The Scottish Government have published their, almost innocuously titled, Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill. It was greeted with fanfare / hope / anger / disgust – you can choose your own adjective. 

But given there will be plenty of chance to discuss the prospect of a second independence referendum we thought we’d take a look how the Tories and Labour responded. We think that this points to the relative fortunes to the two parties just now. 

The Tories begin their press release by saying that Nicola Sturgeon has given up on being “a First Minister for all of Scotland”. Labour started similarly and said that Sturgeon is trying to “dodge scrutiny of her reckless plan” of another referendum. 

Both parties personalise their response – anyone reading them is left in no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon is the cause of this ‘divisive’ referendum. In Scottish politics the personalisation of the leadership has proved successful in the past. From ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ in 2007 to ‘Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition’ at the most recent election, we seem to respond to personality in Scotland. The Tories and Labour seem to be thinking that if it can be used for positive purposes, so it can be usednegatively about a leader.  

Then they diverge. 

The Tories go onto to make it about people, voters, you and your family. The decisive majority, they remind us, voted No in 2014. They want to present themselves as the natural party of the Unionist vote in Scotland. 

We’ve written before about how the debate in Scotland is about who stands up for Scotland, not who delivers for it. At the time we said that unless opposition parties  change the terms of the debate, the SNP will dominate. The Tories however have decided to lean into this narrative. They’ve decided that if the SNP want to have another debate about who’s best to stand up for voters in Scotland, the Tories themselves might as well take the side of the majority in that debate.

Taking a different tack, Labour tell us that we should be outraged because the First Minster has contravened proper parliamentary process. They tell us that important government announcements should be made in the Scottish Parliament to afford proper scrutiny and that, they’ll be calling on Presiding Officer, Ken McIntosh, to look into this.

One party chose to talk to voters, one chose to talk about process. The Tories response said we’re on your side whereas Labour’s response told us there was a problem with how the Government made the announcement. If you’re a non-aligned voter, which most of us are, these things matter. 

Come election time voters generally warm to the personality of a leader which which in turn means these leaders get listened too. And when they have a simple message what they say usually sinks into the consciousness of the electorate. 

The Tories are, if you’re a No voter, telling us they’re on our side. If you’re a No voter, we’re not sure what Labour are telling us. 

And that perhaps tells us why each party finds itself in the position it does. The Tories have found a way to harness the national debate in their favour. Labour, who have had to fight the SNP as well as for a No vote, have not. 

Labour don’t seem to know their place in Scottish politics just now and as a result they’ve been leapfrogged by both the SNP and the Tories last ten years. The history of Scottish politics tells us that if you’re out in the cold you tend to be there for a long time. Labour don’t look like bucking this trend. 

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