If I were First Minister…

Oh I know how ridiculous the concept is.  We can agree on that. There are after all, hundreds of reasons why Nicola is and I’m not. I can list more than you can.  But when you’re finished chuckling at the very idea, indulge me.

Because if it was me, I’d kinda have done all that she is doing but I’d be planning more of it. And sometimes a little unwarranted, unsought advice is a good thing.

As the first female First Minister, what to wear and how to look is going to be a thing, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. So yes, embrace it. Turn it into part of your story, of who you are, what matters to you and how you are going to be. Absolutely champion Scottish designers for clothes and jewellery. Make a point of visiting local shops and crafts when out and about round Scotland. Just don’t do handbags, for obvious reasons.

In fact, become Scotland’s champion in all the things that do matter to you. Turn the role into what you want it to be, think it should be in 21st Century Scotland. Promoting design and local produce could become something you do – pick two of the areas you intend to visit in Scotland in a year, and get Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise telt. They should do an expo of all things local for when the Cabinet comes to town. Even better, if some visits could be timed to coincide with local book festivals and you could get to open it or chair something or share your own favourite books or similar. Championing local enterprise, talent and activity while getting to indulge in one of your own passions. You’re allowed to actually enjoy being First Minister, no matter how often the civil servants tell you otherwise.

I’d want to be an accessible First Minister too.  Ra people’s First Minister, that’s what I’d be looking to do. There are things of state that need to be done but get yourself a Depute with whom you can share the stuff that is more duty than pleasure. The Queen has all these Lord Lieutenants littered all over the country. And Deputies. I’d be seeing if some of them couldn’t be more usefully deployed on Scotland duty.

And think about where you do want to spend time and who and how you want to engage with folk. Presenting cups and trophies at sporting fixtures?  Find a Sports Minister who can and will. But pitch up with a wee New Year’s message from the stage of proceedings in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Go to book festivals in the summer. Make a list of what you like doing and tell them that’s what you’d like to be doing, as close to ra people as possible.

Otherwise, keep doing your own tweets. Once a month, walk from Bute House up to St Andrew’s House. Make time to stop and say hello to folk. Once a month too, jump on a bus to do the journey. Get the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh once a month. The security will tell you why you really shouldn’t do it. Tough, it’s their job to figure out how you can do it safely. But also you are entitled to a bit of luxury and some trappings that go with the office. No one (except Paul Hutcheon) expects you to stay in Travel Lodges while you are abroad.  If you are working 18 hour days, you are allowed to have someone drive you home and back again in the morning. And folk to look after you. Running a country is a big job – sell that before the carping starts about what you spend money on or how you do it or spend your time.  Publish your engagements as soon as possible after the fact. Publicise as many as you can beforehand and who is involved and why.

Apparently, you’re not keen on moving into Bute House permanently. Home is after all home. So turn it into ra People’s Palace:  make it accessible and available too. Offer up its facilities on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day for one of the many charities working with homeless people. Do more receptions from it for things you like and want to champion and be open about it.  Get the SpADs to identify a theme day for each month of the year – Mother’s Day (March);  World Aids Day (December); and so on, and turn Bute House into the centre of commemoration, throwing open the doors. And four times a year, fill it with children – an Easter egg hunt;  a Christmas party.  Make sure everyone knows this wee Georgian hoose belongs to them and is shared with the nation.

As for the SpADs, well this is where you have to live the narrative you’re weaving, not just wear it.  If SNP policy now supports 40% of women appointments to boards, then you know what you gotta do. There is a perceived wisdom that no one who wants a life should apply. I’d change that. I’d create a job share part time role for two folk with family or caring responsibilities: their life experience would be well worth it.  And in keeping with the new, even bigger tent approach of the SNP, I’d think about offering a SpAD role to someone outside the SNP.  A Green even. Not that the roles ever were for party folk, it’s just how they’ve been allowed to develop.

The same applies to the Cabinet.  It’s a tough one. You don’t want to tip everyone out for a whole host of reasons but you need to effect enough change to make it your own. To signal even more emphatically that the Salmond Generation has had its time. Apart from yourself of course. But time for you to bring on a new generation of leaders in the SNP by giving them rungs of responsibility. Encourage one or two of the old guard who’ve been warming Cabinet seats since 2007 to jump before pushed.

And of course, 40% women.  I’d also be cultivating a support network of women out there who can be relied upon to have your back when the unnamed sources start their sniping and carping.  As they will.  Because you’re a woman.  And they think that makes you weaker. And fair game. In a way, they’d never dream of doing if it was still Alex Salmond.

You are, after all, entering what has been almost exclusively a man’s world and game.  If it were me, I’d be making the role into what I want it to be, not what I’m told it has to be.

Own it.  Rock it.  Become a 21st Century leader for a 21st Century country.

Just don’t wear those killer heels everyday, you’ll ruin your feet.

