Posts Tagged Lib Dems

Holyrood’s finest hour?

It’s time for the Scottish Parliament to show its mettle.

Tomorrow, Holyrood will debate welfare reform.  Hopefully, the Scottish Government will lay its delayed Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) before the Parliament and everyone will agree to the highly unusual step of appointing three scrutiny committees for the process, one lead and two secondary ones.  This will enable evidence to be laid and heard from the widest possible range of contributors and allow Holyrood to determine whether and how it allows Westminster to legislate on devolved matters contained in the legislation.

Such is the potential impact to Scotland and her people from the measures in the UK government’s welfare reform bill that nothing less will do.  If ever the SNP wanted to pick a fight with Westminster, if ever Labour wanted to return to the hallowed ground of class politics, if ever the Liberal Democrats wanted to point up differences with their English brethren, if ever the Scottish Greens wanted to champion the cause of inequality, if ever the Scottish Conservatives wanted to show that leopards can change their spots, then this issue is it.

I blogged at the ither place that “the scale of change heading down the tracks from the ConDems’ systematic dismantling of the welfare state is almost overwhelming”.  I don’t think I was over-stating the case.  For if the ConDems get their way, nary a household nor family in Scotland will be unaffected by some aspect of the bill.  And not for the good.

Everything is up for grabs and for months, voluntary organisations have been trying and largely failing to influence the process at Westminster.  The old labyrinth of benefits will go, to be replaced by a universal credit.  No bad thing in itself, for everyone has been crying out for fairness, transparency and simplicity in the benefits systems for years.  But it is the application of conditionality, time limits and sanctions for not taking up work or work-related activity – with no exception allowed – and the cutting of income and raising of threshholds making benefits harder to access that will cause increased complexity and real problems for claimants.  Though these measures will, of course, slake the thirst of the right wing media which has helped pave the way for public acceptance of these changes with its damaging, inaccurate and misleading denunciations of people on benefits as workshy fraudsters.  But anyone losing their job – and over two hundred thousand people in Scotland have in recent months – will be affected.

Families with disabled children will be particularly hard hit from changes, as will cancer sufferers and those with complex and longterm mental health problems.  Housing benefit changes appear to benefit no-one.  Lone parents, kinship carers, unemployed young people, people unemployed for more than a year, people seriously injured in an accident, young carers, children, women reaching retirement age, people with multiple and complex disabilities, people with mild and moderate learning disabilities, homeless people, war veterans with health problems, large families, separated parents, families with a young baby and low income families in work – all might find themselves worse off.

This matters because if tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Scots are made poorer and more vulnerable as a result of benefit changes, the pressure on services like health, social work, education, housing – and on charities that work with vulnerable people – will rise, at a time when funding for such services is being stretched and cut.  Real hardship could result.

Moreover, the bill cuts across whole swathes of devolved issues and even interferes with the independence of Scots family law, through the child maintenance reforms.  The devolution of certain parts of the welfare state, including council tax benefit, parts of the social fund and the new benefit Personal Independence Payments for disabled people, will create additional work for the Scottish Government and potentially add new burdens to the public and voluntary sector, without, of course, Westminster providing appropriate funding to help smooth the way.

And everything that involves a concession or a benefit-related discount or access, such as fuel poverty measures, or is in fact, a devolved benefit, as free school meals and clothing grant vouchers are, will require to be reformed, again creating additional work for the Scottish Government and where new regulations are required, for the Scottish Parliament too.

To date, the Conservatives have not been listening:  concerns about the impact of measures and attempts to amend provisions have been ignored.  The shape of the bill has changed little since its introduction in the Spring, with the Conservatives aided and abetted in their selective deafness by the Liberal Democrats.  At committee stage in the House of Commons, scarcely a murmur never mind a protest could be heard from Lib Dem members:  that will be the civilising influence at work again, then.

And the political point is this:  Scotland did not vote for this UK Government.  These changes are being imposed with missionary zeal on a population which did not ask for them, and would not want them if it had a choice.

