Does BBC Scotland’s poll provide comfort for Labour or the SNP?

BBC Scotland’s poll offers a fascinating insight into the “people’s priorities” for the forthcoming spending review and Scottish budget.  But do the findings offer comfort to Scottish Labour or the SNP?  Indeed, do they offer any party any comfort at all?

Headline results first:

– over 80% blame UK governments, either the previous Labour one or the current coalition, for the forthcoming cuts

– nearly three quarters support spending cuts to rein in the deficit but over 80% want cuts applied slowly, to reduce the impact on public services

– 55% either strongly or tend to agree that “the Scottish Government should use its tax-raising powers in order to minimise spending cuts in Scotland”

– in order of popularity, this is what respondents would “cut”:  raise the age for free bus travel;  a two year pay freeze for public sector workers, except those on low pay;  charging drivers for using major roads;  charge older people on higher incomes for personal care;  charge university students fees; cut jobs in the public sector;  cut public sector pensions;  increase prescription charges;  increase the council tax; and finally cutting spending in the NHS

At first glance, the findings would tend to support the SNP’s stance and statements to date on the Comprehensive Spending Review and forthcoming cuts.  People agree Labour is to blame, a huge majority support the gradual approach to cuts they have been advocating and in terms of priorities, ringfencing of the NHS budget and aiming for a council tax freeze for a fourth year are also the people’s top priorities – and by some margin.

Yet, there are several areas of disagreement, not least in respondents favouring a shift away from free and universal services towards a more targeted approach.  And people seem fairly relaxed in terms of charging for higher education through fees, a measure already ruled out by the SNP Government.

Labour would appear to be in a more difficult position.  Their party is number one culprit in the public’s eyes for the financial situation we find ourselves in and they have already signalled support for raising council tax.  However, it remains to be seen if Scottish Labour can successfully decouple itself from the UK Labour government in terms of blame for cuts – they are certainly trying hard to do so.  Moreover, their living wage campaign (although entirely spurious as I blogged in a previous post) is largely supported and they also favour a gradual approach to cuts.

However, two areas suggest that Scotland’s major political parties are behind the curve, in terms of public thinking.  A slim majority of respondents support using Holyrood’s tax raising power to offset the need for cuts.  Labour tentatively suggested such an approach but the SNP immediately shot it down in flames.  The reaction smacked more of winning the battle of the day rather than the long term prize.  It would seem that the Scottish public is less scared of paying more than getting by with less.  Yet, conventional electoral wisdom suggests that no party ever won a term in government by proposing to raise taxes.  The tartan tax option has been slow to raise its head in this debate – I doubt if this will be its last appearance.

The second issue again intimates that the public would prefer rationing and increased contributions for existing services, than actual cuts.  Four out of the top five favoured options (six out of ten in total) are about limiting availability and/or introducing new or increasing existing charges for services.  They are not cuts at all.  Although they acknowledge that some might have to go without, there is still an appetite and indeed, a desire to see such services survive for those who need them most.  A more thoughtful debate on the merits and limitations of universality is clearly required.   

The findings also suggest that the forthcoming Scottish budget should focus less on cutting spending and more on finding the money to maintain services, where possible.   If that involves new charges – for using roads and for university education – then so be it.  Innovative measures for raising money within Holyrood’s current powers is not something our political parties have a track record on:  they might have to develop one, and fast.

Finally, there is remarkable consensus on the preferred priority measures, no matter how the findings are disaggregated.  Except in three groups – women, voters aged 35 -54, and public sector workers.  These differences will be analysed in a future post, not least in terms of their significance for the forthcoming Holyrood election.