Lies, damn lies and political predictions

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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!

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If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table

Like most people who work in politics, I have spent the last few days, weeks and months trying to figure out if Theresa May has any kind of long-term strategy for how to handle Brexit and, if she does, what that might be.

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Also like a lot of people who work in politics, I tend to find myself reaching for some kind of comparison for political drama or documentary to explain what I think.  That is often West Wing or Yes Minister.

In this case, however, it is the new version of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.  In that show there is a recurring line which Frank Underwood uses to explain why he takes what at first glance seems like illogical or risky actions – “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

That is the closest I have come so far to trying to explain what Theresa May might be up to.  Here is Prime Minister, previously regarded by many as a steady, safe pair of hands – winning the Conservative Party leadership by virtue of being the only candidate not to make a stupid mistake.

And yet, her approach to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and her dealings over a possible second Scottish independence referendum have seemed more the actions of a spoilt teenager, taking intractable black or white positions.  This has often seemed unreasonable and surely doomed to fail, afterall where is the famous British strength of negotiation and compromise, something Brussels diplomats will genuinely miss when the country exits the EU?

On Brexit, the Prime Minister is smart enough to know that in a traditional negotiation she has a very weak hand indeed.  One country versus 27 who are angry, have self-preservation at the core and, crucially, control many of the timescales.  No one would realistically expect to walk in to that kind of fight and not come out more bloodied that the opponents.  However, her actions, right from her decision to delay the triggering of Article 50, despite initial howls from the EU top brass, through to the way she has managed the furore about EU nationals is not what might be thought of as the traditional “British” way of handling diplomacy.

In her dealings with Nicola Sturgeon as well, the Mrs. May has been extreme – starting off with a “No” when questioned about whether Brexit was a sufficient material change to justify a second independence referendum and sticking to that hard line this week with a brisk “now is not the time” response to the First Minister’s demands for new constitutional vote.  This didn’t seem like simply a negotiating position, this was seemed pretty definitive and with a hint of dismissiveness.

Hardly the Marquess of Queensberry rules here from the PM either then– no negotiation, no discussion, no pleasantries.  Just no, in fact.

The response of many in Scotland this week has been to dismiss this approach as a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand Scotland or just flat out doesn’t care as she is beholden to the right wing of her own party.

This may well be the case but perhaps Theresa May just doesn’t like the way the traditional table of British negotiation is set and knows the meal will end badly unless she upends the table and at least tries to improve the setting from disasterous to at least just bad.

Choose (political) life….

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It was hard to know where to start writing about politics in Scotland this week.  All sorts of “creative” ideas came to mind – for example I was going to try and write it like the famous “Choose Life” Trainspotting monologue to mark the premier this week of the sequel, T2: Trainspotting.  I even started a version to the tune of REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which seemed appropriate but my poetry and writing skills just aren’t up to it, although you read my terrible effort here anyway.

It is impossible to talk about the week in politics anywhere without at least mentioning the first week of Donald Trump’s Presidency.  Afterall, “The Donald” is well known to the Scottish body politic – as well as his mother originally being from Scotland (sorry about that), the billionaire courted controversy when he built a new golf resort on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.  After that, he conducted a high profile campaign to block an offshore wind farm he complained would put off visitors to the course.  The whole episode gives some in Scotland a small head start on our knowledge of the bullying, hyperbole and downright aggressive manner in which the most powerful politician in the world operates.

In most normal weeks, the tied vote in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday a Labour motion condemning the Scottish Government’s Budget plans would have led the headlines, particularly as it introduces the slim possibility of an early Scottish election..  Although the Presiding Officer, following convention, gave her casting vote to the government, there is clearly and genuine disquiet at Holyrood over the SNP’s spending plans the opposition claim will lead to drastic cuts to local services.  The Scottish Government, for their part, point to increased spending on health and education, before moving to one of their favourite tactics – if in doubt, just say “Wastemonster”, “Right Wing UK Government” and “Tories” over and over again, if possible in the same sentence.

However, that more humdrum drama was overshadowed by the decisions of the UK Supreme Court on what consultation is required to invoke the spectre that is Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty.  In Scotland, however, it was not the requirement for the UK Government to consult Westminster before triggering the Article which caused the biggest reaction.  Instead, it was the unanimous decision by the court that the UK Government was not required to formally consult the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, removing a potentially massive roadblock to the Prime Minister’s plans.

Although the hysterics and invective from the SNP, with shouts of “Traitor”, “Imperial Power” and “Control” ringing around both TV studios and social media platforms alike, were predictable, the decision could have serious implications for the seemingly never-ending debate over Scottish independence.

We have not seen the rise in support for Scottish independence since the Brexit vote that some expected but the issue remains very much the main dividing line in Scottish politics, with the SNP seeking to keep “all options open” for the future.  Nonetheless, it has been noticeable in recent months that Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric around #IndyRef2 (the hashtag is mandatory) has softened.  Although this week she reiterated that it was “all but inevitable”, the First Minister has repeatedly backed away from calls for a vote in the near future, even ruling it out during 2017.