Changing the shape and impact of the bill’s measures is proving impossible through the front door, so it’s time to try the back.  Holyrood can do something here.  It can do its best to change the worst aspects of the bill in which it has a devolved interest.  If it was feeling particularly brave, it could try to stop the bill in its tracks and refuse to consent to allow Westminster to legislate on the matters that properly belong to its jurisdiction.

Wednesday signals the start of the process that might end in an unprecedented denouement and a constitutional crisis:  already many voluntary sector organisations are calling on MSPs to refuse the LCM.  No one knows what might happen if Holyrood said no thank you, not this time.  But that is for the end of the process.  In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament must devote all its available energes and resources to poring over every aspect of this bill, so it can make an informed decision.  Time is short – the bill is now at its Lords stages, which the UK Government has also gerrymandered by creating a grand committee which makes it harder to amend the bill, and will be done and dusted by Christmas – and minds must focus.

It’s time for Holyrood to show the Scottish people what it is made of.  It’s time for the parties to lay aside childish things and act in concert, in the public good.  It’s time to abandon tribal loyalties and politics.  Work together, create a consensus, speak up and speak out.  Then stand together and stand up for Scotland.

Holyrood, your country needs you:  this could be your finest hour.



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

EXCLUSIVE from Pete Wishart MP: Calling all parties to the independence cause

On the eve of the UK Labour party conference, Pete Wishart MP writes exclusively for Better Nation, calling all parties – and Labour in particular – to the independence cause.  Pete is SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire and is currently the SNP’s Westminster spokesperson for the constitution, home affairs, culture, media and sport and international development. 

What’s the chances of an all party campaign for “Yes to Independence”?  Well practically zilch, if we were to listen to the various spokespeople from the Scottish branches of the UK parties.  It would seem that they have collectively set themselves up in a bizarre contest to be the keenest defenders of the Union, and in that defence they will be steadfast. But why have they allowed themselves to be so entrenched on the Union side of the debate, and is there any prospect whatsoever of them even entertaining the notion of an Independent Scotland?

Let’s forget about the Tories just now, even with the contradictory prospect of an independent Scottish “Tory” party in a dependent Scotland, they will be the principle Union cheer leaders.  And what about the Liberals?  Well, they seem to be almost schizophrenic in their approach to the coming referendum with full home rule one minute then this curious Moore/Alexander “muscular unionism” the next.

No, I think it is to Labour that we must primarily look for some sort of encouragement in a meaningful cross party constitutional debate.

There is absolutely no doubt that many in Labour care passionately about the Union, but as Kenny Farquhason recently correctly pointed out, people don’t sign up to the Labour party to defend the Union! They tend to join for much loftier motives like achieving social justice or progressing equality issues. Surely, from the most unreconstructed old socialist to the most convinced right wing Blairite, it would have to be agreed that these fine intentions could be achieved in an independent Scotland?

There are signs, though, that perhaps a more relaxed perspective on progressive constitutional change is starting to emerge.  Former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, now advocates a devo max model of full fiscal autonomy – even George Foulkes made an interesting intervention on the same side a few months ago.  Furthermore, if you rake through the new Labour think-blog, Labour Hame, you can find any number of interesting contributions by some of their more progressive and forward thinkers.  There is a debate emerging in the Labour party and that must be welcomed.

And Labour has a proud tradition on constitutional change. In the 80s, Scottish Labour Action was an excellent example of free thinking on Scotland’s constitutional future. Compare the dynamism of SLA with the poverty of thinking on the Calman Commission and we see what Labour is missing in its internal constitutional debate.

Who knows, there may even be a group within Labour’s constituency that might be prepared to join a cross party campaign for independence?  I know that might sound almost deluded given what their politicians say, but remember in last year’s constitutional referendum (for AV) Labour had for and against campaigns, so why not in this referendum? Certainly a pro-devo max group must now be likely given the contributions from some of Labour’s senior figures.

The alternative is to be lumped in with the Tories, under the leadership of Billy Connolly, or some other Unionist celebrity, in a destructive “no” campaign. Investing so heavily in a doomed “no” campaign would see them increasingly irrelevant in a new, Independent Scotland.  Having a foot in more than one camp would allow the Labour Party to walk away from the referendum result in a much better place.

