Muted manifestos

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
By Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

Orbit Communications Director, Graeme Downie, harkens back to the halcyon days of manifestos and when campaigns used to be about trying to win.

 In previous parliamentary elections, the launch of the manifestos usually took place quickly after the beginning of the short campaign, contained numerous policies with nice bullet points and were, you know, the documents that parties campaigned on for the next six weeks.  Ah, those quaint, care-free days!

Since the campaign began some three weeks ago, so far only the Greens and Conservatives have bothered publishing a manifesto at all, the SNP have scheduled a launch for just two weeks before polling day and it seems as though Labour and the Lib Dems are deciding whether they are as well holding a quick photo-opp and clicking send on a PDF document rather than organise a launch!  So, why are manifestos so pointless in this election?

Well, first let’s acknowledge a bit of reality.  How many voters ever actually waited for all the manifestos to be published, read the policy commitments cover-to-cover and then made a rational decision on how to vote?  Very few I suspect so perhaps parties are just catching up with reality.

Afterall, the first two TV debates and surrounding announcements have done more to inform the public about policy and positioning than a manifesto launch event usually would and generated the same or greater media coverage.

But one of the main reasons for the lack of lustre for the old ways in this election is more straight-forward.  In previous Scottish Parliament elections, manifestos were essentially the beginning of the horse-trading for expected coalition negotiations of some kind.  Even in 2011, with the SNP ahead in the polls, there was still an expectation that a deal of some kind of deal might be needed.

This year, that is not the case.  The Scottish Conservatives acknowledged as much in their own manifesto this week, saying “It is clear that the SNP are on course to win the Scottish election.”  Instead the Tories and Labour are campaigning to come in second, the Greens are looking to increase seats within the single digits and the Lib Dems are battling against annihilation.  The feeling amongst the parties seems to be that you don’t need detailed policies to achieve any of that so why lay out radical ideas that might be stolen by the presumed winners.  But do voters in a democracy not deserve to see more fight and belief from these politicians rather than seeing them meekly accepting second place?

Which brings us to the SNP.  They will be the government come the morning of 5 May, almost certainly with a second, supposedly impossible, majority.  So surely their manifesto can be radical given they are going to win regardless?  Well, it might be but I would expect them to stick to their pragmatic approach, building on the perception of the electorate that they are a competent government standing up for Scotland.  And who can blame them, it’s a strategy that has worked since 2007 and surely it is incumbent upon the challengers to make up ground rather than the leader to abandon a winning strategy and risk falling back to the pack.

So, the muted manifestos this year are perhaps in keeping with the overall mood of the campaign itself.  A result already confirmed and no parties really trying to win anything other than a battle with their own expectations.

This post originally appeared on PubAffairs: http://www.publicaffairsnetworking.com/public-affairs-news.php

Scottish Council housing services are improving – but budget cuts require more radical action

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By Kirsty Wells, Head of HouseMark Scotland @Kirsty_Wells

A new report published in March 2016 by Audit Scotland provided encouraging evidence that Scotland’s local authorities have made important progress in the levels of service they provide in housing, even in the face of ongoing cuts to funding.

Audit Scotland’s analysis of Councils’ performance during the 2014-15 financial year showed a significant increase in the proportion of local authority housing meeting Scottish Housing Quality Standards, up from 83.7% in 2013-14 to 90.4%. This is a huge improvement on the 53.6% of dwellings meeting those standards five years previously.

There has been similarly important progress in the number of Council dwellings that are classed as energy efficient, rising from 74.9% in 2010-11 and 94% in 2013-14 to 96.5% the following year.

More modest improvements were recorded in relation to the percentage of rent due but lost during the year due to properties being empty, down from 1.3% to 1.2% year-on-year. Similarly, the average time taken to complete non-emergency repairs to Council housing fell slightly from 10.2 days the previous year to 9.9 days in 2014-15.

The report’s findings suggest that local authorities are making continued efforts to get to grips with performance issues in housing and important progress has been made.

But the headline conclusion of the report perhaps gives more significant pause for thought. This was that, given the scale of cuts to local authority budgets anticipated in the years ahead, making incremental savings through improved performance will no longer be enough. Indeed, the report specifically concludes that: “The Accounts Commission continues to be concerned about councils’ slow progress in delivering services differently, rather than relying on incremental savings to existing models of service delivery.”

Whilst Housing Revenue Account ring-fencing means that housing department budgets may, in part, be protected from some of the budget pressures being faced by other  services, there is a clear expectation that housing departments must ensure they are delivering the best value for money for their tenants and for the public purse.  Like other council  services, housing staff  need to be looking at new ways of working to deliver these savings.

Defining what those new ways of working should be will be the next big challenge local government housing departments will have to grapple with as they seek to achieve a step change in performance that enables them to maintain high standards of service with reduced budgets.

