The election campaign has been uninspiring and so are the opposition parties' policies

Written by Kevin Pringle on 29 April 2016 in Comment

Kevin Pringle, former communications adviser to Alex Salmond, suggests opposition parties should be given more access to the civil service to develop stronger policies

The ‘will she, won’t she’ saga of whether Ruth Davidson will pull off second place in the election has emerged as the liveliest aspect of the Holyrood campaign so far.

Of itself, it demonstrates that the rather more important aspect of the vote – who will form the devolved government of Scotland for the next five years – has been a totally static affair.

Even Margaret Thatcher had the decency to have a ‘wobbly Thursday’ just a week before she swept all before her south of the border in the 1987 general election, when a rogue poll in The Telegraph dramatically narrowed the Tory lead and briefly made things interesting for the journalists.


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No such luck for the media in this campaign, and no such meltdown moment from Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m sceptical about whether the Tories can come second, but I may be proved wrong. I’m certainly not going to offer to eat anything inedible if they do!

In the absence of any doubt about who is going to win, it’s a familiar enough approach of commentators to refocus the coverage on who might come second, when there is at least some polling evidence to justify it.

The problem is it tends to be hyped up by the pundits rather than wanted by the people, and therefore falls flat on polling day.

That’s what happened in the 1983 general election, when the SDP-Liberal Alliance failed to overtake Labour – and they rose no further.

So far, the evidence that the Tories will get silver and Labour bronze on 5 May is patchy.

It would be different if the Conservative government at Westminster was popular but that’s far from the case.

Any leapfrogging of Labour would have to overcome Tory disarray down there and be wholly made in Scotland.

I’m not convinced they have the strength and resources for that – after all, it was only this time last year that the Tories chalked up their worst general election share of the vote in Scotland since 1865.

But let’s see. If they do manage it, it will be more because of a further Labour haemorrhage than a major Tory revival.

After all, in 1987 the Tories got nearly a quarter of the vote in Scotland and that result was deemed a disaster. No poll puts them anywhere near that level now.

Whichever order they come in, in reality, Labour and the Tories are weak opposition parties. There may be a narrow gap between these two, but it’s a gulf between them both and the SNP.

That weakness has been reflected in their policy offerings in this campaign.

And that’s hardly surprising – compared to the civil service machine the SNP had at its disposal until parliament was dissolved, the opposition parties have relatively meagre ways and means to develop policies.

Any traction Labour were getting on the left for their income tax rise proposal was undone by the muddle surrounding the scrapping of a £100 rebate to compensate workers on low earnings.

And the Tories were damaged when it emerged that their figures for the amount raised from a graduate tax were wildly exaggerated.

At present, opposition parties only get to meet with civil servants to discuss their policy ideas in the months before a Holyrood election.

There is a case for them having such access – with civil servants even embedded in opposition party policy teams – for the entire parliament. It may well improve the quality and practicality of the proposals that emerge, which would strengthen Scotland’s body politic.

Quality opposition keeps government on its toes, which would be good for the SNP too. So after 5 May, perhaps it’s time to give the other parties a leg up.

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