Choose (political) life….

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03

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.

 

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Council elections – expect major increases for Tories and Labour collapse

 

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
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.

 

Holyrood back at school

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
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

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
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.

What do you need to know about the Lobbying (Scotland) Act?

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By Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

What do organisations who engage with the Scottish Parliament need to do to prepare themselves for newly adopted legislation on lobbying? Orbit Communications Director Alex Bruce explains the background and main elements of this new legislation and why organisations of all types should make themselves aware of their new responsibilities under the Act.

Lobbying:

“…in a professional capacity, attempting to influence, or advising those who wish to influence, the UK Government, Parliament, the devolved legislatures or administrations, regional or local government or other public bodies on any matter within their competence.”

UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC)

The term lobbying has taken on increasingly pejorative connotations in recent years in the wake of a series of high profile lobbying scandals involving in particular Members of the UK Parliament.

Against the backdrop of apparent growing public concern over a lack of transparency around lobbying activities, Labour MSP Neil Findlay originally lodged his own proposal for a Member’s Bill to introduce a lobbying register in 2012. However, this was superseded the following year by a Scottish Government announcement of its intention to introduce legislation of its own on lobbying. A Parliamentary inquiry and Scottish Government consultation followed this announcement, culminating in the introduction to Parliament of the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill in October 2015.

The Bill received Royal Assent on the 14th April 2016 having been passed at its final stage during March of this year.

The practical effect of this legislation is to introduce a lobbying register for any organisation engaged in what is defined as “regulated lobbying”. This definition includes any paid lobbying, whether carried out by external consultants or in-house members of staff and irrespective of whether the organisation comes from the public, private or third sectors. Included within the scope of “regulated lobbying” are face-to-face meetings with Scottish Government Ministers and MSPs concerning their Government or Parliamentary functions. This can include their role as legislators or decisions on the award of contracts, funding and so on.

It’s also important to note that the legislation extends to any representative of an organisation, irrespective of their role, and not just to those who may be specifically employed to communicate with external stakeholders.

Various forms of communication are exempted from the definition of “regulated lobbying”, including:

  • Communications to an MSP representing a constituency or region where the communicator’s business is ordinarily carried out;
  • Instances where the communication is made on behalf of an organisation with less than 10 full-time equivalent employees;
  • Communications made during a meeting of a recognised cross-party group;
  • Communications made for the purposes of journalism;
  • Communications made as part of Parliamentary proceedings (for instance, giving evidence to a committee);
  • Instances where the information request originates from an MSP or minister;
  • Communications by political parties, the judiciary and by or on behalf of her Majesty the Queen;
  • Government and Parliament communications.

Despite representations in support of their inclusion during the Bill’s passage through the Scottish Parliament, senior civil servants, government agency officials and special advisers are excluded from the scope of the legislation as are other forms of lobbying than face-to-face meetings such as telephone calls, emails, letters and video conferences.

Crucially, it is the responsibility of the organisation rather than the individual engaged in lobbying activity to enter their details onto the lobbying register. Entering and updating the register will be free of charge but failure to comply with certain aspects of the legislation will lead to criminal sanctions.

Responsibility for establishing and maintaining the new register will lie with the Clerk of the Scottish Parliament. Anyone engaged in regulated lobbying will initially be required to enter their details in the lobbying register. Those not currently engaging in regulated lobbying but who anticipate doing so in the future can enter their details voluntarily onto the register. There is also a 30 day grace period for organisations or individuals to register themselves following the first instance of regulated lobbying.

Once registered, lobbyists are expected to submit six monthly returns outlining any regulated lobbying activity undertaken and including, in each instance, the following information:

  • Who was lobbied, when and where;
  • A description of the circumstances in which the lobbying took place (a meeting, Parliamentary reception or other event…);
  • Who undertook the lobbying;
  • Whether this was undertaken on the registrant’s own behalf or on behalf of someone else and, if so, who;
  • The purpose of the lobbying.

Failure to register or to submit returns when required to do so or the submission of false or inaccurate information are defined as criminal offences under the Act, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000.

The legislation also establishes a complaints process with investigation and reporting responsibilities being conferred to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. It also requires the Scottish Parliament to publish a Code of Conduct for persons lobbying Members of the Scottish Parliament. This is to cover all types of communication to an MSP and not just those defined as “regulated lobbying”.

