School’s out for summer

Sarah Robertson Orbit Communications 04
Sarah Robertson, Account Executive:  LinkedIn

Yesterday (29th June) was the last FMQs of this school year and as of today our MSPs are off on an enviably long summer break. So, what better time than now to look back on the last 12 months and see what an end of term political report card might look like.

The wider political world’s record over the past 12 months consists of U-turns galore, plenty of pre-Brexit peacocking, the (unfortunate) meteoric rise of a certain Mr Trump who has singlehandedly saved Twitter’s stock from circling the drain, and a Jeremy Corbyn speech that drew the biggest crowd to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage since the Rolling Stones in 2013.

The Scottish Government has faced some testing times during which Ms Sturgeon, as always, has remained personable. Maybe that’s why Nicola-bot just isn’t quite as catchy as May-bot. Over the last 12 months our First Minister has come across as, dare I say it, strong and stable in increasingly fractious and uncertain times. That being said, her record closer to home might not look so shiny.

The loss of the SNP’s majority certainly brought a new dynamic to Scottish politics and Ms Sturgeon’s government regularly received a bloody nose from opposition benches on issues such as education and healthcare.

Opposition parties have highlighted Nicola’s pledge made back in 2015 to put closing the attainment gap front and centre. Last year she made John Swinney, her most trusted minister, Cabinet Secretary for Education to prove to sceptics that she was serious. However, the Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems have found it relatively easy to throw punches at the government, drawing on Scotland’s sliding literacy and numeracy standards, our widening – not closing – attainment gap, as well as the delayed Education Bill.

On healthcare, the issue of low and stagnated pay has bitten the government where it hurts, and long waiting times for things like access to mental health services have proved troublesome hurdles for the SNP administration to navigate. While over the years these issues have been rumbling in the background, it seems they have begun to come to a head and the public have started to ask, with all the extra powers the Scottish Government now has, why things aren’t improving.

A glaring blemish on the SNP’s report card, and something that Nicola will no doubt be reflecting on over the summer holidays, is her party’s loss of 21 seats in the General Election. There is no doubt that this result has influenced her U-turn on indyref2 and it is evident there is growing doubt amongst party ranks as to whether Independence, for now, is a good idea.

Only yesterday, on the last day of term, a report by the Fraser of Allander Institute said Scotland’s economy is “likely to continue to lag behind the UK.” While opposition parties have used this to berate the government, and ministers have said the fundamentals of the Scottish economy remain strong, it is clear that whatever side of the political spectrum you sit, the summer probably won’t be the relaxing break some had hoped. Will any of the party leaders take Alice Cooper’s words literally? I can think of one south of the border who might.

“Out for summer, out for fall. We might not go back at all.”

Lies, damn lies and political predictions

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Like most pollsters, pundits and political types that have been talking on TV all night and into the early hours I should start this piece by admitting it is entirely likely that what I am about to say is entirely wrong!  I certainly was with my predictions about this election.

I will leave others to talk about the implications of the UK-wide results beyond saying Theresa May will surely go down in history as having committed the biggest act of political suicide in history – or at least since the one her predecessor made a little over a year ago!

For those of us working in public affairs in Scotland who were looking forward to a period without elections after a total of 6 votes in 3 years, with more opportunity to focus on policy issues which matter most to our clients, this seems a forlorn hope.  it is almost impossible to imagine any party governing for anything close to the full 5 years of a Parliament so a further General Election is surely on the cards – the only question is when!

In Scotland, the story of the night will clearly be the fall of the SNP vote and their loss of seats, in particular the loss of high profile figures from their traditional base in rural areas of Scotland such as Angus Robertson, their former leader at Westminster and Alex Salmond, former First Minister.  Those wins for the Conservatives, along with wins in areas such as Stirling and Aberdeenshire signal a clear return for the party to areas of Scotland which were former strongholds in the 1990s and before.  The role of the Scottish MPs could in fact be critical in a UK context and it would be a supreme irony if those MPs make the difference which keep the party in control of Downing Street.  Either way, the result for the party is certainly not something that anyone would have predicted a few years ago and will put an end to the jokes about numbers of Tory MPs and Pandas.

