Posts Tagged #sp4

Beware the worms lurking in cans!

Can WormsIt seems that in the absence of anything meaningful to offer the populace, and despite being given a kicking of the first order at the polls, Scottish Labour has decided that it’s groundhog day.

Carping, sniping, empty posturing. That’s what the people rejected, so we’ll give them more of the same.

How else do you explain the shitstorm its elected representatives have been trying to generate in the last few weeks? First, with tongue firmly not in its cheek, it demanded to know just how close the SNP and Alex Salmond had got to Rupert Murdoch and his News International empire in Scotland. In an extremely linear approach which would keep no person out of jail, Paul Martin determined that because the Scottish Sun had supported the SNP in the last election, ergo this was damning evidence of the SNP being in Murdoch’s pockets.

So the Scottish Government duly publishes a full list not only of First Ministerial contacts with the media since 2007 but those of key Cabinet members AND copies of correspondence between Eck and Rupe. The latter ain’t pretty and caused many toes to curl in discomfort. Yes, the First Minister might have been really, really trying to portray himself as the global media mogul’s equal and really, really trying to persuade Murdoch to become a Caledonian champion. But frankly if there had been anything to hide, the goverment would have hidden it.

But like much of its interventions in the last year, Labour might well have scored an own goal. Disclosure of Labour leaders’ contacts with the media has been asked for and… we’re still waiting. Oh why are we waiting? What’s so hard about pulling together a list of all the meetings, lunches, receptions, letters etc exchanged between the Scottish Labour leadership – Iain Gray, Wendy Alexander in opposition and Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish during their time as First Minister – and Scottish media representatives? The longer they take, the worse it looks, even if there is nothing untoward at all. But they started it.

But the real can of worms opened up by Scottish Labour recently involves the insinuation that the SNP Government offered Brian Souter honours for political donations. They haven’t actually come out and said it, but the inference is of cash for honours on our ain doorstep. Siller for hallions no less.

A whole webpage has been set up over at Scottish Labour’s website – the Souter files, powered exclusively with righteous indignation, over-wrought hyperbole, and rank hypocrisy and inaccuracy. Cathy Jamieson MP suggests that “The First Minister and his party must look seriously at the relationship they have developed with wealthy individuals handing them large sums of cash. The public will rightly be asking what’s next on Mr Souter’s shopping list and waiting for the First Minister to deliver.”

Individuals plural. Who exactly? Apart from Souter’s admittedly eye-watering donation in 2011, other donations to the SNP were five figure sums, the vast majority of its donations far, far lower. The SNP does not have that many supporters with deep pockets: Souter’s donation was matched by hundreds more, much smaller ones by members and supporters. The only person who out-donated Brian Souter was the late Edwin Morgan through a bequest in his will. What’s that? Nothing nasty to say about the Makar appointed by a Labour First Minister? Oh.

Apparently, Souter’s donation(s) are why the SNP has not re-regulated bus provision in Scotland. I acknowledge – it’s a policy that makes sense and it should be done. But then again, I don’t recall Labour-LibDem Scottish Executives, in power for double the time the SNP has been, rushing to re-regulate. Indeed, in four years of opposition, I don’t recall Labour making this a big issue and pushing for it to happen. How curious.

So let’s overturn the can and see what comes wriggling out. What’s this? A number of individuals – all of them wealthy, some of them longstanding Labour supporters or who have donated to the Labour party and bestowed honours while Labour was the lead partner in the Scottish Executive and Ministers were involved in nominating people for honours.

Moir Lockhead is one such, Willie Haughey is another, as is Duncan Bannatyne and Tom Hunter. All of them distinguished businessmen in their own right, who have also made huge charitable contributions during their lifetime. These are the reasons their honours were bestowed but following Scottish Labour’s current logic, all were given awards at the time they were active supporters and/or donors to the Labour party. Though historic, the worms in its can are far more juicy than the ones in the SNP’s.

