The Scottish baby box lights up a dreary election

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 25 April 2016 in Editor's note

Nicola Sturgeon's baby box is a strong, simple and easily understood election proposition

I love the baby in a box idea from the SNP. At last, a manifesto commitment in this sorry election campaign that is clear, simple, costed and encapsulates a direction of travel that takes the rhetoric out of the concept of ‘cradle to grave’ and makes it into a cardboard reality. Brilliant.

The obvious symbolism of every child in Scotland literally being given the same box-shaped start in life underpins what has been the focus of this election: inequality.

It has also allowed the SNP, in one strategically deft move, to hijack a policy already announced and ignored in the Lib Dem manifesto to illustrate that no matter whether you are born a have or a have-not, you should share in a social contract from birth that gives you access to the same opportunities. What’s not to like?

Gimmicky? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.


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I’ve always bought into the idea of universalism and while the more fashionable caveat in Labour circles now is to talk of a ‘progressive universalism’, it does rather foster a communal bond regardless that I think is good for the soul.

And we need something to lift the spirits in an uninspiring election campaign that has uniquely been about a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the only people playing down an SNP win is the SNP.

For despite all the bells, whistles and razzmatazz of a presidential-style manifesto launch, Nicola Sturgeon knows that anything short of a larger majority than what came before will inevitably be painted as her loss. 

Personality politics aside, this election will surely go down as one of the most dreary of the last decade. When the opposition party leaders are so un-enthused that they rule themselves out of winning, then the electorate could be forgiven for thinking none of them deserves their vote.

In April 2007 things were so very different. The campaigns were on a knife edge. After eight years of a Labour-led coalition at Holyrood, the party found itself level pegging with the SNP. By election day, it was anyone’s game. 

There was drama and there was chaos. A row over two elections – local and parliamentary – controversially fought on the same day ended in calls for a judicial inquiry. There were accusations over 100,000 spoiled papers. There was a ballot box that fell into the sea. And there was a breakdown in the electronic counting system.

By the end of the next day – 19 hours after the voting had begun – with the SNP having won 47 seats to Labour’s 46 and with Jack McConnell refusing to concede defeat, saying he would reflect on his position over the weekend, Alex Salmond was already celebrating at his own victory party. 

And despite a promise to govern with humility and verve, he staked out his claim to become first minister by saying the Labour Party no longer had any moral authority to govern Scotland.
“Scotland has changed for ever and for good,” he said. “Never again will we say that the Labour Party assumes it has a divine right to rule Scotland.”

While that has so far proved true, four years in and having led Scotland’s first minority government, Salmond looked as if he would be proven wrong. 

By the beginning of 2011, in 19 out of 20 polls, Labour had been way ahead of the SNP – by 20 points in some. But then it all went pear-shaped. 

The Lib Dem vote collapsed in protest at the coalition at Westminster and Labour’s manifesto was judged a mess, with too many policies that either mirrored the SNP or were deemed ill-judged, like the pledge of ‘carry a knife, go to jail’. 

And then there was Iain Gray’s ‘Subway moment’ when he ran away from a protester and hid in a sandwich shop, which, when framed against Salmond, made Gray look weak and cowardly. If he couldn’t stand up to a heckler, how could he stand up for Scotland? This shambles was then compounded by Labour’s last-minute campaign relaunch.

It was a disaster. 

The eventual scale of the SNP’s 2011 victory proved historic. It took a total of 69 seats, winning Holyrood’s first overall majority, and set in train the series of events that led to the 2014 independence referendum followed by the SNP general election landslide of 2015.

So perhaps it is inevitable after all the political excitement of the last nine years that this campaign is lacklustre. But with new powers to help frame new policies, it is unforgivable that Scottish Labour is still in the moribund position it is.

The party has no manifesto, some confused policies on tax that the electorate has shown little interest in, an after-school sports plan that raises more questions than it answers, a set of poverty proposals taken from an SNP commissioned report and more damagingly, it is still giving the overriding impression that the electorate simply needs to be freed from some SNP-induced torpor. 

Perhaps there is little Kezia Dugdale can do to wrest back Labour’s support, though when she admitted she was battling for second place, she hammered the final nail in her party’s coffin. It not only allowed Sturgeon to present her manifesto as basically the only credible ‘programme for government’ but she also portrayed herself as a leader with only ambition to lose. Is it any wonder they are now a toxic brand?

Personally, I’d be surprised if the Scottish Conservatives stretch their vote to beat Labour – they’re still only polling one point ahead of 2011 and have just had their worst general election since records began – but at least Ruth Davidson has, like the SNP with its baby in a box manifesto pledge, understood the importance of a strong, simple and easily understood election proposition. Her clear counter narrative to the SNP is that she’ll be the strong opposition. What is Labour’s?

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