THE Scottish National Party, in speaking about education, sounds like Labour in opposition. But also more like the Labour of, say, 1987 than 1997. Its soft approach, listening to teachers instead of cajoling them, is calculated to win over an influential group that overwhelmingly supported Labour last year. Subsequent disillusionment with the Government's attitude to reforms such as Higher Still and with the mismatch between financial promises and delivery on the ground makes the profession fruitful for recruits in the SNP's view.
With an eye to next May's election the strategy, clearly laid out in Alex Salmond's conference speech last week, could be productive. But the party is aiming for government, at least as leader of a coalition administration. That is where the resemblance to "old" Labour looks uncomfortable. If the SNP is going to make promises to public-sector groups to win their votes - exactly the disastrous strategy adopted by Michael Foot in 1983 - there is little sign of the smack of firm government needed from Scotland's first administration. Voters, too, may be chary of supporting a party appealing to the self-interest of focus groups.
The SNP's education policy has come a distance since the days of more Lallans in the classroom and restored student grants. As in its conference organisation, there is greater cohesion and more professionalism. The hand of financial spokesmen is evident in the disappearance of hopeless promises about student largesse. But listening too closely to teacher unions might become a siren call for voters and certainly would create hostages to fortune for a government.