In politics, opposition matters. The politicians and researchers in opposition parties who can read, research and interrogate Government policies and hold them to account are part of what keeps Government honest and our democracy healthy.
For the past five years, I worked in opposition for the Labour Party in both Westminster and Holyrood. Like many of my colleagues, hours of my time was spent poring over responses to Parliamentary Questions and freedom of information requests, looking for the next question to ask to secure information from the Government.
This is the bread and butter of being behind the scenes in opposition. Not glamorous, frequently difficult, but incredibly important. It’s because we recognise the importance of opposition parties that we provide them with taxpayer funding for this work. Without it our democracy would be hollow, and people would be poorly served by their Governments.
That’s why the latest intervention from Derek Bateman stinks. His rant is dressed up as an expose, but it’s nothing more than an attack on the work that Labour and other opposition parties do to hold the Government to account. It’s touched a nerve for some of the more fanatical Nationalists, because the stories are taking the shine off a Government that no longer has any real driving purpose and is trying to cling on to its reputation for competence. This Christmas, we’ve seen failings in the NHS, in our schools and in the police service given attention that they might not get when Parliament is sitting and journalists are deluged with stories and the full force of the Scottish Government press operation.
The idea that the Christmas list is some kind of conspiracy between journalists and politicians should be put in the same category as stories about secret oil fields in the Clyde. For the past few years, I was one of the members of Labour Party staff on duty over the Christmas period, responsible for answering questions from journalists about the research we were publishing. Rarely did we push something out that didn’t result in a follow up call or a query from a journalist who wanted to put the Government’s response to us or interrogate our figures. If the Government could disprove or rebut our claims, that would be part of the story, but most of the time they couldn’t.
Derek Bateman’s article has been met with such anger by his former colleagues in the media because it’s part of the continuing effort to undermine and discredit them. If he was serious about coming to the defence of journalists who are often under-resourced he wouldn’t be going around calling them “patsies”.
The uncomfortable truth about the Christmas stories this year, from all opposition parties, is that there are an awful lot of problems to talk about. We are now reaching a critical mass of failures from the SNP Government across our public services. There’s very little that a Government press officer can do to kill a bad story when it’s based on solid research and, very often, analysis of the Government’s own figures. It’s to the credit of more moderate Nationalists, and even the SNP’s own Head of Press at Holyrood, that they distanced themselves from Derek Bateman and others who have associated themselves with his comments. They realise how corrosive these comments are to public life.
This week, Holyrood returns for the first time in 2018. Gravity is returning to Scottish politics, and now the SNP is facing the same challenges of any Government in power for over a decade. They are harder because of the poor decision making that has left too many of our public services under-funded and creaking at the seams.
If Derek Bateman, and others who support him, really had the best interests of people across Scotland at heart, then they would be better taking off the tin foil hats, asking questions about funding for our NHS, shortages in our schools and the crisis in our police service, and consigning the conspiracy theories to the dustbin.