Remember that inveterate trimmer, the Vicar of Bray? When Times altered, so too did the good Vicar's good conscience. The song satirises his politically adroit series of religious reversals, from High Churcher under King Charles II, to Catholic under James II and VII, and loyal too in time to Dutch William. A Tory under Anne, a Whig under George III, and in each instance a zealous party man. That the Vicar's permanent mode is inconstancy ~ "Old Principles I did revoke, Set conscience at a distance..." ~ does nothing to reduce the vehemence of his sequentially held, often directly contradictory convictions.
I was reminded of the pieties of that flexible gentleman early on in this Holyrood election campaign. Perhaps the campaign's most befuddling early developments was Labour's series of unanticipated policy reversals, from opposing freezing the council tax to incorporating it into their own plans, from insisting that free higher education was "unsustainable" to insisting they can sustainably deliver just that. Having lead the serried Labour ranks to flatten the Alcohol (Scotland) Act's minimum per unit pricing provisions, Jackie Baillie is even beginning to talk about consumption and the importance of price. Like the Vicar, Labour's vehement opposition to these measures in Holyrood over the last four years does nothing to prevent them from crisply counter-marching in the other direction, noisily declaring their good conscience and the constancy of their virtue all the while. Iain MacWhirter styled this Scotland's "me too" election. In his latest Herald column, It's looking black for Gray as Salmond leaps ahead, he writes...
“Serious questions have to be raised about the content of the Labour campaign as well as the leadership. Adopting key planks of the SNP policy on the eve of the campaign – on tuition fees, council tax etc – was counterproductive. It looked like cynical opportunism; and frankly it was cynical opportunism. It was treating the voters with contempt, expecting them to believe that Iain Gray had had a blinding flash of revelation about the need for free higher education that just happened to occur on the eve of the election campaign. These U-turns may have made strategic sense, but you need to take time to review and alter key policy positions, otherwise voters think you’re making it up as you go along.”
For my part, I was actually rather surprised by Labour's naked and apparently unembarrassed volte-faces on policy areas which served to draw clear divisions between them and their Nationalist opponents on a series of prominent issues. Why, folk wondered? What cunning scheme lies behind these moves? The orthodox account attributes the shifts to venal tactical calculations on Labour's part. Eliminate the negatives between me and my main competition, the reasoning runs, and I shall handily triumph. The prospect of tuition fees reducing your appeal to students? Then re-align your convictions to theirs. Folk not enthused by the prospect of a swelling council tax bill? Promise them you won't inflate it. Easy-peasy.
What this implies, of course, is that Labour had a bank of alternative proposals and policies which they strategically decided to forego putting to the electorate. It strikes me, could there be another explanation why no new substantial new wheezes emerged from the Labour Party? You may or may not recall, but in September 2008, Margaret Curran was appointed Labour's Policy Tsarina in Gray's Shadow Cabinet and "given the crucial job of overseeing policy development for the party's manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood elections". At the time, of Curran's role driving "the policy development process towards 2011 for Labour in Scotland", Gray said:
“There are many lessons from Glasgow East, and the person who knows and understands them more than anyone else is Margaret Curran. She was on more doorsteps and speaking to more voters than anyone else and she has a very good understanding of what the lessons are and how we need to respond. It is time to close the 2007 manifesto and begin writing the 2011 manifesto.”
In the spring of 2009, Iain Gray re-emphasised Curran's duties in his speech to the Scottish Labour conference. However, just months later, in March, Curran stepped down from this position, saying that she wished to focus on winning back the Westminster constituency of Glasgow East from John Mason. As I noted on this blog at the time, the coverage of her resignation was ridiculously brief. The Scotsman noted in its cursory way that she had "stepped down from her front-bench post", without remarking that only months before, Gray had insisted she was a vital part of the Party's process for researching and formulating new policies for the election we're presently i'th'midst of. The Herald proved equally inept, giving her only a "senior party role", Curran's responsibility for "driving" Labour's policy development (Gray's words, not mine) only receiving a brief and veiled reference in a hostile quote from SNP Glasgow MSP, Anne McLaughlin. After Curran's departure in March 2009, Gray appointed no Shadow-Cabinet level replacement.
I concede, one should not fetishise formal positions. I'm sure that Labour has a number of extra-parliamentary creatures, tasked with the organised reflection on their policy positions. However, given the subsequent dearth, in 2011, of idiosyncratic, independently-generated and argued Labour policy positions, can we not at least ask if their policy generation processes actually generated anything worthwhile at all? Your policy tsarina having spontaneously dethroned herself mere months into her task, it seems unlikely to be purely coincidental that the policy process she was due to preside over did not generate much that was interesting or novel. Conscious triangulation at least imputes a certain measure of low animal cunning and calculation to the triangulator. A empty policy cupboard of oose and dust that makes triangulation seem the only viable option, by contrast, deprives one even of the ratty dignity of the political scoundrel.