New Labour leader is king of the jungle

Managing Director, @Alex_M_Orr

Well the votes are in and the winner announced…no, it’s not the final result of ITV’s ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!’, of which more later, but the result of the Scottish Labour leadership contest.

After one of the most bitter leadership elections seen in Scotland, left-winger Richard Leonard comfortably defeated the moderate candidate, Anas Sarwar. It is a win that is seen as extending Jeremy Corbyn’s influence on the party north of the border.

As expected, Leonard won the vast majority of trade union votes, while he won by a far narrower margin when it came to Labour members. When all votes were tallied up, Leonard was out in front by a clear margin, polling 12,469 (57.6 per cent) compared with Sarwar’s 9,516.

The heralding of Leonard’s win was more than a little overshadowed however by the announcement from former Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, that she will temporarily leave Holyrood and join Ant and Dec in the ‘celebrity’ jungle. One of the first acts of Mr Leonard’s leadership will be to decide whether she should be suspended from the party or not.

As for Anas Sarwar, he handled defeat with exceptional dignity, pledging to work with and for Richard Leonard without caveat.  His campaign was however wounded right at the start by a controversy over his family’s wealth and choice of private education for his offspring.

In his victory speech, Leonard said he would lead Scottish Labour as a movement for real change, a movement for democracy and, yes, a movement for socialism. He has promised to win back lost voters with his radical policy agenda.

Leonard becomes leader at a particularly difficult time for the party. The former trade union organiser has become the ninth Scottish Labour leader since devolution and has major challenges ahead if he is to lead his party on the long road to victory, also noting that he only secured the support of a handful of his fellow MSPs.

Divisions between the left and moderate wings of the party have been cruelly exposed during a nine week campaign and the party has been beset by a variety of allegations of sexual harassment. To address this Leonard has promised a zero tolerance approach to “sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment”.

He has also pledged to follow an avowedly left wing agenda. This includes wanting to extend public ownership, to increase workers’ control, to increase public spending, to raise taxes on the rich, including via a wealth tax, to pursue a Socialist industrial policy with a focus on manufacturing and to end inequality.

The Labour victor now faces the twin challenges of supplying detail – for example, on tax – to accompany his rhetoric; and then promoting said policies to a sceptical electorate, weary of political promises.

If he is to win Leonard needs to set out a bold and radical agenda, delivering a strong and wide appeal to voters. Time will tell whether this newly crowned king of the jungle will continue to roar, or the roar will simply end up as a whimper.

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Political parties set for taxing times ahead

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Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_M_Orr

Having taken some time to fully digest the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which outlines the 16 Bills that will be taken forward over the coming year it is clear that while grandiose in its ambitions, some measures in the legislative programme are not quite as radical as first appears.

Some of the aims that have won praise are rather vague in their aspirations. There is a promise to “fund research into the concept and feasibility of a Citizen’s Income”, or Universal Basic Income as it is more normally called.

Green groups called this the ‘greenest’ programme ever, welcoming the pledge to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032. The Scottish Government however doesn’t actually have the power to ban petrol and diesel. A promise was also made to “promote” the use of ultra-low emission vehicles, with a ‘target’ of phasing out polluting vehicles eight years before.

However, with independence on back burner – it is the first SNP programme since 2011 that did not focus on a referendum – and following the General Election losses, it appears that the SNP is now firmly re-focusing on the day job and looking to regain lost momentum.

There were firm commitments made in the programme, enough ‘red meat’ to put the Scottish Government back on track after its set-back of the General Election where it lost 21 MPs. There is also enough in these measures that can be embraced by all parties across the political spectrum.

There is to be a new Climate Change Bill; a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans; free sanitary products; an extension of free personal care to under 65s, and a lifting of the pay cap for public sector workers.

As part of the commitment to closing the poverty related attainment gap, an Education bill will be the centrepiece of the legislative programme, freeing head-teachers from Council control, sounding rather like a Tory policy.

It is however the issue of tax that has caused the most furore and drawn the newspaper headlines, detonating the heart of the Scottish political debate. The First Minister announced the launch of a discussion paper on the use of income tax in Scotland to support public services, calling for an honest debate on the “progressive” use of Holyrood’s tax powers.

Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, smelled blood and the potential of a broken election promise. In its manifesto for the 2016 election the SNP noted that “we will freeze the Basic Rate if Income Tax throughout the next parliament to protect those on low and middle incomes”.  Ms Davidson proclaimed that the “SNP is coming for the paycheck of everyone earning less than £43,000”.

This is dangerous ground for the SNP and voters have better memories for promises broken than promises met. Hence, the cross-party appeal to hear their ideas on tax and co-operate on the budget, spreading any potential fallout.

