Comment: by Terry Murden
Sturgeon: fairness and the prospect of failure
Sometimes, it might just be unhelpful to be too popular. The extraordinary wave of support that has accompanied Nicola Sturgeon’s rise to the top of Scottish politics has been a revelation. It has also raised public expectations of what she can achieve.
Her convictions are not in question and her common touch combined with a sharp debating ability have made her a fearsome operator who will match her predecessor in commanding the Holyrood stage.
But failure at some point is inevitable, and her real test will be in her ability to fail well, rather than to fail badly, and in being able to retain the public’s faith and trust when it happens.
In that regard she shares Alex Salmond’s Teflon touch; knowing how to paper over cracks in policy, and finding plausible excuses for shortcomings in performance and delivery on promises. Her powers of recovery will become vital.
Since being elected First Minister she has enjoyed a near-messianic acclaim, addressing packed audiences around the country. Fans – they are more than mere supporters – cheer her every word and will hear no criticism of her pronouncements. If Nicola says it will be done, it will be done.
This fanaticism is a little worrying. While she comes across as infallible and entirely sincere, she does have a few skeletons in the cupboard. As health secretary, for instance, she kept some potentially damaging revelations out of public reach ahead of the referendum.
Even Ms Sturgeon herself must worry that the degree of devotion she experiences is unhealthy. While she will take some satisfaction from the difficulties faced by new Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy she will also recognise the dangers of being promoted as the uncontested leader of a one-party state.
There are obvious questions over Mr Murphy’s ability to engage fully in debate while not being an MSP. This is overstated. On the contrary, he has a number of factors in his favour. He remains a Westminster MP but he can distance himself from it when things get tough for his boss Ed Miliband.
He can also watch over Holyrood without having to dirty his hands with the day-to-day business that goes on within its walls. In effect, he becomes a full-time campaign manager for Scottish Labour.
This brings a new dynamic to Scottish politics and one which will test Ms Sturgeon in different ways, not least that all of her confrontations with Mr Murphy will be conducted outwith the orchestrated proceedings in parliament.
So when the starting gun is fired and they engage in their first bouts, what will they choose as the issues to fight over?
Ms Sturgeon is instinctively socialist. Much more so than her more centre-leaning deputy John Swinney, and certainly more than Mr Murphy, though both are campaigning on a “fairness for all” and “equality of opportunity” ticket.
Of course, the First Minister has the advantage of being able to do something about it. Already free school meals for infants have been introduced. There will be more from a long social agenda in the coming months.
But the General Election in May will be determined – as it always is – on the economy and Ms Sturgeon indicated a need to win back support from an often hostile section of the community when she chose a business audience to deliver her first set-piece speech after being anointed First Minister.
However, business is weary of politicians who, while making promises of support one day, are looking to tax and regulate them the next. When it comes to a choice between satisfying business leaders or looking after constituents’ demands for more health care or improvements to school buildings, it rarely favours the former.
In that speech, delivered at the SSE offices in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon made it clear that her government would be there to help, so long as business played its part in helping deliver government policy. In other words, do as we say and you’ll be okay.
It is not clear how far business leaders will be prepared to play to the rules of a party that, in the main, they instinctively oppose. The referendum campaign showed that there were deep divisions and considerable suspicion on both sides, some of which will linger indefinitely.
Many in business will argue that Ms Sturgeon would do well to remember that her party lost the referendum vote and therefore needs to take greater account of the views of those who won. In her favour is the injustice that surrounds low pay. Among those who “won” the referendum vote are thousands whose living standards are in need of improvement. They will be her biggest ally when she invites business leaders to a Living Wage Summit.
Her success in this regard will be to achieve a result for both sides. The Living Wage foundation claims there would be a net tax gain for the government if more companies met the threshold, but forcing up wages too quickly would be counterproductive if companies cut back on investment elsewhere.
If she is to achieve her wider political goals, Ms Sturgeon has to take the business community with her. Failure will not be something she wants to contemplate.