Frankly, the Scottish public doesn’t give a damn. It holds all politicians and political parties in equally low esteem. Labour might think it is landing blows on the SNP but all such activity achieves is to confirm what people think of all parties, its ain included. In May the people spoke loud and clear – the SNP was the party they liked better or at least, disliked least. Given the current electoral mood, Labour will continue to come off second best if it persists in pursuing this kind of puerile politics. Making the road back to electoral credibility a whole lot harder.

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Interest in the Holyrood Register

Scottish Parliament at night

Holyrood at its most breathtaking

If I was being sceptical, I would comment on the timing of the release of the Register of Interests for MSPs.  Every year, it is published on 9 July 2011 and this year, it wasn’t even press-released.  But I am not, so I won’t. After all, some things speak for themselves.

The Register is a fascinating document for many reasons.  Because memberships are listed, you can glean a better understanding of what floats some MSPs’ boats.  There are few eyebrow-raising entries – they are a dull lot really, just like the rest of us, which is reassuring in lots of respects.

What is of interest is the number of dual mandate MSPs we now have – 25 I reckon are also elected members of councils until 2012 at least.  This means not only do they receive their MSP salary of £56k but also councillor’s salary/remuneration of between £15 and £20k.

Nice work if you can get it?  Well, no actually.  There are many things I might wish to be when I grow up, but an MSP AND a councillor at the same time ain’t it.  Apparently the full time position is that of MSP, while being a councillor is supposed to be a part time role.  Register entries declare earnestly that time spent on being an elected member is approximately 20 hours a week.  I suspect they know that is an optimistic estimate – councillors especially in small towns and rural areas are literally on call all the time and some will end up spending more time than that on council business.  In a like for like of value for money in terms of time spent versus salary, councillors would beat MSPs hands down every time.

What is interesting is how many dual mandate MSPs are at pains to reassure us that they will not be taking this additional salary.

Six are waiving it altogether – Colin Beattie, Neil Findlay, John Finnie, Mark Griffin, Alison Johnstone and John Pentland.  Two are honest enough to state that while foregoing the salary, they will still claim expenses for costs incurred – Clare Adamson and Richard Lyle.

Nine though are keeping their councillors’ salary on top of their MSPs, meaning they will be earning an eye-popping £70k plus.  Or at least they are silent on what they will do with their councillor salary.  I suspect this might change shortly…. but step forward Willie Coffey, Jim Hume (both of whom are in their second Holyrood term of carrying a dual mandate and presumably, dual salaries), Mary Fee, Hanzala Malik, Margaret McCulloch, Anne McTaggart, David Torrance, Jean Urquhart and Bill Walker.

Eight remaining dual mandate MSPs intend to donate their councillor salary to good causes and charity in their constituencies and/or wards.  George Adam, Neil Bibby, James Dornan, Colin Keir, Angus Macdonald, Derek MacKay, Mark McDonald and Kevin Stewart all intend to do this and at first sight, it seems a very good move indeed.  What small community group or charity could not do with some extra funding right now?

But given that all but one of the generous MSPs are SNP ones I wonder if they have totally thought this through?  Given that this will be their second salary, it will be subject to the highest tax rate and most of it will end up back in HM Treasury’s coffers.  That’s right, SNP MSPs voluntarily giving money back to Westminster. Who’d a thunk it?  The dreaded London masters will benefit from their largesse just as much as good causes.

It’s an understandable gesture that on one level makes perfect sense.  But any dual mandate MSP wishing to benefit local activity would be better served foregoing the salary entirely and haggling with their local council to ensure their salary does not disappear into central expenditure but is divvied up in grants to local good causes.  Another potential solution for councils with a number of dual mandate MSPs might be to establish a trust or make a grant to existing Common Good funds – not the greatest guarantee of community focused expenditure but better than nothing.  This would mean that the taxable benefit could be maximised rather than minimised.