As the Tories want Scottish tax rates static or cut they are out of the equation, but there is support from the other parties for such a debate on tax rates. Ms Sturgeon wants to force Labour, and the Lib Dems, who have been urging her to use Holyrood’s new income tax powers, to put their money where their mouths are.

As we mark 20 years of the referendum that created the Scottish Parliament, there is ongoing questioning of delivering further devolution to Holyrood, given that it is not seen to use the powers it currently has. A move on tax would clearly address this.

With fortunes on the turn, Ms Sturgeon knows that she needs to be more radical, and she knows that passing Bills at the current rate of four a year won’t cut this, nor will tweaking services with the same old Budgets.

If tax is to go up to fund long-term change, she is clearly looking to make this a cross-party issue with other non-Tory parties, pre-empting charges of electoral dishonesty.

The onus is now on the opposition parties to decide whether to back her minority administration, or back the Conservatives and sack her.

Council election a sign of things to come as the constitution continues to dominate

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Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_m_orr

The votes are in and counted and 1,227 councillors have been elected across 353 wards in 32 local authorities. The dust has now begun to settle and the horse-trading as to who will run these administrations is well underway.

It was the SNP who clearly won these local elections. They have more councillors, 431, and are the largest party in half of Scotland’s councils. The Tories scored big, making significant gains, increasing their number by 164 from 2012 to 276 councillors. Labour slipped back badly, losing 133 councillors to stand at 262. Indeed, the Conservatives have leapfrogged Labour in terms of councillor numbers and can also be counted as winners, in terms of momentum.

In terms of numbers, there have been boundary changes which mean that some comparisons are made with “notional” outcomes in 2012, the last time these councils were contested. On that count, the SNP performed at the lower level of expectations are notionally down by a fractional seven seats. However, in terms of absolute numbers, the SNP have ended up with more councillors than in 2012. Plus the SNP are the largest party in Scotland’s four largest cities – including Glasgow, where jubilant supporters attended their ousting of Labour.

The Conservatives registered gains pretty well everywhere in Scotland, more than doubling their number of councillors and are the largest party in six councils – Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Perth and Kinross, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire, without taking charge of any council. Indeed, Scotland is now No Overall Control territory – with the exception of the Highlands and Islands where the Independents hold sway.

You knew it was going to be a good day for Ruth Davidson’s party when they picked up a Council seat in Gordon Brown’s backyard of Cowdenbeath and other previous no-go areas such as the Highlands, where they picked up seats for the first-time in 22 years and Glasgow, where they picked up seven seats, including a councillor in Shettleston, one of Scotland’s most deprived communities.

The Liberal Democrats mostly held steady – although, sometimes, that was from a decidedly low existing base. But they drew attention to relatively good results in areas where they have Westminster election hopes. The Greens added seats.

The results further reinforce the fact that it is the independence question that dictates Scottish voting behaviour, with every election now see through the prism of the constitutional question.

Ms Davidson led a campaign that was unashamedly about stopping the SNP’s drive for a referendum rather than about local issues. It was inevitable given this that it was the Conservatives who were set to make strong gains, at the expense of both the SNP and to a greater extent the Labour Party. The Tories are now firmly positioned as the main opposition to a second independence referendum.

It is inevitable that these voting patterns will again dominate the General Election, although with a different result because of the first-past-the-post system used at Westminster, which is likely to see the SNP emerge as the clear winners.

Until it is off the table every future election in Scotland – council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster – will be dominated by the constitutional question, the very situation those who voted Conservative wanted to avoid.

Another day, another election as Scots voters set to head to the polls for the seventh time in three years

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Alex Orr, Managing Director

Now that the dust has begun to settle after the Prime Minister’s surprise call of a snap election for 8th June, weary Scots are set to trudge to the polling booth for the seventh time in three years.

Prior to this is the small matter of the local elections on 4th May, a test of the Tory strategy to use these elections to send a message to Nicola Sturgeon of “no to a second referendum”. Indeed, as I write this, the Scottish Conservatives are to put opposition to a second independence referendum at the heart of their local government election campaign.

This is a message that will continue into the General Election. While in the rest of the UK Brexit will be very much to the fore, in Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, it will be the independence issue that will continue to dominate. Indeed, Prime Minister May has again reaffirmed this view, writing in The Scotsman that a vote for the Scottish Conservatives would send a “clear message” of opposition to the SNP’s “divisive” plans for the second independence vote.

