Category Archives: Political witterings
The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month
It’s one of Scottish Labour’s most tried, tested and apparently trusted lines. “This SNP lot are so obsessed with independence that they have forgotten about doing the day job of governing Scotland…. They’ve no time for real-time concerns, no inclination to use the powers they have… Scotland is on pause.” The inference is that if they just focused on what we pay them to do, we’d all be a lot better off.
It was used to dismiss this year’s Programme for Government; it is trotted out regularly by Johann Lamont at First Minister Questions; increasingly, it is used when lambasting a perceived failure or weakness or running away from an issue by the Scottish Government; and it’s trotted out lazily by nearly every journalist in the land.
It’s clever politics. It’s a handily crafted soundbite that trips off the tongue. It creates uncertainty about the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s priorities: Scotland now or Scotland tomorrow. And it’s hard to rebut without sounding defensive.
The Scottish Government is good at pointing to what it is achieving: a balanced budget year on year; economic growth; employment rising and unemployment falling; things still being built, not least new houses, hospitals and schools; less crime, still more police officers; maintaining universal services that people get to feel the benefit of, day in day out – council tax freeze, bus passes, personal care, prescriptions. All of these and more are tangible examples of the Scottish Government getting on with getting on.
But they suggest that the Scottish Government’s best creative days might be behind them, that if not on pause exactly, everything is simply ticking over. Business as usual, which by itself is no mean feat in the current financial climate.
Yet, that would be an unfair analysis. Everywhere you look in Scottish Government and in the Scottish parliamentary timetable, there is evidence of wholesale shift.
There is a clutch of reforming bills heading through the parliamentary process – at indecent haste in some cases. There’s one to change how we deliver health and social care to elderly, adult and child populations who need support, removing artificial barriers over budgets, services and professionals. There’s a bill on regulatory reform which aims to streamline tribunals’ structure and activity; one on procurement which aims to change how public services are planned for, designed and delivered; one on children and young people which, while bitty as charged, will result in significant change in how we make sure more of the next generation get a better start in life. There’s a bill on its way on community empowerment which will enable the transfer of assets from councils to communities. And there’s a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry – a revolutionary shift in social policy if ever there was one. There are even bills which will change the stewardship of the Burrell collection allowing parts of it to be loaned furth of Scotland and one to enable Edinburgh council to use a park to build a much-needed new school.
Indeed, it’s hard to find a section of the public sector or society that is not currently been turned on its head by Scottish Government activity. Nowhere is this more true than in our justice system, where every part of it is being poked and prodded into the 21st Century. Changes to evidence, to the treatment of victims and witnesses, to courts, to policing, to procedures for jury trials, to the introduction of new offences – and more to come post referendum. It’s a wonder lawyers have any time to do any lawyering what with the need to engage with change on so many fronts.
But such wholesale change creates potential risks and problems for the Scottish Government.
First, little of it is sexy. Given the shoestrings on which journalists operate these days, no one has the time or energy to turn concepts like community empowerment into digestible, bite sized chunks of copy. And political journalism in particular, has degenerated into reporting the spat de jour. One of the reasons Scottish Labour can give the impression that nothing is happening but the referendum is because of a complicit and compliant media. All they want to report, or rather, have resources to report is the referendum. And if they weren’t, well we’d all be criticising them for that omission too.
Second, humans don’t do change very well. And if change is constant then that’s a lot of people discomfited. All those vested interests the minority SNP Government worked so hard to bring on board and keep on side are now being tipped out of their comfy chairs. Funnily enough, many of them – and their unions – don’t like it. They’re bleating loudly and that gives Scottish Labour something to bleat about too. Responding to all this noise takes up time and energy, particularly when the aim is to try and keep it all under wraps: when it does erupt into the media, dampening down the flames also sucks up resources.
Moreover, reform with potential long-term benefits often creates unhelpful short-term consequences. It might make sense to streamline the court estate, so that we have courts which are better placed to deal with the increasingly complex business which passes through them, but closing sleepy hollow courts, no matter how sensible, irks folk. The same applies with police stations. Modern policing on straitened budgets with new and emerging national and international threats requires a different configuration: allowing precious resources to languish in local offices that do nothing other than create a chimera of community policing makes no sense.
But closing anything local upsets local people and for all those who voted SNP for the first time in 2011, this isn’t exactly what they signed up for. It also gifts the opposition a horse – hence Scottish Labour’s home webpage dominated by its campaign to save local police stations.