And what are they arguing against?  What is clear is that the Labour position against Independence has moved on but is still in need of further revision.  The “too wee too poor” arguments seem to have been nuanced recently, having been replaced by a sort of “better together” generality. But other than their intense dislike of us in the SNP, and an almost endearing attachment to the unitary UK state, I genuinely don’t know why Labour are so determined to oppose Independence.

We are in the process of shaping our nation for the century ahead and it deserves a better response than we have had thus far from the Labour Party.  Labour should at least have some sort of meaningful debate about their constitutional options before throwing themselves into a “no” campaign so readily and so enthusiastically.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Long road back for Scottish Lib Dems

Time for someone on this here blogspace to offer condolence and encouragement to the Scottish Lib Dems.  Enough of kicking a party when it’s down and at least, it has taken the first tiny steps on the long road back.

There are clearly benefits to be gained from moving quickly from one leader to another.  No power vacuum, no unseemly public scuffles, no washing of dirty linen in public.  But there are also downsides.  An anointment, which the last two leadership “elections” have been, means there is no breathing space in which ordinary party members will get the chance to have their say and shape their future.  The chosen one gets to consult and listen, or simply impose his or her will and view on the party.  Reality demands it be the former – there are few candidates to choose from after all.

Willie Rennie has today been declared the new Lib Dem leader.  He was, if truth be told, the only credible – or at least most credible – candidate in the tiny group of Lib Dem MSPs.  His experience as party CEO and also as Chief of Staff for the Parliamentary Group, and his time as an MP, give him a hinterland that should serve him well.  By all accounts, he is affable, media savvy, intelligent and should do well.  I can’t help thinking, though, that the Liberal Democrats have a bit of a conveyor belt on this style of politician, not just here in Scotland but across the UK.  It’s the 40 something male thing, of higher than average income background, creating an identikit of leaders in recent years.  No wonder Vince Cable comes across as a breath of fresh air.

But what kind of liberalism does Willie Rennie believe in?  Is he Orange Book or more socially democratic?  Does he belong to the seemingly more Scottish tradition of liberalism as portrayed by the likes of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell or the more strident economically-focused one epitomised by Huhne, Laws and co?

It matters because it will determine how long the road back is for the Liberal Democrats here in Scotland.  They have some time to take a long hard look at themselves and work it out:  the next Parliamentary elections are some years away after all.  But there is the small matter of council elections next year:  these could represent the start of a revival or perhaps achieving stability by holding their own rather than making gains, or result in further electoral punishment.  If the Lib Dems lose their well established toehold in local government across the country one really does have to fear for their future.

There is space for a vibrant political force representing either half of the Liberal Democrat tradition, but it would be a brave man who would lead his party towards the Orange book style of policy and politics in Scotland.  This would appear to be what the Scottish people rejected so emphatically on 5 May.  There is a need for a right of centre, less interventionist economically-focused political party, yet, there is also a need for a party that makes thoughtful social policy its core purpose too.  Both the SNP and Labour have swept up tenets of both, crowding the centre in recent years.  So a nimble Liberal Democrat party could straddle them if it can get the policies, the strategy and the tactics right.

Willie Rennie needs to make his mark and somehow achieve coverage -  no mean feat when reduced to a parliamentary group of five.  One way of doing this would be to pick up on bits of the SNP manifesto that chime with sections of the Liberal Democrat one.  Take forward members’ bills where appropriate;  shame them on reducing the priority of other measures when needed.  But make it constructive opposition.  Underlying the seismic Scottish election result was a sentiment of dislike for the yah-boo politics that everyone – including the SNP – indulged in in the last four years.  The people have spoken, they want this SNP government to have a fair run at it, and it is incumbent on all parties to follow the will of the Scottish people, while still managing to hold the government to account.

It’s a tough job, without the much larger task of reinventing and rejuvenating a severely wounded party.  The burd wishes Willie Rennie well and will watch with interest to see if he is up to it.

Tags: , ,

Election round up: Never mind the parties, what about their voters?

How do you round up when there’s nothing to round up?  I mean, they might as well not have bothered this week.