For the SNP, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted that the General Election will serve to “reinforce” its mandate for a vote on independence. She will also try and frame the election as being between a right-wing Tory party, which wants a hard Brexit, and her message of “elect us to stand up for Scotland”.

If the SNP do as well as predicted, they will claim yet another ‘cast-iron’ mandate to hold another independence referendum. This is why Nicola Sturgeon says that the Prime Minister has made a miscalculation.

Opposition parties will urge Scots to use the election to say no to a further plebiscite.

The challenge facing the SNP is that they did so well in the 2015 election, with 56 out of 59 MPs and falling just shy of half the vote (49.97%), that any fall will be seen by the unionist parties as a victory, a call for no independence referendum.

In the 2015 election Labour trailed in second on 24% (losing 40 of their 41 MPs) while the Conservatives secured 14% and the Liberal Democrats 8%.

With three parties chasing the “unionist vote” and consequently splitting that vote, the SNP clearly have a huge advantage.

Current opinion polls provide little consolation to these parties. The most recent poll (Panelbase/Sunday Times March 2017) had the SNP on 47% (-3% from General Election 2015), the Conservatives, 28% (+13%), Labour continuing its decline on 14% (-10 %) with the Liberal Democrats barely visible on 4% (-4%).

On this basis the Scottish Conservatives, with only one MP in Scotland, are likely to do well, leapfrogging Labour to second place, as they did in the Holyrood elections. They will be targeting constituency seats won at that election, so expect West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and Dumfries and Galloway to be in the Tory firing line.

Labour will be content to try and hold onto their sole MP, Ian Murray in Edinburgh South, and try and stem the continuing rot. There may also be a sly Labour eye cast to East Lothian, held at Holyrood by former Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray MSP.

The Liberal Democrats could see an increase in their vote and will target seats they took in the Holyrood elections, such as Edinburgh West, where former SNP MP, Michelle Thomson, now stands as an independent, and North East Fife, held by Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie MSP.

Theresa May has rolled the dice, pitching the General Election in Scotland as a de facto vote on Scottish independence. Expect both the SNP and the Tories to claim that they have rolled double sixes on 9th June.

Time to party: Scotland’s political conferences get into full swing

 

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Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_M_Orr

As Scottish Labour gears up for its Spring Conference in Perth on Friday, we look at what to expect from the political parties as party season begins in full swing.

With Council elections on 4th May, this will be seen as a platform for the parties to inject some much-needed energy into that contest, as well as constitutional shenanigans naturally taking centre stage.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour will be gathering in Perth (24th to 26th February). With Jeremy Corbyn in attendance, the results of by-elections in the Labour heartland seats of Stoke-On-Trent Central and Copeland on Thursday will clearly have an impact on the conference mood.

It should be remembered – but don’t expect this to be said at the conference – that Scotland was the only part of the UK where Owen Smith beat Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election in September 2016.

The party, which is expected to lose heavily at the Council elections in May and dropped to third in the Scottish Parliament elections will be reinforcing its pro-Union credentials (with a dose of federalism). Attacks will be made by leader, Kezia Dugdale, on the Tories for “endangering the Union” through Brexit and the SNP for, well, doing exactly the same.

Expect the impact of Council budget cuts, as well as the state of the education and health systems to also be very much centre stage.

Scottish Conservatives

The Scottish Conservatives gather in Glasgow (3rd to 4th March) and while it is not yet confirmed whether Theresa May will be in attendance, all eyes will be on Ruth Davidson who steered her party to second place in the Scottish Parliament elections, leapfrogging Labour.

The constitutional situation will, of course, be very much to the fore, with the Tories positioning themselves as the only true “defenders of the Union”, a platform that brought them success in the Scottish Parliament elections

However, there will be some focus, with an eye to the Council elections, to Scotland being the “highest tax part of the UK”, as well as rises in Council tax and business rates.

That other constitutional matter will of course have to rear its head, that of Brexit. And while conference speeches of the past were very much aligned to the pro-Remain side, this time the line will be very much of making Brexit ‘work’, while attacking the SNP for exploiting this as an excuse to ‘break-up’ the UK.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Like Scottish Labour the Scottish Lib Dems gather in Perth and not only Willie Rennie, but former UK party leader, Nick Clegg, will also be in attendance.

The constitution will be the main topic of debate, with a call for a “Brexit deal referendum”, playing up to both pro-EU and pro-UK credentials.

Buoyed up by some recent by-elections wins the Lib Dems will be talking up their chances in the Council elections.

Scottish Greens

Like the Scottish Conservatives, the Scottish Greens gather in Glasgow. Their event is a day conference on 11th March. Leader, Patrick Harvie, will bask in his roles as ‘kingmaker’ over the issue of the budget deal with the SNP, but there will be concerns over the inclusion of the air departure tax in the budget and its environmental impact.

