Amid all the noise and extravagance over policies and spending promises, there was another message that came out of last weekend’s Scottish Labour conference in Oban – confusion over the Liberal Democrats.
From senior UK figures addressing conference, there was no hesitation: bash the Lib Dems and bash them again. Labour in London has developed something approaching hatred for the Lib Dems.
Not only did the Lib Dems walk away from a potential deal with Labour after the election in May, but these supposedly left-leaning liberals then got into bed with Conservatives.
They are in government and they are imposing Tory cuts – it really couldn’t be any worse for Labour, hence the Lib Dem bashing from all Labour figures from London.
Incidentally, this was obviously the provenance of the now infamous “ginger rodent” remark by Harriet Harman. She believed that she could go as far as she liked in deriding the Lib Dems, believing that her Labour colleagues held the Lib Dems in as much contempt as she did.
But they didn’t and they don’t and that is where the confusion lies.
The truth is that Scottish Labour don’t know what to think about the Lib Dems. They are both political opponents and potential partners in government and this is causing problems.
Look to Iain Gray’s speech. There was barely a line of anti-Lib Dem language. It was all designed to attack the SNP. Mr Gray certainly knows who his opponents are. The problem is, he doesn’t quite know who is friends are.
But there is more to it too. Labour’s attacks on the SNP are built around one simple premise – the Nationalists broke a host of manifesto commitments when they got into government so can’t be trusted.
However, Labour leaders know that the reason the SNP administration failed on so many fronts was because of minority government – not because of a lack of will to implement key policies.
Alex Salmond’s government has not been able to implement a raft of manifesto pledges because it couldn’t secure the support of other parties in the chamber. It has tried and failed because of a lack of consensus.
The SNP government is suffering from inertia and has lost momentum purely because of its lack of a majority. Labour leaders know this full well and this brings us on to the debate now circling around the Labour Party at Holyrood. If Labour wins the election in May, does it opt for a minority administration or go for a coalition?
If it opts for minority, it risks suffering from the fate which has befallen the SNP – failure to get anything done, a failure which would then come back to haunt Labour at the elections in 2015.
If it is to be coalition, there is only one potential partner for Labour: the Liberal Democrats. So, despite the contempt bubbling up from London towards the Lib Dems, Mr Gray and his lieutenants are – wisely – being a bit more circumspect.
They are in the process of rolling out a host of expensive policy pledges which they would almost certainly be in no position to implement if they were in a minority government.
In fact, it is doubtful whether a Labour Scottish Government would even get its budget through if it wasn’t in a formal coalition.
This is the reason for the hesitancy over the Lib Dems. Yes, they want to attack them but they don’t want to sour relations to such an extent that the Libs take such offence they walk away from any post-election deal.
It is a tricky line to tread but Mr Gray is erring on the side of caution rather than attack, at least for the moment.
As for the Lib Dems, they are in a very good bargaining position – and they know it. They know they represent Labour’s only potential coalition partners and, as such, they know there is no-one Labour can use to play them off.
But the Libs also know that a coalition with Labour would do them a lot of good politically north of the border. There is no doubt that their reputation, at least in the left-leaning world of Scottish politics, has taken a battering from their formal coalition with the Tories at Westminster.
They won’t lose many seats in May, but only because their MSPs tend to command solid personal votes locally. They know they are suffering in the polls as a direct result of their ties to the Tories.
A pact with Labour would allow them to re-establish their left-leaning, liberal credentials and put distance between themselves and the Conservatives. It could be very useful, not just in Scotland but across the UK too.
Some observers have suggested that it would be impossible for the Lib Dems to go into a coalition with Labour in Scotland while in coalition with the Tories at Westminster but it is perfectly possible.
Just look at the range of coalitions that exist at local government level. There are link-ups between almost every party in our town halls and it has no effect on the national picture.
It is the same at Holyrood and Westminster level. Politics is ruled by expediency (particularly Lib Dem politics) and if the Lib Dems believe they would benefit from a tie-up with Labour at Holyrood, they will do exactly that – regardless of what is going on at Westminster.
The one thing missing from all this is the one big symbolic policy which the Lib Dems want to see implemented and which ends up being the price of their support. In 1999, it was the abolition of tuition fees, in 2003 it was PR for local government elections. What will it be this time?
A possible clue came this week from the news that Michael Moore, the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary, intends to drive through some of the Calman proposals quicker than expected.
The Scottish Government could get power over a range of issues before next summer – including control over the running of Scottish elections. It would only take a tiny tweak for Holyrood to be given control over its electoral system as well.
Having secured the single transferable vote system for local government elections in Scotland, maybe the Lib Dems will demand STV for Holyrood elections too? That way they would achieve something concrete which will give them even more power in the future and – in a suitable approach for these days of austerity – it won’t actually cost anything to implement.
Could Labour live with that? If the result was four years of stability, the implementation of Labour policies and budget security – you bet they would.