2018 promises to be yet another rollercoaster year ahead

As 2018 gets into full swing, much like 2017 Scottish politics is likely to be shaped primarily by two big issues: the terms of Brexit and its consequences for IndyRef2.

Managing   Director,     Alex Orr

One advantage for us, the voters, is that there will be a year of relative peace on the doorstep, as for the first time since 2013 the year ‘may’ (emphasis on ‘may’) pass without a referendum or national election being staged.

On the key issue of whether Ms Sturgeon will decide to press ahead with IndyRef2, given the electoral bloody nose the party received at the snap general election in 2017, the First Minister will undoubtedly keep the powder dry on her intentions until later in the year, when the nature of the Brexit transition deal becomes clearer. On this more later.

One other big political set-piece is due to take place in the opening months of 2018 is the publication of the SNP’s Growth Commission report into the finances of an independent Scotland. Designed to lay the groundwork for another vote, it will make a series of crucial recommendations about the currency the country might use and how it might grow its economy.

After a decade in power attention will focus on how the minority SNP administration is using its devolved powers, with a specific focus on health, education, and income tax changes. Outlined in the Draft Scottish Budget last month this highlighted modest tax rises for higher earners and cuts for low income Scots.

However, while SNP difficulties seem certain, it is unclear which party, if any, will be the beneficiary.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson may have enjoyed electoral success, through making the pro-Union cause her own, but none of her achievements have been on domestic policy.

She should be able to use income tax rises to her advantage, but peak Tory may have been reached and Davidson’s party looks close to the upper limit of support amongst voters.

This time last year, the Scottish Labour Party seemed near to extinction, but in the snap general election it increased its MP presence and on paper its leader, Richard Leonard, has the most to gain from a year that could see Sturgeon and Davidson fight out a bloody score draw.

While IndyRef 2 seems a blur on the horizon, the implications of Brexit will keep the constitution in the foreground of political debate at Holyrood.

A stand-off looms between the Scottish and UK Governments on the transfer of powers after Brexit. During the year it is likely that the Scottish Government and the UK will finally do a deal on the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will repatriate thousands of EU laws back to Britain. The big question of 2018, of course, is whether Ms Sturgeon will decide to press ahead with IndyRef2 – and whether the UK will give its permission for another vote.

If it does happen, it is likely to be during the two-year Brexit transition period which begins in March 2019. The SNP’s mandate for another vote lasts until the next Scottish election in 2021.

Whatever happens, 2018 is likely to prove yet another rollercoaster year politically north of the border.

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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.

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.