There will also be talk of taking forward their success from the Scottish Parliament elections into the Council elections.

SNP

The SNP head to Aberdeen for their conference (17th to 18th March). While Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson will be the main speakers, there will undoubtedly be appearances from conference favourites John Swinney, Alex Salmond and Mhairi Black.

Independence, naturally, will take centre stage, especially in the context of Brexit and an ‘almost inevitable’ second independence referendum.

Will the announcement be made to hold another independence referendum? I think not but, this will all depend on whether Article 50 has been triggered by then. There may well be a pledge to pursue a Section 30 order, to allow the vote to take place.

The announcement of some preliminary findings of Andrew Wilson’s long-awaited Growth Commission may also be on the cards.

The mood will be high in expectation of sweeping gains in the Council elections, as well as a staunch defence of the SNP’s decade in power.

Council elections – expect major increases for Tories and Labour collapse

 

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Managing Director, Alex_M_Orr

Last year witnessed something of a political whirlwind, with elections to the Scottish Parliament, the EU referendum, and the small matter of the election of Donald J. Trump as US President. This year will see Scotland go to the polls yet again. However, this time we will be focused on more mundane, bread and butter issues at the council elections.

Councils play a major role across a huge range of local services such as schools, social work and rubbish collection. Those issues that impact on our day-to-day lives. And elections to Scotland’s 32 councils will take place on 4th May, with all of the 1,223 seats up for grabs.

At the last council elections in 2012 Labour and the SNP weren’t that far apart, with the SNP securing 425 to Labour’s 394 councillors, on 32% and 31% of the vote respectively.

However, Labour still holds the whip hand in Scotland’s town halls, and in central and southern Scotland Labour is part of the administration in all but five councils (Argyll and Bute, Scottish Borders, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and Midlothian).

In the northern half of Scotland the picture is much more mixed. The SNP enjoys a powerbase in Tayside with overall majorities in Dundee and Angus. Traditionally independents play a significant role in parts of the Highlands and islands and some rural areas.

As readers will be aware, the landscape has changed dramatically since 2012, with Scottish politics becoming polarised around the issues of independence and the Union. This has most recently been escalated with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament’s call for a second independence referendum, rejected by Prime Minister May.

With the surge in SNP membership after the independence referendum of 2014, and the party taking 56 out of 59 Westminster seats – many in Labour strongholds – optimism will be high in SNP ranks.

Top targets for the SNP this time include some of Labour’s fortresses such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, where Labour has overall majorities.

The party will also be looking to regain control of councils including Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire where Labour has been in charge since 2012.

While the Scottish Conservatives secured 115 councillors on 13% of the vote in 2012, with the party now being the second party at Holyrood, expect it to chalk up significant increases. This will be particularly in rural councils such as Perth and Kinross, taking seats from the SNP.

Despite these being elections to councils, the Tories will also make the constitution a focus of their campaign, painting themselves as the only credible ‘defenders of the Union’. ‘Vote Tory to send a signal to Nicola Sturgeon’, highlighting opposition to a second independence referendum.

Labour is anticipated to be the loser over the piece. Lord Robert Hayward said that the results in Scotland risked being “cataclysmic” for Labour, facing near electoral wipe-out.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to recover from their poor 2012 performance, and the Scottish Greens will look to build on their handful of councillors.

It should be noted however that that there is no guarantee that the party with the largest number of councillors in an authority will form the administration, although this is normally the case. At these elections it will be interesting to see if those parties supporting keeping Scotland in the UK come together to keep the SNP out of power in town halls.

The election will also be interesting in terms of seeing whether, given a re-engagement with politics, individuals will be turning out and voting on the issue of bin collections, schooling and potholes, or will follow the new tribal instincts of nationalism versus unionism.

The fact that councils are able to raise council tax by 3% following years of a freeze may have an impact on the electorate, or it may be used, as is often the case, to deliver a mid-term verdict on the Scottish Government and its call for a second independence referendum.

Those who are strong advocates of local democracy will be hoping that the focus will be on local services and how these are paid for, rather than what is happening at Westminster or Holyrood.

My prediction is that tribal instincts will largely dominate, so expect councillor gains for the SNP, significant gains for the Tories, a Labour collapse, an increase in Green numbers and a modest recovery for the Liberal Democrats.

 

Review of the Scottish planning system

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Alex Orr @Alex_m_Orr

In September 2015, an independent panel was appointed by Scottish Ministers to review the Scottish planning system. The panel were tasked with bringing together ideas to achieve a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process.