Unlike her bombastic predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon is a more cautious political animal, knowing that a second independence defeat so soon after the one in 2014, would surely take the idea off the table for a real “generation” rather than just a few years.  But she faces the very difficult task of balancing that harsh reality with the fervent enthusiasm of her supporters who want more decisive action with a certain Mr. A Salmond appearing to be amongst those pushing for an earlier vote, no doubt causing an additional headache for the First Minister.

Whilst the political world remains unstable and uncertain, normal politics and activity continues and this week we were fortunate enough to arrange a visit for an MSP to visit one of our clients trout farms’ near Brechin and help celebrate a group of Primary School pupils winning an online maths competition.

So not creative but at least I avoided any Burns puns!

This post first appear at PubAffairs.

 

Holyrood back at school

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Director, Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

As a youngster I would get very frustrated every summer when around this time we would have “Back to School” adverts in newspapers and on TV, all of them blissfully unaware that us Scottish kids had already been back for about three weeks.  I like to believe that this generational frustration is why Holyrood has come back from its summer-break at the same time as Westminster this year. And much like the first day back at school, the party leaders have been telling everyone what they did for their holidays.

Head Girl, Nicola, went on an exciting InterRail holiday around Europe and met all sorts of interesting people.  She was doing her best to make sure she could easily come back every year and telling them all that Scotland was the bestest country in the world and they should all be nice to her.  She certainly had a very good time speaking to all these people but then she came home and a lot of people told her that maybe a staycation would have been better.  After all, a lot of people in the village are waiting a long time to see a doctor and seem to be blaming Nicola!  But Nicola is going to have a conversation to the whole village about trying to move them further away from that village next door and closer to her new European chums.

The new “IT” girl, Ruth is becoming more and more popular although not nearly enough to worry the Head Girl. However, Ruth and her friends have been nominated for a lot of prizes this year at the school awards ceremony.  Her summer holiday was perhaps a little quieter than others but she did finally get her wish and was finally allowed to get a puppy.  On a more serious note, Ruth has very much decided that seeing family in Scotland was more important than trips abroad.  She still had her big sister, Theresa, in London to disagree with about Europe though so couldn’t get away from the place entirely.  In fact, Ruth decided to agree with Nicola about making it cheaper for people to fly away to other places on holiday so maybe they agree on some things after all.

Then there was Kezia, who did not have a nice time over the summer at all.  It all started so well, she went on a busman’s holiday to America with some friends and go to see some very famous bands.  One of them has been around a long time but now finally might make it to the very top of the charts as long as no-one decides to “Send in the Clown”.  Whilst she was away though, her family was having the most terrible falling out.  Kezia has decided that her uncle, Owen, should be leading the family but a lot of others in the wider family, including those who only recently realised they were related at all, think Uncle Jeremy should stay at the head of the table even though not many people outside of the village like him.  This is all expected to be sorted quite soon but Kezia might face some problems from her own part of the family tree in the future.  She has got herself some new friends though who will improve how the rest of the village think about her.

Another old boy who is doing a lot better now is Patrick.  After being in the school for quite a long time, he suddenly finds himself not only with a lot of new friends of his own friends but knows that the Head Girl might need his help soon as well for this big project she is working on.  He and his friends are very concerned with how the land around the village is used and thinks he can get a lot of help from everyone else in the school to improve a lot of these things.

Perhaps the quietest summer was had by little Willie.  No-one in the school or village dislike Willie at all.  They all agree he is such a friendly boy as well as being very good at talking about the most important things.  The problem is that no matter how well he does, he can’t seem to be as popular as the three big girls.  Like Kezia, he has some problems with his family in London.  He might have thought that with Kezia’s family being so unpopular, he might have got some more support but that doesn’t seem to have happened.  Not yet anyway.

There is a lot of work for everyone at school to do in the next few months.  They  have more exams to prepare for in May as well….

It’s been take out the trash week (and month) in Edinburgh

This blog first appeared on PubAffairs

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Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

Immediately after elections, winning parties, even one returning for another term, are meant to be riding on a wave, issuing positive announcement after positive announcement showing how they are turning their manifesto pledges in to actions.

For the SNP that was certainly the case in 2007, the last time they formed a minority government, when they went so far as to take a leaf out of US President FDR’s book and make a big show of progress after their first 100 days in office.  This time, however, things seem different.  Rather than positive announcements, the SNP seems to have been fire-fighting and playing defence.

Just this week we’ve had (you might want to take a breath): Minister defending delays of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to Scottish Farmers; education statistics showing a reduction in those from the poorest backgrounds going to university as well as a decline in standards of literacy and numeracy standards; an acknowledgement of the need to “refresh” guidance on the controversial “Named Person” legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable children; a review of NHS targets and, just yesterday, confirmation that the new Forth Road crossing will not be open in December as initially thought.