I’m sure SNP MSPs might feel more comfortable with a solution that keeps as much of their councillor salary in Scotland than sending it back to Westminster.



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Timing is everything

Knowing when to pick a fight is one of the first rules in politics and you’d think Scotland’s esteemed political press pack might have learned that by now.

Since First Minister Questions on Thursday – the first of the new Parliament – commentators, have been lining up to lambast the performance *of Holyrood’s new and first female Presiding Officer and lament the possibility of a supposed elected dictatorship, caused by the First Minister apparently grandstanding, speechifying and generally, failing to answer questions put to him.

Well, haud the front page.  Tell me, when did we ever have a Question Time here or in that other place down there that actually involved a proper discourse of issues and questions and answers?

In particular, the Scotsman has ramped up the volume with a lengthy piece liberally sprinkled with comment from Hugh Henry and michty me, a leader column!

Is there nothing happening slightly more portentous and deserving of such weighty treatment?  Actually no, at least not in the Holyrood bubble.  And if the vacuum created by easing itself back into parliamentary politics is enabling mischief-making political correspondents to go away and puff up stories, thereby creating bad press for the SNP Government, then it only has itself to blame.

But to start questioning the ability or appropriateness of Tricia Marwick for the role of Presiding Officer after only one performance is precipitate and indicative of one of the pack’s less fragrant inclinations.

A good manager doesn’t roll into her first meeting and park her tanks on people’s lawns.  No, she watches behaviours unfold and takes notes.  If necessary, she has a quiet, informal word behind the scenes and suggests helpful ways of improving performance.  If that doesn’t work, then she picks her moment to stamp her authority on the miscreants.  The best way of doing this of course is to deflate the behaviour with humour – something Betty Boothroyd was particularly good at as Speaker of the House of Commons.

But if necessary, she does it by clamping down hard.  The point is though she does it when it’s important to do so.

Was there anything at the first First Minister’s Question Time of any real import?  No.  Was there any point in her picking a fight with the First Minister?  No.

A point sadly missing from certain correspondents’ demolition job on her abilities, though at least Hugh Henry MSP has the good grace to acknowledge that there is a settling-in period for people in new positions.

Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians.  I don’t recall David Steele, George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces. Rightly, they were taken to task further down the line when, with a bit of experience under their belt, they were seen to be messing up.

But then they were blokes and entitled to a honeymoon period.  Not something ever readily afforded to women politicians.

The first female Ministers during devolution got similar rough treatment.  Sarah Boyack, in particular, was pilloried for being the bicycling Transport Minister with a nasty undercurrent suggesting she was not up to the job.  Wendy Alexander contended throughout her career with a focus on her personality traits rather than her abilities.  But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore when she was “outed” as an unmarried mother and questions were raised – seriously – about her fitness then to be in charge of the welfare of the nation’s children.

In chamber sketches, other women MSPs found themselves caricatured: Karen Gillon’s Tizer habit, Karen Whitefield – and others’ – weight and voice, Nicola Sturgeon’s being a nippy sweetie (until she effectively lanced this pejorative handle by giving journalists sweeties at a press conference).

Did male Ministers or MSPs come in for such attention? Dinnae be daft.  Except perhaps for Jack McConnell’s fashion kilt faux pas at Tartan Week, few men in our Parliament have come under such scrutiny or had their performance linked subtly or otherwise to their gender or personality.

It would be nice to think that like everyone else, the political press pack has matured since the early, heady days of devolution. On the evidence of some of Friday’s sketches and weekend follow up *in-depth* analysis, it seems not.

But while they might not yet have learned the wisdom of knowing when to pick a fight, I’m quietly confident that Holyrood’s Presiding Officer will know exactly when to do so.  Not just with the First Minister but with the serried ranks of political correspondents.

*the link is only to a search list for the Times Scotland – for those of you who wish to go behind the paywall


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