It's Kinnock in a kilt

Observations on Scottish elections

The opposition ran a highly professional election campaign. Out went beards and amateurism: in came a catchy theme tune, slick manifesto launch and aggressive poster advertising. The party leader, whose decency exceeded his charisma, worked his socks off to convince voters it was time for a change.

Labour's attempt to oust John Major in 1992? No, this is the Scottish National Party in 2003, with John Swinney cast in Neil Kinnock's role. The SNP, once a byword for chaos in kilts, has rebranded itself as the smart-suited, left-of-centre challenger to Labour in the Scottish parliamentary elections on 1 May. To soften its image, the party has even adopted a bilious shade of mauve - called "heather".

Next month's Holyrood election is being fought in a time warp, with many of the parties resurrecting campaigns of yesteryear. Labour's manifesto promises echo those on Tony Blair's 1997 pledge card: shorter NHS waiting times, smaller class sizes, faster action against young offenders. With health, education and crime now under the control of the Scottish Parliament, the main parties are converging on a narrow strip of ground, diagnosing the same problems and offering near-identical cures.

The danger for Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, is that he gets the blame for failing to improve public services, expressed by the SNP slogan, "How long can we wait for Labour?" It is as though Blair had to face a midterm election before Gordon Brown's extra billions had had time to kick in.

The SNP is attacking from the left, promising to champion public services - without recourse to the Scottish Parliament's limited income-tax-raising powers, which lie on the shelf unused.

In a clear sign of alarm, Labour is reverting to the constitutional scare tactics it deployed to good effect during the first Holyrood elections of 1999, warning that a vote for the SNP could mean "an expensive divorce". But party-political broadcasts showing Scotland severed from the United Kingdom on 2 May no longer look credible. Swinney has tried to make his party safe for Labour protest votes, seeking to park the constitutional question by promising a referendum on independence - which, if the polls are right, would be lost. His pitch is to run a nationalist administration in a devolved Scotland.

While pre-Iraq tension boosted the anti-war SNP, recent polls give the First Minister reason to expect another four-year term in harness with the Liberal Democrats. But the SNP's strength in the new parliament will have a big impact on the next four years. If the Nationalists do well, McConnell will be forced to watch his left flank and keep his distance from radical Blairism. If they do badly, the First Minister may feel bold enough to risk the wrath of trade unionists and Labour councillors by copying the Prime Minister's public-service reforms.

The election result will also determine John Swinney's future. Will he soldier on, or copy Neil Kinnock's 1992 exit, leaving the SNP to search for the Nationalists' Tony Blair?

Kirsty Milne is a columnist for the Scotsman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The global backlash