The best way of doing this is to measure their costs, resources and performance against peer organisations, to identify examples of best in class and, wherever possible, to emulate these. That is why cost and resource benchmarking is such an important tool for housing providers to use in these financially constrained times.

Audit Scotland’s report conclusions seem to suggest that Scottish local authorities are still making insufficient use of such benchmarking to drive the significant step change in improving performance that will be required over the next few years.

Without that step change, the risk is that future audits of the performance of Scottish local authorities in relation to housing will start to show a decline in standards as budget cuts really begin to bite. To avoid that from happening, Scotland’s Councils should be acting right now to benchmark their operating costs and performance against as wide a pool of their peers as they can, including other types of housing provider and local authorities in other parts of the UK.

Through robust, validated benchmarking, there is an opportunity to achieve a different approach to service delivery in Scottish council housing. But the Audit Scotland report is also an important wake-up call that the time to act is now.

This blog first appeared in Scottish Housing News.

About HouseMark Scotland

HouseMark Scotland is the market-leading provider of social housing data and insight in the housing sector. Its mission is to drive improvement by providing the data and insight its members need to respond to change. More than 950 housing organisations are members of HouseMark across the UK, giving housing organisations unrivalled access to a wealth of baseline data to benchmark all aspects of their day-to-day performance and to drive continuous improvement.

HouseMark is jointly owned by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation – two social housing sector not-for-profit organisations that reinvest their surpluses into the sector.

Why I’ve only voted Labour once

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By, Jordan Ferguson  @JordanwFerguson

Jordan Ferguson talks frankly about his own personal experience of falling out of love with Scottish Labour

With five weeks to go until we elect arguably the most powerful parliament Scotland has ever known I find myself party-less. That is to say I no longer have membership of a political party. I let my membership lapse last month through predictable forgetfulness and my refusal to arrange yet another direct debit.  So I decided to make the most of my unexpected political freedom and shop around a little.

After a month of high expectations it turns out I’m not green enough for the Greens, not liberal enough for the Liberals, not conservative enough for the Conservatives and, having no interest venturing as far left as Rise, was left with Labour.

Like most people from Glasgow, I was brought up to support Labour and overall I mostly agree with Labour policies. I grew up around the whole Cool Britannia thing and was just young enough to think Tony Blair was cool because he had Oasis at No. 10, although I am now however ashamed to admit I ever thought Noel or Liam were cool.  I like what Gordon Brown did as chancellor and most of what Labour achieved for Scotland. Thing is, the only time I ever voted Labour was 2010 and that was more a vote against the Tories.  So why have I only ever put an X in the box next to labour once?

It’s not because the candidates where I’ve lived have been bad they have been quite good at times. I just find the parties taste in leaders terrible.

Now, I’ve heard veteran members in pubs and podcasts praise Kezia’s leadership of the Scottish Labour Party and for the life of me cannot understand why. My assumption is she does a lot behind the scenes that only party members are aware of. Well that would make her a good politician not necessarily a good leader.

I genuinely cringe when I hear her talk at FMQs. She stirs up memories of sitting through countless university presentations when someone read a script on something they neither understood nor cared about.  She has just the right amount of media training to know to over emphasise key words but, to me, still comes off as disingenuous and entirely unnatural.

At FMQs, Kezia seems to follows a very simple format.  Open with an attack on the SNP, big or small, back up the statement with some mock outrage and then slot a question loosely relating to the first statement at the end. It seems to me as though her objective is to slag off the SNP and asking questions is really just an inconvenience for her.  Is this really the great Labour plan? A strategy modelled on Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank, just chip away small amounts over 20 years and eventually you’ll break through.

Like it or not the SNP are quite popular in Scotland. They may not have won the independence referendum but they definitely won the Scottish people. They hold a majority government in a parliament designed specifically to stop any one party having a majority and come May that majority will probably increase.

They have realised a potential of the Scottish Parliament that Labour never could.  And let’s be honest, they have actually done a good job of being in Government. Even its record on education isn’t really as bad as Labour tries to make out.  Actually all attempts at vilifying them have backfired and given them more credibility. So maybe, just maybe, it is not a good idea to attack as Labour seem so determined to do.

I understand the role of the opposition is to hold the government to account but only when there is something to be held to account on. I thought with parliament dissolved she might see her role differently. As I watched the leaders debate I realised I was wrong.

The other leaders seemed to have moved away from the expected SNP bashing with Patrick Harvie staying remarkably quiet and Ruth Davidson choosing to target Labour in the fight for second place.

Either arrogance or ignorance has led to this positon where the party feels no need to justify past actions or even attempt to repair its reputation. Instead it seems to me that the Labour Party in Scotland only exists to destroy the SNP.  It seems to have no concern for its own reputation or in holding power. Instead it appears focussed on ruining one party so badly that it’s willing to destroy itself in order to do so.  As a result, I suspect I will remain in my party political no-mans land for a little while yet.