Brian Monteith: Poor SNP must be brought to fore

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Politicians are on their holidays now but when they return it will be in full campaign mode as the clock begins to run down on next May’s Holyrood elections. New polling suggests the SNP will romp home with a landslide win leaving all of the other parties trailing behind. Given the state of Labour, leaderless both in Scotland and across the UK, it’s hard to see any other result.

The Labour Party has certainly made life difficult for itself by having such long-drawn-out elections that began back in May – that’s over three months ago and the positions have still not been resolved. That’s a gift to the SNP for it not only allows them to behave as the official opposition in Westminster but it also takes the heat off any scrutiny of their own record.

If there is one thing that could change the prospect of another big SNP win it is that the public begins to consider just what the Scottish Government has achieved over the last nine years – and decides it isn’t good enough. There’s certainly enough evidence of poor performance – but will that matter to voters?

Just this week there was more bad news to embarrass the SNP. In health, an issue where Nicola Sturgeon has championed how private provision would have no role to play in the Scottish NHS, evidence now shows that the number of patients sent for private care at the public’s expense has actually doubled in the last year, making a mockery of Sturgeon’s past claims.

Referrals to the private sector for specialist consultants’ services – what some would call the creeping privatisation of the NHS – have climbed from 13,000 to 28,000, costing over £37 million. The privatisation tag is actually a misnomer, after all, GP doctors are actually private contractors, meaning that the NHS has always given a large share of its work to private providers. But that’s not the point, Sturgeon claimed she would run the NHS differently from the way it is done in England by reducing private provision in the NHS and she has patently failed.

Those GPs are not a happy bunch, by the way. A survey by Scottish Liberal Democrats found that more than a third stated their workload was unmanageable while over a half wanted the SNP government’s Quality and Outcomes framework that governs their work to be scrapped. Ouch!

In education the latest black mark is the revelation that there are over 50 vacancies for primary school headteacher positions across Scotland. This comes on the back of news that over 100,000 pupils were placed in classes of mixed ages or stages last year. On top of this research by the Edinburgh-based think tank Reform Scotland it was found that some pupils receive as much as two years less education as a result of different school contact time.

All of that poor performance news in health and education in just one week – following on from figures that have persistently shown standards to be slipping since the SNP came to power. Ironically even where some results have improved, such as in health treatments, they are comparatively poorer than what has been achieved in England.

The question therefore is why, given the evidence about the poor performance of the Scottish Government, the public is still in love with the SNP?

And nearly every week is the same, with yet more evidence of public services deteriorating under the SNP’s governance. If it’s not health and education like this week then it could be about poor policing – as it was last week – and these failures come back directly to SNP policy decisions that have nothing to do with David Cameron, Tories or Westminster.

Allowances can be made for weak opposition parties not getting their message across, or for the SNP deflecting any study of their record by always talking of constitutional issues, or even the belief that it is the fault of Westminster and not Holyrood for the policy failures.

But again this is not the point, for these only contribute to the SNP not being made to pay a political price for shoddy services. What is clearly happening is that the Scottish electorate has thus far decided that the SNP does a good job of speaking up for Scotland within the UK and that so long as it does this the poor public service standards are worth suffering.

What the opposition parties have to do is change that sense of priority within the electorate’s mindset so that as the Holyrood election approaches the poor record becomes the key issue, but this won’t be easy.

It will certainly help that Labour will have yet another new leader and it will help that the Scottish Parliament is given further powers that were promised, but all of this will count for nought if the UK government gives any cause for grievance by failing to deliver on what it has promised. This will be seized upon by Sturgeon to campaign on constitutional issues once more and keep any bad news about health, education, policing and the like off the front pages. The opposition parties and the UK government have to get smarter if they are not to make an SNP landslide a certainty.