Which kind of leaves the Scottish Government damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Drive forward with a multi-reform programme and they are creating the kind of tumult they really do not want before the referendum. So, they are trying to reform quietly. But that then risks giving the impression that all they are doing is keeping a firm hand on the tiller all the way to next September. Suddenly, that mischievous myth of Labour’s making seems to have foundation.
What this delicate balancing act requires is a first class communications strategy, which gets the message out about what the Scottish Government is delivering now, what it is doing with the powers it has to deliver for the future and what it could do if it had all the powers a normal country needs to create the wealthier and fairer society the SNP espouses.
There is no doubt that it’s doing the first bit very well and the last bit at every opportunity. But the bit in the middle? Well, the fact that Labour is still using “Scotland on pause” whenever it can suggests it thinks it’s on to something. Allowing the charge that this is a do-little government to go uncontested might not be the best tactic after all. Not when you’re trying to persuade people to trust that we have what it takes to make a success of independence, nor to feel confident that we can do better, making our own way in the world. The bit about using the powers we have to create a better, brighter future might actually be helpful to the narrative aimed at encouraging more to vote yes.
Some politicians are also people of action. Dynamic figures who, when the going gets tough, are prepared to step out of their office, roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty.
Like the Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, Councillor Mark Greenhill, the area at the heart of the terrible firestorms sweeping through New South Wales, Australia. As well as contributing to the co-ordination of efforts to manage the disaster, Cllr Greenhill “did sneak away yesterday” from mayoral duties to do a 12 hour shift as a volunteer fire officer, standing literally in the line of fire with colleagues and friends, to do his bit. “My small contribution pales into insignificance compared to the majority of firefighters… they are just magnificent, they are our thin yellow line and they personify what our community is all about“.
Then there’s my favourite Cory Booker, current Mayor of Newark and now Senator-elect of New Jersey. His activities during heavy snow in his city a couple of years back are legendary; he was out there with crews, digging cars out, delivering emergency supplies to people snowed in and keeping in touch with people throughout by Twitter. If you want to understand what makes him tick, read this excellent article on the New Yorker.
But neither would appear to have anything on Councillor Cara Hilton, standing as Labour’s candidate in the Dunfermline by-election. For Councillor Hilton has a spectacular offer for the good citizens of Dunfermline and the West Fife villages. She is offering to “reduce your cost of living“, which is a quite remarkable claim for a putative backbench opposition MSP to make.
I visualise her as the parliamentary equivalent of Mrs Moneypenny, spending her days scouring the streets of her constituency, accosting her constituents, doling out money saving tips: “don’t buy pre-packaged salad”; “eating out costs a fortune”; “check your tyre pressure and use less fuel”; “do you really need to throw that out, you can make a tasty casserole from left-overs you know”.
Actually, it’s not a bad platform. If it were me, I’d be setting up community sharing arrangements for energy supplies, seeking funding for community food initiatives and helping get them set up in the most deprived communities, exhorting energy suppliers to stop pre-paid metering for their poorest customers, calling on the council to raise the clothing grant voucher amount and extending the availability of free school meals, while lifting charges for community care services like lunch-clubs and taking on the supermarkets and big business, demanding a living wage at the very least for all they employ.
But I doubt very much that Scottish Labour has a clue how Cllr Hilton will go about delivering such a sweeping pledge. Particularly when the things that she could do are largely all things she can do at the moment as an elected member on Fife Council.
No, it’s just an empty slogan in a by-election which has Labour at its absolute worst: so desperate is it for the prize of another seat at Holyrood (and an SNP scalp) that it is prepared to say anything to get their woman elected.
There are two Labour leaflets allegedly doing the rounds in Dunfermline at the moment. The first turns the SNP’s cost of living savings leaflet on its head and claims Labour glory for all manner of policies that it has only a tenuous link to.
Absolutely true is that the Labour-led administration introduced free bus travel for older and disabled people, and a very fine policy it is too. Also true is the fact that Labour introduced free personal care, again a good policy which has helped many older people’s income go further.
But it is stretching the truth to say that Labour was first to scrap bridge tolls. It was the Liberal Democrat arm of its coalition which insisted on the scrapping of Skye Bridge tolls being in the partnership agreement: it wasn’t a Labour manifesto pledge. And indeed, despite having the powers throughout its eight years in office to scrap tolls on the Forth Road bridge, Labour had no inclination to do so. These are the ones that count for the people of Dunfermline.
And while Labour did indeed support the scrapping of prescription charges when the SNP proposed to do so, what that wee segment fails to mention is that again, it had the power to do so when in administration and did not. Indeed, under Labour prescription charges rose and rose regularly. That support came about because the party felt it could not be seen to oppose their scrapping rather than from any principled position on making them free.