The other story of the night is the extent to which Labour has also drastically over-performed expectations.  Whilst the party was expecting to hold Ian Murray’s seat in Edinburgh South, as well as perhaps winning in East Lothian, they achieved that and a lot more besides, returning MPs from their own traditional heartlands, including winning seats back in Glasgow.  This certainly gives the party a platform and credibility to continue to rebuild.  The difficulty for the Scottish party now will be the extent to which their success may or may not have been down to Jeremy Corbyn, who was opposed by Kezia Dugdale.  It is likely that hatchets will be buried in that regard in the short term at least but it does present a future problem for the party.

For the SNP, it must feel like a disappointing and frustrating night full of contradictions.  They have achieved their second best ever result in a Westminster election and have some right to claim they have “won” the General Election in Scotland.  They also could not ever have been expected to repeat their exceptional result from 2 years ago when they won 56 out of the 59 seats but the scale of their losses will surely have surprised most in the party.

Although Nicola Sturgeon’s position is under no immediate threat, with so many experienced defeated former MPs, particularly from rural areas, able to snipe from the sidelines should they choose, the First Minister could face a rocky period.  Alex Salmond indicated in his concession speech that he isn’t planning on staying quiet in the future.  The First Minister will need to consider a rethink to her long-term strategy to balance the desire of many in her base support for a quick second independence referendum, whilst trying to win back SNP voters which have been lost in this election precisely because they do not want such a vote anytime soon.

It appears that any thoughts of such a referendum will be off the table at least in the short to medium term but the First Minister will face a struggle to hold together the very broad SNP coalition – will she be forced to decide if the party is an urban one or a rural one?

The other question for the SNP is what role they will now try to carve out for themselves at Westminster?  They have offered to support a Labour Government but surely the price you would expect them to demand, a second independence referendum, is perhaps a gift they don’t actually want at the moment as if this election result has taught us anything it is that voters take a dim view of unnecessary elections and tend to react accordingly, as one Mrs T. May seems to have discovered!

So, there will certainly be plenty to talk about at the next PubAffairs event next week which Orbit are delighted to sponsor.  It will take place from 6pm on Wednesday 14 June at Hemma in Holyrood Road so I hope you will come along.  Between us we might even be able to make some sense of what has happened and have a guess at what might happen next!

This election will impact on Scottish housing

AM March 15
Annie Mauger, Executive Director, Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, @CIHScotland

With control of housing policy devolved to Holyrood, voters with a priority interest in Scotland’s future housing landscape could be forgiven for thinking this Thursday’s general election is of limited relevance to them. Key policies such as affordable housing targets, the integration of health and social care, planning and land reform are all areas where the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and, in some cases, Scotland’s 32 local authorities take the lead.

So why should Scottish housing professionals and others with a keen interest in housing take the time to scrutinise general election manifestos and interrogate the policies of their local general election candidates before voting this week?

In fact, there are many areas of policy with a major impact on housing that remain reserved to Westminster. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of welfare policy. Despite recent reforms that have seen some aspects of welfare policy devolved to Holyrood, there are still significant aspects of welfare where Westminster has the final say. Furthermore, we are still currently in a state of transition as responsibility for certain aspects of welfare policy is transferred to the Scottish Parliament. This means, for instance, that far-reaching UK Government reforms to welfare policy such as the roll-out of Universal Credit are having – and will continue to have – a direct effect on the availability, accessibility and affordability of housing in Scotland.

In particular, CIH Scotland has recently highlighted the negative social impact and spiralling costs of implementing Universal Credit in Scotland. CIH Scotland members have reported to us a substantial increase in rent arrears as a result of delayed payments. Social landlords have been forced to commit substantial internal resources to support tenants with their claims while demand for financial support from alternative sources such as the Scottish Welfare Fund and referrals to food banks are also on the rise. We have also seen an increasing reluctance by private landlords to let property to Universal Credit claimants. These multiple problems of implementation are something the next UK Government – whatever its political colour – will have to confront and resolve.

More recent research has also highlighted the negative impact of proposals by the UK Government to cap Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit for social housing tenants at LHA rates. This means that single people under 35 years of age will see their allowance capped at the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) with the result that around 21,000 younger social tenants in Scotland could collectively face a rent affordability gap of up to £22.6 million per year.

These are just two examples of policy areas where the actions of a future UK Government will have a real and direct impact on the Scottish housing sector. Anyone interested in Scotland’s future housing landscape should therefore consider carefully the implications for Scottish housing of this Thursday’s general election. Having done so, I hope that most will realise just how important it is to go out and vote.

Annie Mauger is Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland.

This article first appeared in Inside Housing.