This is in addition to last week’s controversial debate when the Scottish Government lost a vote on an opposition motion to ban fracking after SNP MSPs abstained despite many candidates being elected on a platform supporting a ban only a few weeks before.

So, have the SNP suddenly imploded, are we seeing the quickest post-election collapse of a government in history?  Well, of course not.  This is a government and party that remains hugely popular and united, has just been returned as by far the biggest party at Holyrood and is on course to enjoy yet another election victory in the council elections in May 2017.  So what is going on?

Well, a lot of the information published this week is on issues extensively debated during the election.  There have been accusations announcements were delayed before the election for political reasons, accusations which now appear to have some credence.  However, no governing party in its right mind would put out bad news immediately before an election if it didn’t have to so you could argue the SNP were quite sensible to sit on their comfortable lead for the 6 months before polling day.

Instead I suspect the reason this information is no coming out in what seems like a near constant steam is an  elongated version of “Take out the Trash Day”, well known to us West Wing geeks.  By getting all of the bad news out the way now, immediately after the election when, frankly, voters aren’t watching, it is unlikely they will remember it the next time polling day comes around in less than 12 months.

However, that strategy works if the government takes the summer to start to fix some of these problems, otherwise the bad news drags on and on and could become more embedded in the minds of voters.  So, I would expect announcements over the summer break and immediately after about remedial action being taken.  Equally, I suspect a few extra Bills are being hurriedly added to the first Legislative Statement which will take place shortly after recess.

If that doesn’t happen then maybe, just maybe, someone can write an article about stalled agendas, appearing cracks and incompetence growing but I wouldn’t get those metaphors dusted off just yet.

Muted manifestos

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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

Beware political posturing on housing crisis

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By Graeme Downie @graemedownie

Housing is being setup as one of the key election issues in Scotland for May, as it rightly should.  Politicians, house-builders, landlords, academics and charities are all now agreeing about one thing – there are not enough homes in Scotland and the situation can safely be described as a “crisis.”

With such a grouping of people agreeing on a problem, you would think it would be relatively easy to find a solution for both the short and long term and that the solution should be equally simple – build more houses.  And, to some extent, everyone does agree that this is the solution but what no-one can agree upon is: Who pays? Where should new homes be built? What type of homes are needed? How quickly are these homes needed?

House-builders point out that they need planning permission in areas people want to live to make it economically viable to build new homes, but local authorities are struggling to grant permission in these areas due to the desired land being in a green belt or because of significant community opposition.  Charities argue for more affordable housing, often delivered as a condition of private housing developments but question if this is being delivered in a way which allows those on lower incomes onto the housing ladder.  Private landlords point out that they are able to provide high-quality homes now as well as in the future but feel they are being unfairly demonised, with many likely to scale back investment as a result.

As a result, politicians find themselves in a situation where the public realise there is a crisis and are demanding a solution but where there are no quick fixes available and a range of competing interests.  However, instead of presenting a reasonable plan for the long-term which seeks to balance those interests, the SNP and Scottish Labour have engaged in what appears to be a game of chicken with the numbers, constantly just upping the ante.  At their conference in Perth in October, Labour called for 12,000 affordable homes a year, a policy repeated just this morning with the aggregated figure of 60,000 such homes over the term of the next Scottish Parliament.  The SNP, meanwhile, have pledged 50,000 affordable homes.  Whilst this all might be effective politics and positioning, it is very one-dimensional and seems to imply there is a silver bullet solution to what is a complex and serious problem.

A comprehensive solution to a housing crisis surely needs more than just stating numbers which, even if implemented in full, would only address one part of the problem.  For example, it ignores the need to build mid-level homes to incentivise upgrading which would free up entry-homes and reduce prices lower down the scale.  There also doesn’t seem to be any detail provided by the parties about where these new homes should be built – if they should be in areas of high-demand increasing the overall cost, or in outlying areas to attempt to promote growth and reduce hot-spots.  There is also scant detail on how these homes will be paid for – will they be publicly funded through central construction and managed by local authorities or will additional requirements be placed on the private sector in exchange for a stream-lined planning system?

There have been some attempts at a long-term policy on these issues, particularly in the guise of the excellent report produced by the Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, chaired by former Auditor-General, Bob Black.  That report examined not only the complexity of solving Scotland’s long-term housing crisis but also the huge costs to the public purse through poor health and social problems that will result if action is not taken.

Most of all, the report emphasised the need to bring a whole range of different players to the table to agree a strategy and then stick to it for the generation it will take to deliver the desired results.  Sadly, it seems like political posturing will reign for the time being will win out for the time being but voters are smart enough to know when politicians are simply out-bidding each other rather seeking a proper solution.