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Nicola Sturgeon: on a personal mission

When Nicola Sturgeon walked out onto the SNP Conference stage, I cried.  When she paid tribute to Kay Ulrich, whose was the first SNP parliamentary contest she ever campaigned in I cried.  When she paid warm and fulsome tribute to Alex Salmond, I cried.  When he nearly cried at the sustained applause from delegates, I cried.  When Nicola finished her speech just barely holding back her emotion, I cried.  A lot of tears – happy tears – were shed watching Nicola Sturgeon give her first speech to conference as the SNP’s leader.

That in itself is an achievement worth noting and celebrating. Nicola Sturgeon is the first woman to be party leader in its 80 year history.  On Wednesday, she will become Scotland’s first female First Minister and only the second woman anywhere on these islands to hold the highest office.  She will be the only woman elected currently to the highest office in one of the Parliaments/Assemblies in the UK.  If ever there was a wow moment in Scottish and indeed, UK politics, then this is it.

In her first speech as leader, Nicola set out her personal mission, in political and policy terms.  There are small details which still need work.  A podium which suits her height, so we see more than just her head and shoulders; an autocue so she gets to engage more with the audience at home in telly-land (though she will use more eye contact naturally as she becomes more confident);  and a subtle shift in party messaging.  Stronger for Scotland is too masculine for this, the female age in the SNP and dare I say it, very Salmond.  But all this will develop, just as she flourishes in her new role.

While Nicola devoted a significant segment of her speech to praising Salmond, she also made sure to draw a line: “under Alex’s leadership we have achieved so much, but I’m here to tell you that our best days are still to come”.  And with that the era of Eck was consigned to history.

From there on, Nicola Sturgeon set out her vision and mission and key to the delivery was the way in which she took charge.  This was not a speech in which she showed the way ahead, but told it.  There was a strong message to UK broadcasters about excluding the SNP from televised UK election debates.  She set out the stark reality of what Westminster’s business as usual agenda means for Scotland.  She warned Labour of an apocalyptic future – “linking arms with the Tories will cost Labour dear – this year, next year and for many, many years to come”. And she made sure conference delegates knew what she expected of them: “for all that we have achieved to date, we must do better.  As hard as we have worked, we must redouble our efforts”.

There’s no doubt who’s the boss now.

This speech had so much content and covered a continent in terms of political strategy.  She set out how the SNP will fight the Westminster election next year and what the tactics of an enlarged group of SNP MPs might be. “My pledge to Scotland today is simple – the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government. But I ask you to think about this. Think about how much more we could win for Scotland from a Westminster Labour government if they had to depend on SNP votes. Key to the electoral strategy is an appeal to Scotland to “lend us – Scotland’s Party – your support. Vote SNP and the message we will carry to Westminster on your behalf is this. Scotland’s interests will not be sidelined. Not now, not ever.”

Most of the content of her speech was devoted to what she will do as First Minister in the remaining year and a half of this parliamentary session, and beyond the 2016 elections, with her key ambition to win a third term of government for the SNP.  Her proposals were rich in policy content and also marked a shifting of the guard, with a focus on social justice. Indeed, she has taken ownership of the social justice agenda in Scotland, showing she intends to boss it and leave no room for Labour to occupy this territory.

Much of what she offered will appeal – instinctively, rather than by design I think – to women.  That’s what happens when you have a woman at the top.  Suddenly, the priorities and the pitch change.  Just like that.

We were given a clear insight into Nicola Sturgeon’s political philosophy in one succinct statement: “tackling poverty and inequality – and improving opportunity for all – will be my personal mission as your First Minister. But we all know that in 2014 government can’t do it alone. If we are to make a difference, we must all come together – government, communities, trade unions, businesses, the third sector – and we must make it a sustained national endeavour. Working together, that is the approach that I intend to build.”

Nicola established that she will be a First Minister with a serious purpose, an approach which unifies and an instinct to work with partners.  And she made tackling poverty her personal goal.

Building for the future featured heavily as a theme.  In what the party has to do to win the “prize” of independence and of “prosperity, equality and opportunity”.  In what the SNP in government has to do to win independence: “everything I have experienced since 2007, and everything I witnessed during the referendum campaign, persuades me that good government and progress to an independent Scotland go hand in hand”.  And in what that SNP government has to do for children to have “the best start in life and a bridge to a better future”.

In each and every way, it is clear that Nicola Sturgeon has thought about what she wants to achieve as SNP leader.  And has thought through how she not just survives for the long term, but thrives.  Her political goals are clear, built on a strong party base and traditional totems like broadcasting bias.  But she also took ownership of that heritage and in just 50 minutes, shaped it to set fair for a future fashioned by her and a new SNP team.

Be very clear.  Make no mistake.  Know this.  Nicola Sturgeon is on a mission, which as her whole life has been, is both personal and political.

And she has over 85,000 willing allies within the party, and many more thousands of friends and potential partners outwith it, to help her achieve it.

 

Privacy, payment, participation – the poll tax controversy

I’m rather liking the Maximum Eck Mark II, the version of the First Minister which, on his exit strategy, he is off the leash. His opponents might fulminate and froth at the mouth, but I suspect the public is rather liking it too.  No longer is the First Minister prepared to ignore slights and calumnies: no one is safe and the newspaper letters pages and media phone-ins are great ways for him to settle a few scores.  And make his point.  It’s the sort of communications strategy that makes minders and spinners very nervous but you can’t deny it’s having an impact.