Perhaps the most misleading claim is that “Labour froze council tax first”. This is technically correct with the Labour administration in Glasgow City Council putting in place a voluntary freeze before the SNP became the Scottish Government in 2007. But not in Fife. The leaflet goes on to say that “we continue to support a freeze” which will discomfit many in the movement and especially in council administrations elsewhere. All the noises off in recent months have suggested that Labour is moving away from its 2011 election stance on the grounds that it is unfair to the poorest and unsustainable in fiscal terms.
Alongside this leaflet is another: “independence at any cost”, which sets out that independence would cost Fife Council £100 million and would result in thousands of public sector job losses. “The price you pay with the SNP” apparently. Project Fear at its doom laden best, based on no semblance of fact whatsoever.
The vortex effect of a by-election means that normal rules of engagement tend to be abandoned, particularly if one party gets a whiff of victory in the air in the finishing straight. Some have interpreted Labour’s messaging this weekend as a sign of desperation but it’s a bit more complex than that. They clearly think they are in with a shout of winning, they just have to seal the deal in these last few days. Hence, the desperation is to push those wobbling, still to be persuaded electors into voting for them by ramping up the offer. Who cares if anything that is being said is true or do-able, so long as it gains the necessary votes.
These tactics also smack of something more deep-seated. Winning this by-election is everything, indeed, getting back to winning ways is everything and the party would appear to be prepared to stoop to anything to make it so. It might well work and such a victory would provide the filip the party needs both in Scottish and UK electoral terms, but only in the short term.
Alarmingly, its approach to this by-election would suggest that Labour has learned nothing from its two Scottish election defeats. The Scottish people in previously Labour heartlands and strongholds turned away from Labour because it no longer had an offer worth voting for. Power for power’s sake had become the thing and folk could see through that, particularly when they had a competent, credible alternative for their votes.
Recent polls on voting intentions in 2016 and on approval ratings for parties and leaders suggest that Labour has done and is doing nothing to turn these perceptions around:fighting by-elections like Dunfermline using a succession of low-blows reinforces this. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either that Dunfermline voters – rather used to confounding conventional electoral wisdom these days – will fall for these tactics.
Even if they do return a Labour MSP, a single by-election victory does not a recovery make and if won on the basis of lies, smears and half-truths will actually represent a retrograde step. Labour needs to start being honest with itself if it wants to win the trust of the electorate.
Worst of all, Cara Hilton is a decent and strong candidate who is worth better than this. There was lots to like in her profile and I hoped in her to see a glimmer of Labour’s future, not its past.
But allowing the party to occlude her offering with this kind of machine politics suggests she’s not nearly as substantive a politician as I thought she might be. Voters in Dunfermline and the West Fife villages might want to ponder this when they go to the polls on Thursday. One thing’s for sure, they wouldn’t be getting a Cory Booker or a Mark Greenhill.
So, I didn’t make it to any conferences this autumn. Long story, let’s not bother. Claiming to be a blogger when your recent output suggests otherwise played a part though.
And nor did I actually hear the First Minister’s speech. Heresy for some I know, but a family outing to Stair Park to see the mighty Stranraer play was too good an opportunity to pass up. Especially for the unexpected pleasure of seeing an enormous Yes hoarding on top of the wee turnstile block and the opportunity to inaugurate a Stranraer fans for yes group.
I read the speech in full this morning and as everyone has already opined, it’s a great speech. In fact, reading it with the First Minister’s voice in my head, I actually welled up at the latter passages: maybe a good job I wasn’t actually in the hall, I’d have been blubbing.
There can be no doubt that Alex Salmond has rediscovered his mojo. At the start of the summer, after a bruising few months, he seemed like a man on the ropes, bruised and battered by all the defensive sparring and who appeared to have thrown his towel in, ceding control of it all to his more than able Deputy.
But a summer away from the fray and he emerged in early September, several stones lighter and purring in that way only he can do. As a friend who found his style intensely annoying once said, he acts as though he has something up his sleeve and I just wish he’d get on and reveal it.
He is back in this mode. He looks good. He sounds good. And he’s up for it. Cue relief all round for those of us in both the SNP and Yes camps.
There is absolutely no doubt that the SNP is now circling Yes’s wagons. Since its launch, they have allowed it to get on with creating the campaign to win the referendum. Of course, the SNP wanted some of its people in strategic positions and there has indeed been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing behind the scenes but publicly, there has been a hands off approach. There was a willlingness to allow this movement to blossom and grow and work in tandem, parallel to the Scottish Government.
