Nicola Sturgeon has a huge stash of political capital - now is the time to spend it

Written by John McTernan on 12 May 2016 in Comment

It is time for the First Minister to spend some of her banked political capital on radical reform in education, writes former Labour strategist John McTernan

‘Over to you!’ That was the message the voters have just sent to the Scottish Parliament. Time for you all to take some responsibility.

First, they indicated that they wanted a parliament not a rally. The SNP majority and its consequence – a massive backbench and a committee system packed with loyalists – has not been good for governance. The weakest attempt at humour by ministers in the chamber is greeted by belly laughs from backbenchers as if they are in the presence of Billy Connolly in his pomp. The toughest question ministers get from their own side is, ‘Is there anything else that you would like to say to a grateful nation?’

A minority government isn’t a major change – legislation will all get through, budgets will pass and ministers will turn up for the opening of an envelope. It just tips the balance back to the Parliament and a less compliant one at that. The public has chosen to back strong characters.


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The angularity, independence and intellectual credibility that Jackie Baillie brings to Scottish Labour was rewarded by a victory in Dumbarton. Expect Andy Wightman for the Greens and Adam Tomkins for the Scottish Conservatives to provide an edge to their parties and spine to the Parliament.

Second, Scottish Labour was sent home to think again. Higher taxes, weaker defences and a studied ambivalence on the Union are not a recipe for success. It is, perhaps, a lesson that every party has to learn: you cannot bend others to your wishes, you must bend to their will. It’s just that autonomy from the UK Labour Party shouldn’t mean political amnesia.

No party in Britain has won on a platform of tax rises for nearly forty years. And Labour never wins when soft on national security. If Scottish Labour don’t get the message now, it’s not forgetful but wilful. As for the constitution, there are no gains in ambiguity, so the only answer is clarity. Scottish Labour is for the Union – it is the most powerful engine for redistribution to Scotland ever created. And it is for the Union even after Brexit – let others embrace the euro.

Third, and most importantly, voters have asked Nicola Sturgeon to show them what she is for. Sure, she’s for independence and all the great things a free Scotland could do in the future. But, for now? For today’s country? And tomorrow’s? The loss of a majority renders the carefully crafted words on a second independence referendum moot. There won’t be one.

Not that Nicola Sturgeon actually wants one – it’s potentially a ‘third rail’ issue, touch it at your peril – but she wants the potential of one. Partly to assuage her supporters, although they are so loyal they are no real worry. Mainly to goad David Cameron into ruling one out.

That was always the prize – a grievance. Grievo Max, to coin a phrase. Now the electorate have put that all beyond reach. So the question is, who and what does the First Minister stand for? And it is all about her – this was her mandate, her re-election.

Nicola Sturgeon is the most electorally successful and popular politician in Scotland. She has a huge stash of political capital. Now is the time to spend it. Education is one of her priorities and, in particular, tackling the attainment gap.

As Professor Lindsay Paterson has pointed out, the history of successful educational reform in Scotland, from comprehensivisation to the introduction of Standard Grades, has been bi-partisan. Which is why the First Minister’s embrace of New Labour’s London Challenge is so heartening. What matters is what works.

But change is confronting and, at times, inevitably confrontational. This is the ultimate test of Nicola Sturgeon. Will she spend her previous political capital on getting pupils, parents, teachers, heads, councils and unions to buy into the reforms? Or is that capital still going to be hoarded against any future referendum? Is that all that really matters? Over to you, Nicola Sturgeon.

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