The First Minister wrong footed everyone on the poll tax issue, including the Scottish Parliament.  Which was a little bit naughty, as the Presiding Officer pointed out.

Still, he stole a march on his rivals, treading yet again where others have feared to, by consigning the poll tax to the rubbish bin of history, as he put it.

What had occasioned it was the opportunistic behaviour of local authorities, seizing the opportunity of all those new entries on the electoral register to find those who owed outstanding sums of council tax and community charge. This raises serious concerns on a number of levels.

Firstly, do local authorities have rights to do this at all?  Are they entitled to take electoral rolls and compare that with information held on databases about who has paid what in terms of council tax and community charge?  One issue is whether Valuation Joint Boards (VJBs) which compile and hold electoral rolls are separate entities – for the purposes of data protection – from local authorities.  Another is what Boards’ statutory obligations are in relation to protecting the privacy of data and in sharing that data. Lothian Valuation Joint Board’s data protection entry sets out the circumstances in which and bodies with whom it might share data: it does not seem to indicate that sharing the data with other aspects of local government for the purposes of debt collection is allowed.

Then there is the issue of the edited or open register.  Even if local authority finance teams are allowed to access – or indeed, pay for access – to the register, surely the same rules apply to these departments as apply to others purchasing access to this marketing information.  And if an individual has ticked the box to remain off the open register, then debt collectors (including local government finance departments) should not be given access to their details.  Of the hundreds of voters I encouraged to register to vote during the referendum campaign, I also encouraged each and every one of them to tick that box, explaining why they should do so.  If others doing voter registration during the campaign did not, then some training and education is needed.

 

All of the above may be moot points – local government may have powers different to the rest of us in terms of sharing data beyond the original purpose of its collection;  VJBs might be legitimate parts of local authorities and therefore, not treated as external bodies for data protection purposes.  Whatever the rules are, some clarity would be welcome from the Information Commissioner and indeed, VJBs, electoral assessors and council Chief Executives on how they handle our data.

Moreover, we need to counter the Tory mantra of no representation without taxation.  That is not the law nor indeed, within the ambit of human rights.  Local authorities – as agents of the state – are under duties to hold “free elections”.. by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”  The UK incorporated this article 3 of the 1st Protocol of the ECHR into the Human Rights Act 1998.  It applies in Scotland therefore, to all elections, and it is arguable that linking the act of registering to vote with chasing down local tax debt is a condition which restricts the free expression of some people.  The right to vote applies to all, whatever the state of their finances and we need to stand up for these rights and challenge the Tories – and others’ – base assumptions.  These kind of arguments are important because they go to the heart of who we are and who we purport to be.  We want to be and be seen to be a fair and equal society?  Then let’s start talking in a way which creates standards about how that society should operate.

This is not what motivates local government of course. Councillors are proclaiming upset at having a potential income stream turned off.  Apparently, ridding Scotland of the right to collect tax owed from over 20 years ago will further limit councils’ income in cash-strapped times.  COSLA has said £425 million remains outstanding: the amount collected last year?  £396,000.  At this rate of recoup, it would take Scotland’s councils some 89 years to clear the arrears.

The handwringing is misplaced and disingenuous, when considered alongside local authorities’ success at collecting sums currently or more recently, due and outstanding.  Since 2004-05, Scotland’s local authorities have collected less council tax each year, year on year.  That year, it collected 96.9% of the amount due – by 2011-12, that had fallen to 96.0%.  Clearly, in a recession, collecting tax becomes a harder business.  But the point remains: COSLA complains – whether or not it is actually true – of being shackled by the council tax freeze, of cuts in Scottish Government funding causing cuts to services and of severe financial difficulties. Yet, for each of the last 8 years in which we have audited figures, it has collected less of its own income.  The cumulative impact has been to deny these same local authorities nearly £531 million in income which could have been spent on vital services – more than is outstanding on poll tax.

And it’s not just on council tax.  While income collected from businesses through non-domestic rates has increased every year, every year less is also collected than is budgeted for.  In short, there are more lucrative income streams available to local authorities than going to the expense and trouble of decades old community charge.

The reality is more complex – the cost and effort that goes into collecting the outstanding sums of any tax is considerable.  There are as many can’t pay, shouldn’t have to pay in terms of changed or straitened circumstances in relation to council tax and indeed, business rates, as there are in relation to outstanding poll tax.  But equally, I’m prepared to hazard that there are plenty who could pay and should pay who currently aren’t. Is anyone proposing to chase them down using the electoral roll, or subtly to undermine their right to vote by linking it to taxation?  Of course not.

COSLA’s Vice President, Councillor Mike Cook – an Independent elected member on Scottish Borders council – accused the Scottish Government of not really having a clue and questioned if £396,000 should be sniffed at in the current [financial] climate local authorities were operating in.  In light of the evidence above, his remarks suggest that he needs to do a little homework on the issue he purports to represent Scotland’s councils and elected members on.