dewar's disposal is his private office staff including Wendy Alexander and Murray Elder, close friends and salaried advisers.

As if all of that was not enough Mr Dewar could deploy reserves from the combined might of 55 parliamentary Labour colleagues of whom 40 are available for - some positively pining for - ministerial office. And for good measure, of course, he can command support from the Scottish trade unions, six of Scotland's eight Euro-MPs and the overwhelming backing of local government.

If ever a politician had a political base which should be unassailable it is Donald Dewar. And yet it seems he is in danger of losing Labour's grip on Scotland to the SNP in next May's Scottish General Election. His prospects might improve, of course, from unexpected developments - what Mr Dewar, when in Macmillan mode, likes to refer to as "events". Alex Salmond might yet be hit by a political bus, but miracles of that sort have a habit of not happening to those in office, only to those who would eject them.

Compare this with the SNP's ragbag army. Comparatively impoverished - it has no Bernie Ecclestone at its disposal - it is led by Alex Salmond in the style of a dedicated guerrilla leader inspired by shining idealism against seemingly impossible odds. He is a foe who is impossible to shake off or to argue with because he has no record of government to defend and, therefore, few weak points.

Around him he has gathered a clutch of trusties including Mike Russell, the cunning party chief executive, and a remarkably enthusiastic press officer in Kevin Pringle, plus a few bright young Turks who specialise in research and economics but enjoy no public profile. With some useful back-up from media-wise operators like rising MPs Roseanna Cunningham and John Swinney, Mr Salmond fights a deadly, sniping war of attrition. He just never goes away. With every successive Labour gaffe or embarrassment Mr Salmond notches up another little gain.

Where is this leading? All the opinion poll evidence - even ICM in the Scotsman is now belatedly catching up with System Three in The Herald - suggests an SNP lead in the race for Holyrood and all the constitutional upheavals a Nationalist victory portends. The SNP's problem is that Labour still has nine months in which to reclaim enough support - not even majority support, just enough - to control the Scottish Parliament.

It might just be that Donald Dewar knew all along that there would be a row about Gus Macdonald and that he decided to brazen it out. If a week in politics....and all that. No-one argues that Labour has time on its side and that it might be best to take the heat and get the worst over before the parliamentary election campaign. After all, the SNP has a 100% record of failing to deliver on electoral breakthroughs, if you except the occasional by-election.

Labour has been in power for only 15 months but in England it is still entranced by becoming the new political Establishment looking down on an Opposition which is rejected and still held in contempt. In Scotland Labour has been the Establishment for decades and, inevitably, has become complacent and incompetent at fighting for survival.

Labour's Scottish machine - so accustomed to weighing rather than counting its votes - can still deliver by-election victories when stretched in contests like Monklands or Paisley but these are localised affairs. Winning over the hearts and minds of all Scotland, particularly beyond the Central Belt, is another matter when Labour is in government and faced with a dedicated and uplifted Opposition; in England it sails over an Opposition still on the sea bed.

Two other factors are at work. Donald Dewar dragged the Liberal Democrats kicking and screaming into the Additional Member System (AMS) of voting for the Scottish Parliament. It is not PR but the best the LibDems could screw from Labour as an alternative to First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). In fact FPTP remains in its entirety - and so, it follows, will Labour's huge inbuilt advantage in the constituencies from this discredited system. Only the fig-leaf of the PR element offers some limited respectability for AMS. To overcome this disadvantage the SNP must keep the gains it has made so far, according to polls, and then make some more if it wants to control the Scottish Parliament. No-one can be at all confident that this is likely.

Finally, a little cynicism might be in order when discussing the contrariness of the Scottish voter.

Labour has had an easy ride in Scotland for years and we all know it. But we are Scots and what comes next year is voting for a Scottish Parliament.

That's different. We can, after all, have our cake and eat it. A Labour Government in London might be fine but a bunch of troublemakers in Edinburgh would be a useful wee reminder that - like the vaporised Tories - the days are gone when you could take us for granted. And there's little Labour can do about that - although it would help if its generals pointed their guns away from their feet. - Aug 5