It’s beginning to feel like Groundhog Day: every morning the meeja are summoned to some inane photo opportunity in some poor unsuspecting town; the respective machines reel off constant announcements and statements (go visit the Steamie to see how relentless they are); news programmes dutifully report the day’s headlines and if they’re really lucky, a gaffe.  And then everyone goes leafleting, canvassing, to hustings and meetings and then they do it all again the next day.  Yep, so far, so dull.

What happened this week?  More polls showed a super soaraway lead for the SNP;  a relaunch for Labour put Salmond, the SNP and independence firmly in its sights;  Annabel presented a ridiculous caricature of herself, if this is possible, in a hairnet eating teacakes;  Iain Gray failed to fight Salmond in the Asda aisles;  and Hadrians wall was breached as UK leaders and big hitters headed north to shore up the faltering Labour and Lib Dem campaigns, and Mr and Mrs Salmond went to London to see the Queen and that wedding;  shock, horror there was a wumman in charge of the country and the sky didn’t fall in.

Dear voter, hang tight, the end is in sight. Here’s hoping for a rip-roaring grand finale with two leaders’ debates this Sunday on the BBC and then on Tuesday at STV.  Please inspire us with a gripping toe-to-toe discourse on the key policies and issues.

So that’s the parties;  what about the voters?  Who is actually voting for whom in this election and what does that say about, well, anything?

Using the IPSOS-Mori poll because it has the most detail in terms of voter disaggregation, there are few surprising variations on what we might expect.

If you intend to vote SNP on 5 May, you are most likely to be male, aged 35 -54, working full time, born in Scotland and living in a rural area, in the least deprived communities.  However, the SNP can also expect a considerable vote from pensioners, though amongst younger age groups, its vote is pretty evenly split between those having children and those not.

Given that Labour and the SNP are fighting it out for the centre ground, they might also be tussling over the same voters?  Actually, no.  Labour voters are more likely to be female, under 35, working part time, living with children in a council or housing association house in the most deprived areas in cities or towns.  Interestingly, their voters are just as likely to come from other parts of the UK or indeed, beyond, as from Scotland.

What does this tell us?  That Labour is holding onto its traditional voter ground, is resonating with the “squeezed middle” but needs to do more to secure the aspirational vote.  It is clear that this vote still sits largely with the SNP.  And despite big efforts, the SNP is still toiling to appeal to women and urban voters.  This matters: if the SNP’s projected lead turns into seats, expect Scotland to turn largely yellow all across the North and South of Scotland, but the central belt will stay stubbornly red.  One other interesting demographic is how few people (according to this poll but probably backed up by experience) born outwith Scotland intend to vote SNP:  the party’s civic nationalist messages do not appear to be getting through.

Perhaps the most significant development is the switch of the all-important pensioner vote, which has been mirrored in the polls throughout this election and which I blogged on previously.  Given older people’s propensity to actually go and vote, these are the voters likely to have a huge bearing on the overall result.  And the shift would appear to be just reward for the SNP Government’s overt woo-ing with a range of pensioner-friendly policies.

What of the other parties?  Conservative voters are most likely to be female, retired, without children, born elsewhere in the UK and living in the most affluent areas in rural communities.  Little surprise there then, but note that their main challengers for this vote are the SNP (who are winning it hands down).

The Lib Dems’ vote is most likely to be younger (25 -34), have no children, own their home, and again live in the most affluent areas of rural communities.

Do you see the pattern?  It seems to support the headline findings which show that the SNP is taking votes from both these parties.  And it also shows the danger of believing the national polls in terms of how big the SNP’s lead over Labour actually is.  Unless and until the SNP is winning votes from Labour in urban constituencies, few seats in the central belt will change hands.

Effectively, the SNP is in the lead because it is taking votes away from the Tories and Lib Dems in largely rural seats, which is also supported by IPSOS-Mori’s findings on the regional vote.  These suggest more Tory and Lib Dem constituency voters intend to vote SNP on the list vote than for Labour.

