Scottish tremors should act as an early warning for Blair

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OF THE MANY things Tony Blair has to worry about, a challenge from political parties on the left of Labour isn't one. This wasn't true of his four predecessors as Labour Prime Ministers. The Communist Party may not have had much electoral success for most of this century, but well into the early Eighties it punched heavily above its weight in the unions and therefore in Labour's policy making machinery. Tightly knit groups of politically motivated hatchet-faced men - and, let's be frank, some congenial, literate, idealistic and amusing men such as the communists Mick McGahey and Jimmy Airlie - were able to use their persuasive powers in drab smoky rooms in seaside hotels, where union delegations met to decide how to vote at Labour Party conferences. Now the CP has imploded. Arthur Scargill's Socialist Party is a joke. The Morning Star is on strike, All this is the envy of some of Blair's European counterparts, such as Romano Prodi and Lionel Jospin, both of whom faced direct electoral competition on the left in the elections that brought them to power. Here there is nowhere on the left to go but Labour.

In England, at least. If you wondered what UK politics might be looking like if Blair was facing Italo-French style competition on the left, it's worth examining the case of Scotland. This week an opinion poll asked Scottish electors how they would vote in the elections next year for the Scottish Parliament. It's only one poll, but the results were alarming for Labour, which secured 39 points to the Scottish National Party's 38 per cent. Given that the elections are only 14 months away, this raises the once unthinkable spectre that the SNP might become the largest single party in the new Scottish Parliament.

There are lots of easy myths about the reasons for these results, the most exotic of which is that the whole country is up in arms at the fact that the Scottish nationalist film star Sean Connery was not made a knight, and that in the face of this provocation, the population is rapidly opting for independence. A second and related myth asserts that Scotland is simply a no-go area for Blairism, just as it was for Thatcherism. Those who take this latter view argue, for example, that the political culture is so different that the modernisers' ditching of tax and spend policies will never take north of the border, and that an SNP skillfully positioned by its leader Alex Salmond in old Labour economic territory is merely capitalising on that fact.

The truth is more mundane and more interesting. The Scots are not voting for independence, nor are they in love with higher taxes. Instead, disappointment that the Blair Government has not delivered more, faster, on its agenda has had a much noisier effect in Scotland, precisely because in the SNP disaffected Labour supporters, unlike those in England, do have somewhere else to go. Scottish grievances are not so different from those felt south of the border, if perhaps a little magnified. They concern, for example, the cuts in lone parent benefits, and the fact that much of the extra money for education trumpeted by ministers has been more than offset by budget cuts forced on local authorities by the rigid adherence to Kenneth Clarke's spending limits.

There is, however, one big difference, and that has to do with timing. Gordon Brown's most frequently uttered mantra has always been that he is not going to repeat the past errors of Labour governments which have spent first and paid later. In his Budget speech on Tuesday, the Chancellor will be able, with justifiable pride, to announce yet another improvement in the public finances. In theory, he could use, for another three years, all the savings - such as those from the departmental spending reviews - for further good housekeeping (like, say, repaying the national debt) and only start to release revenue, whether for tax cuts or additional spending, much nearer the general election, when it really matters. It would be deeply painful but it could be done. But the Scottish elections matter in a way that not even next year's local elections or the European elections do. For the results of a huge SNP breakthrough - unlikely though they are - would be ugly indeed for the unionist (in Anglo Scottish terms) Blair administration.

Now this scenario is, to put it mildly, pretty far-fetched. But it illustrates why Scottish politics has suddenly become, or should become, rather important to the English. For it is bound to fuel an already nascent debate, not just between old and new Labour, but among modernisers about future strategy. One option, broadly, is that some more of the fruits of Brown's economic rigour - greater health and education spending and, perhaps, more redistribution through benefit increases for those for whom work is not necessarily the answer, such as poorer pensioners - should be brought forward. Another, contrasting, view is that the Government must not be panicked by the threat of short-term unpopularity; that Tuesday's budget measures - including welcome money for lone parents - not to mention the still-unfelt impact of the New Deal for the unemployed will begin to reap electoral benefits well before May 1999. That what is most needed is a more robust counter- attack on the SNP's opportunistic exploitation of the voters' impatience. That an example was set by Blair himself in Scotland last week when he reminded his critics that Labour election promises included those of not taxing and spending.

This is a debate well worth having out while there is time. It deals with how quickly the electorate are entitled to feel the Government's election promises are being redeemed. Not for the first time, today's Scottish argument may be tomorrow's English one.