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Confusion reigns in messy election campaign

Terry smiling headThis is turning into a mess of a General Election. Not only a first ever u-turn by a party within hours of publishing its manifesto, but campaigns on all sides that are contradictory and, in some cases, irrelevant.

The campaign has been notable for the manner in which most of the party leaders have tied themselves in knots, but it is also turning into a confusing wrangle over matters that having nothing to do with government in Westminster.

The Scottish Tories are about to start throwing eggs at the SNP over its education policy, the latest attempt to discredit the Scottish government’s record. Labour is urging the SNP to “focus on the day job” of running schools and hospitals. But what has any of this got to do with a Westminster election campaign?

Even Andrew Neil has questioned the SNP over its policies at Holyrood, surely an irrelevance in what is an election for MPs, not MSPs.  There have been other examples on Twitter of candidates arguing about issues which are the responsibility of their local council.

The most glaring example thus far of devolved issues being brought into what is a Westminster campaign was also the biggest talking point to emerge from the leaders’ debate on BBC Scotland. Nurse Claire Austin challenged Nicola Sturgeon over her NHS record. It made good telly, but the NHS is devolved and this was therefore a questionable topic for debate.

Programme host Sarah Smith may have been responding to audience interest in health and education, but for the sake of clarity the producers perhaps should have kept the discussion to reserved matters – Brexit, the wider UK economy, the constitution, defence, foreign affairs, climate change. After all, there are plenty of double standards, contradictory statements and cock-ups in those issues to keep us going for the remainder of the campaign.

There is, though, a real problem in how to deal with devolved matters during Westminster elections. While health and education are two key topics for voters, the separation of powers creates a dislocation in the voting system. Scots’ concerns over health and education have less of a bearing on Westminster than for English voters and, by the same token, bringing Scottish government policies into a Westminster debate is merely complicating matters further. It’s a variation on that old West Lothian question.

If the devolution of powers is creating a huge dollop of confusion for voters, then the party leaders seem hell-bent on making the waters even muddier.

Probably the most glaring example was Theresa May’s policy u-turn on on social care. Aside from the merits of her proposal, it was badly delivered and, as I stated here last week, it forced her quite needlessly on to the back foot when the polls were giving her an unassailable lead.

Indeed, the Tory leader’s best move in the campaign was at the outset when she chose to say nothing very much, nor meet anyone in particular. If only she had stayed home in Downing Street and caught up with some routine paper work while the other parties argued and squabbled she may have remained well ahead in the polls. Instead, she came out fighting, threw all of her ideas out into the street and consequently punched the wrong guy in the face.

Theresa May on Marr
Theresa May: squirming

Watching a squirming Mrs May claim that “nothing has changed” when confronted over her about-face on the so-called “dementia tax” was pretty ghastly stuff and could prove her undoing when the votes are added up.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is equally bad at sticking to the script. One minute he’s never met the IRA, then he suddenly remembers that actually he did, especially when photos emerged of him with the late Martin McGuinness.

Labour is already arguing two different points of view on Trident, so goodness knows how the party expects to win votes down Faslane way.

It doesn’t end there for Mr Corbyn. Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale reminds us every day that there will be no second independence referendum for Scotland while her boss is now saying he’d open talks with the Scottish parliament.  He also said he won’t forge an alliance with the SNP, though we may have to see if he maintains that view if it looks like a way of grabbing the keys to Number 10.

Even Nicola Sturgeon has come uncharacteristically unstuck on policy positions. Support her or not, the First Minister is one of the most sure-footed of conviction politicians. But she has danced around the independence issue, claiming early on that it was not the focus of the election, then making it a key part of her strategy. And having argued against a 50p top rate of income tax for Scotland she is now backing the idea across the UK.

U-turns are always guaranteed to grab headlines and embarrass the perpetrators. By and large, they are only acceptable when the guilty parties have the decency, and honesty, to admit they have either changed their mind, or screwed up.

But it’s not the done thing to admit being wrong. Maybe they could learn that the public may be more forgiving if they did.


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