It all points to two things.  First, that we are likely to have a big urban-rural divide in terms of election outcome.  How that will play out in Holyrood and government remains to be seen.  Secondly, Labour has indeed got its campaign strategy wrong.  Its lagging behind the SNP has less to do with losing the national battle (though this has undoubtedly had an impact), and more to do with mistaking this election – as veteran political journalist Angus McLeod deftly pointed out – as a core vote one, when it has actually been a switcher election.

Finally, what of the Scottish Greens?  Well, the party enjoys pretty even support across all the demographics, though its vote is more likely to be urban, living in the least deprived areas and most likely to have been born outwith the UK.  Everything else is pretty marginal: while having a universal appeal across age groups, gender and employment status might suit the egalitarian spirit of the Greens and their need to pick up regional votes from all types of voters, one wonders what might happen if it targeted more heavily towards particular groups and communities?

Tags: , , , , , ,

Election round up – follow the leader

Four weeks down, three to go.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, or at least polling booth.

A good way to get a sense of what seats the parties are targeting and how the campaigns are going is by playing follow the leader.  Anyone who remembers the 2007 election might recall that Alex Salmond spent rather a lot of time campaigning in Stirling, Alloa, Kilmarnock, Glenrothes and even the Western Isles.  That’s because the SNP’s canvass returns were telling them that these seats were shifting.  And while SNP wins came as a surprise to many, reading the leadership travel runes in the campaign definitely gave signs of real hope.

So where have the four main party leaders (and other leading party figures) been on their travels this week and can we glean anything meaningful from their journeys?

Since last Saturday, SNP leading lights have visited Renfrewshire, Glasgow Southside, Dundee, North East Fife, Glasgow again, Stirling and er, Liverpool.

Labour has been to Edinburgh, East Kilbride, Stirling, Ochil, Edinburgh Eastern, Aberdeen and Dunfermline.

The Conservatives have visited Falkirk, Perth, Cunninghame North, East Lothian, Edinburgh and Ayr, while the Liberal Democrats have been to Glasgow, Argyll and Bute, Midlothian South, Aberdeenshire East, Fife and Midlothian South (again).

I do hope they are all choosing to offset their carbon emissions….

These are probably not all the destinations covered.  No doubt Ed Miliband and Iain Gray called in at Dundee on the way from Aberdeen to Dunfermline today.  And the SNP leader’s trip to Renfrewshire probably shoehorned in as many of the seats in that area as possible.

But overall, it seems that Labour and the SNP are already targeting in terms of expending leadership energy and giving a boost to local campaigns.  Both appear to be trying to shore up marginals they hold, such as the SNP’s Dundee seats and Labour’s Aberdeen Central.  But their voter identification data would appear to indicate that seats like Stirling and Edinburgh Eastern are currently on a knife edge. 

Interestingly, the SNP reckons it is gaining more of the soft Lib Dem vote, hence the parachute into North East Fife.  The burdz not sure if this isn’t just a bit of mischief making, given that it hasn’t yet featured on the Lib Dem leadership’s radar.  Time will tell.  If we see Salmond in seats like Caithness, Aberdeen South and Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch then the Lib Dems can really start worrying.

At the moment, they seem determined to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Midlothian South in a bid to keep Jeremy Purvis at Holyrood.  In fact, if  Tavish spends any more time here, he might just qualify for a vote himself.   They do not seem to have written off Dunfermline West just yet and the amount of focus on Argyll and Bute suggests they think they have a chance of retaking this seat.

As for the Conservatives, it is hard to see what strategy is being deployed, other than keeping Annabel busy.  Falkirk?  Cunninghame North?  Nope, can’t see the point at all.  Though spending time in East Lothian and giving Derek Brownlee plenty of media airtime suggests they are worried about him retaining a seat through the South of Scotland list (as all we experts have already predicted!)

Despite the campaign being half way through and the very tight position at the top of the polls for the SNP and Labour, it is hard to discern a clear pattern.  Expect their focus to narrow in the remaining three weeks to the absolutely key marginals.  Watch carefully and as with 2007, by following the leader all the way to the finish line, you might just be able to spot which candidates have been abandoned as lost causes, which seats might spring a surprise result, and ultimately, who is going to win the election.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,