The report of the panel, “Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places”, and a statement from the panel were published on 31 May 2016. The Scottish Government is now considering the recommendations put forward by the panel and will publish its response in due course.

The review focused on six key themes – development planning; housing delivery; planning for infrastructure; development management; leadership, resourcing and skills; and community engagement.

Key recommendations include:

Strong and flexible development plans:

  • Strategic Development Plans should be replaced by an enhanced National Planning Framework, which should be more fully integrated with wider government policies and strategies.
  • Main Issues Report should be removed and replaced with a single, full draft plan, providing there is a renewed commitment to early engagement.
  • Local development plans should set out a 20 year vision and focus on place rather than policy. Preparation process reduced to a two year period.
  • Development plan examinations should be replaced with a frontloaded ‘gatecheck’ of the plan.
  • Scope for flexibility and updating local development plans within the 10 year period.
  • A statutory duty for the development plan to be aligned with community planning should be introduced.

The delivery of more high quality homes:

  • The National Planning Framework should define regional housing targets as the basis for setting housing land requirements in local development plans.
  • Urgent need to establish a clearer definition of effective housing land so that local development plans can move on from this to take a positive and flexible approach to addressing the housing land requirement for their area.
  • SPZ concept should be rebranded and evolved into a more flexible and widely applicable zoning mechanism which identifies and prepares areas to make them ‘investment ready’.
  • Mechanisms for planning authorities to take action to assemble land and provide infrastructure upfront should be established as soon as possible.
  • A programme of innovative housing delivery should be progressed in a way which is fully aligned with local development plans.

An infrastructure first approach to planning and development:

  • A national infrastructure agency or working group with statutory powers should be established, involving all infrastructure providers as well as planning representatives. This will be tasked with providing a clearer, cross cutting overview of planning and infrastructure provision.
  • Options for a national or regional infrastructure levy should be defined and consulted upon.
  • A development delivery infrastructure fund should be established, partly resourced by a mechanism to capture land value uplift.
  • Corporate structure requiring all key infrastructure providers to co-operate in delivering the local development plan should be introduced.
  • A review of transport governance should be undertaken to address the gap between this key aspect of infrastructure and development planning.
  • Future school building programmes should address the need for new schools in housing growth areas.
  • Local authorities and their partners need to become much bolder in their approach to infrastructure investment, with an “infrastructure first” approach.
  • Section 75 planning obligations should be retained but their use should be minimised and the process streamlined.
  • New approaches to low carbon infrastructure planning and delivery should be taken forward through a programme of innovation.

Efficient and transparent development management:

  • Timescales for decision making remain critical in creating certainty and should remain part of the performance monitoring framework.
  • Certainty provided by the development plan in development management should strengthened – to incentivise this allocated sites should be afforded planning permission in principle, could be exempted from pre-application consultation requirements and could benefit from fast-tracked appeals. Conversely, where non allocated sites are being proposed for development a charrette or similar fuller consultation or mediation exercise could be required.
  • Quality and effectiveness of pre-application discussions with planning authorities and consultation by developers should be significantly improved.
  • National guidance on minimum requirements for validation is required.
  • Scottish Government should work with local authority enforcement officers to identify and/or remove any barriers to the use of enforcement powers.
  • Planning authorities should work together to identify the scope for significantly extending permitted development rights.
  • Fuller study of the scope for combined consents, particularly planning, roads and drainage consents, should be carried out.
  • A stronger mechanism for a collective community perspective to be built into the matters explicitly addressed by reporters in appeals, could go some way towards bridging the gap between local and central decision making.

Stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills:

  • Planning services should aspire to become leaders and innovators within the context of public service reform.
  • Planning fees on major applications should be increased substantially, so the service moves forward at full cost recovery.
  • Scope for further discretionary charging, for example for pre-application processes, should be considered further.
  • Alternative mechanisms to support improvements should be found and the threat of the penalty clause removed.
  • Skills development is required in a number of priority areas.
  • Local authorities should pursue the establishment of shared services.
  • A planning graduate intern programme should be considered.

Collaboration rather than conflict – inclusion and empowerment:

  • There should be a continuing commitment to early engagement in planning, but practice needs to improve significantly.
  • Communities should be empowered to bring forward their own local place plans, and those should form part of the development plan.
  • Community councils should be given a statutory right to be consulted on the development plan.
  • Third party rights of appeal should not be introduced.
  • A working group should be established to identify the barriers to greater involvement in planning, taking account of measures contained in the Community Empowerment Act and the Land reform Act.
  • A new statutory tight for young people to be consulted on the development plan should be introduced.