I recall in the late 1990s, Alex Salmond realising that to win independence, a wider movement, beyond the SNP, was needed. He tried to get one off the ground then but the timing wasn’t right. But that episode paved the way for the current movement, for supporters of an independent Scotland from all parties and none. And had Yes Scotland not made such a bourach of things then they might have been allowed to carry on, as they are, all the way to the finish.
It was my dad who crystallised it for me at the Indy Rally. A wise old owl who’s been around the block and who has spent the last 25 years of his life working for the SNP and the cause, but also for the good of his community. And that’s meant working across party confines to create, support and when needed, oppose rainbow alliances in council administrations in Dumfries and Galloway. He knows what it takes to build coalitions which work. And for both him and my mum, the abiding pleasure of that day was being there and knowing hardly anyone: lovely to renew old acquaintances but much more powerful that there were thousands of people neither of them had ever seen or met before. It wasn’t an SNP gathering but an independence one, truly.
Yet, his view of all the speechifying was illuminating and contained two nuggets. First, that there were far too many “shouty socialists“. By this he meant, people with a narrow and repetitive far-left view of how Scotland should be, which frankly was largely unrepresentative of the wider population. It might have pleased his daughter but “this isn’t what resonates with people out there, this isn’t what folk in Scotland believe in or vote for.”
Second, he wondered where all the SNP speakers were. For over an hour, it was an SNP free platform. Some of the speeches were great – he loved Elaine C Smith and Dennis Canavan – but wondered why if the Chair of Yes Scotland was up there, why too was the Chief Executive. Good question actually. But what puzzled him most was that out of a platform of 12 speakers, only 3 were identifiably SNP and two of those were Scotland’s highest elected politicians. Why was the SNP ceding this territory – their territory – to everyone else? A quarter of the speakers, yet a majority Government and years, nay decades of foot slog and ridicule and belief to get here, and suddenly it’s like the SNP didn’t matter, had no locus here. It made me, someone who had embraced the wider, broader movement pause. And he was right (of course).
I don’t think he was alone in these thoughts. And from manoeuvres in recent weeks, it would seem the SNP leadership, the inner war room, agrees. This subtle shift might all have been part of a grand plan but actually I think the party was sincere in its initial intention to facilitate the building of a wider movement and allowing its momentum to lead the campaign.
But it isn’t working. And over the summer, it seems like the First Minister has gone away and thought about what needs to change.
Yesterday’s speech marks a critical juncture. Clues had already been laid: I might agree with Alex Bell’s view that the White Paper should lay out the seismic shifts required in Scottish society to create the nation we want to be, but political reality suggests otherwise. Such an approach would send voters scurrying from undecided to no. And such a fundamental difference of opinion on this seminal document meant he had to go.
Others “close to the leadership” have been laying a breadcrumb trail: Andrew Wilson’s recent columns are instructive here. Yes, we should aspire to be the change we want to see in the world but let’s not set out in detail this side of the referendum what that might mean, except where it’s about encouraging people to buy into the vision. Thus, the commitment to a minimum wage in independent Scotland which keeps pace with the cost of living.
Moreover, Kenny MacAskill spoke for many SNP activists at last year’s SNP conference in the NATO debate: some of us are tired of marching and would just like to get there with enough time to enjoy the view. Ultimately, what matters more: winning the campaign and losing the vote or just plain winning? The SNP has too much experience of the former not to use those scars to work out how to persuade the Scottish people to vote yes. If that means winning on terms that the Scottish people are comfortable with, then so be it. As Andrew Wilson’s Donaldson Lecture suggests, the referendum is not D-Day but Day One.
At the heart of it all is trust. While the polls might show little movement towards a yes vote, they also indicate which party the Scottish people trusts. The approval ratings for both the SNP and the First Minister are remarkable, given that they come after six years in power. People believe that the SNP delivers what it promises. Why do you think Johann Lamont has made it her mission to chip away at the First Minister’s character and why Better Together have tried to undermine people’s confidence in the premise of independence? Thus, if we are to win a yes vote, then the SNP needs to move to the forefront of the referendum campaign, to show itself as leading this debate, so that people can trust the terms of the debate.
The First Minister being back at the top of his game is crucial in this regard. Those who think it’s nearly all over should think again.
This cause is not lost, not lost at all.
For everyone discomfited by this shift, they would do well to remember this. Having learned the hard way, the SNP now knows how to win elections. Whether this translates, or can translate, into victory for a referendum campaign remains to be seen. But with barely a budge in the polls in eighteen months, Yes needs a different tack.
On the evidence of the last few weeks and yesterday’s speech, the First Minister does indeed appear to have worked out what that tack is. He clearly does have something up his sleeve and I’m not the only member of my family to be comforted by this.