Having summarised the legislation as clearly and concisely as I can, what does it all practically mean for your organisation?

First, it is important to acknowledge that, throughout the detailed discussions leading up to the adoption of this legislation, the value and importance of lobbying as a legitimate part of the democratic process were consistently emphasised. The intention of the new Act is certainly not to discourage lobbying of the Scottish Parliament but rather to make the process more open and transparent.

Following the elections in May, if your organisation is already in the habit of meeting MSPs face-to-face with a view to influencing policy or simply raising awareness of issues pertaining to your organisation, you will be required in most circumstances to submit your details to the new lobbying register. In future, any such meetings will need to be recorded and submitted as part of your organisation’s six-monthly return to the Clerk of the Scottish Parliament. If you are in any doubt, it is always going to be safer to register your organisation, even if this means that your six-monthly returns will be completely empty. Once published, organisations should also take the time to familiarise themselves with the Scottish Parliament’s new Code of Conduct for lobbyists.

No doubt there will be ongoing arguments about the precise scope of the legislation and how workable or effective it will be in practice. But in so far as it encourages organisations to think more carefully about how they engage with politicians and to operate in as open and transparent a way as possible, it has to be viewed as a positive step.

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

Is Scotland at risk of losing more than popular idols in 2016?

Orbit Communications - Jordan Ferguson
Jordan Ferguson @jordanwferguson

2016 looks set to be remembered as the year we said goodbye to the Thin White Duke, the iron livered Lemmy and arguably the best bad guy Bruce Willis ever battered.  But this week has made me question if Scotland risks losing a lot more than popular idols in 2016?

Maybe less well known is that this week is the anniversary of Jim Sillars, John Robertson and Alex Neil forming the short-lived Scottish Labour Party (SLP).  Frustrated at the UK Governments inability to secure a devolved Scottish Assembly, on January 18th 1976 Sillars and Co. broke from the UK Labour Party but by 1979 had lost their seats in the House of Commons and, in 1981, fraught with infighting, the party was disbanded.

40 years later, the Labour Party in Scotland has rebranded as “Scottish Labour” seeking to avoid a similar annihilation but this time in the devolved Parliament to which the previous rebels were so committed. Polls this week predicted the SNP could repeat its General Election success swooping almost all of the 72 constituency seats and leaving Labour rushing around relying on the regional list system and trying to stay ahead of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives.

Could this lead to Scotland losing an effective opposition?  

It would seem Nicola Sturgeon is the only one not taking an SNP win for granted.  In FMQ’s this week the First Minister thanked Kezia Dugdale for her assumption she would remain in office post-election.

Understandable as even the most optimistic of Labour voting optimists can’t deny a crippling General Election and a devastation series of polls.  The SNP Government look set to hold another five years in powered, and as leader the opposition the only hope Kezia has is to put together the best Shadow Cabinet she can and chip away at the crack in SNP policy.

Last year the Scottish people undeniably turned away from Labour leaving Ian Murray in a lonely positon. Flooding the party with new blood may rejuvenate the party and get some new policies but will this actually happen?  The regional list relies on the party membership deciding the order and likelihood of election but will those selected tend to be old faces?

Labours candidate list looks like a who’s who of failed politician, a mix of return candidates from the 2011 Holyrood elections and MPs who lost their seats in the 2015 General Election.  Can Anas Sarwar and Thomas Docherty, MPs voted out less than 12 months ago, really be the salvation Scottish Labour needs? Are they both hoping last year was merely ‘SNP mania’ and their experience can help lead the fightback?

It appears as though some existing Labour MSPs doubt this, with the politically experienced but still young Richard Baker retiring 10 weeks before the election for a job in the charitable sector.  Does Richard know something the others don’t?  However, others like Jackie Baillie, who was first elected in the maiden Scottish Parliament in 1999 remain.  Maybe she is right and all is not lost, maybe there is a long term strategy at play here or it could be it is too late and there are simply some in party not willing to accept defeat and force through the radical change in personality and policies needed to start a turnaround in the party’s fortunes.

This blog first appeared on PubAffairs