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.


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.


Who’s potentially In and out in Nicola Sturgeon’s new team

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Alex Orr alex_m_orr

Tomorrow Nicola Sturgeon will be re-elected as First Minister tomorrow by the Scottish Parliament, after which she is expected to announce her new Government team of Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers.

So far she has already announced plans for a new cabinet post of Economy Secretary, splitting the responsibilities of the current Finance and Economic Growth brief held by John Swinney.  Ms Sturgeon said the new powers over tax and welfare and the current economic challenges posed by unemployment figures and other difficulties facing businesses, including in the North Sea and Clyde shipyards, means a new cabinet secretary for economic growth is necessary.

Ms Sturgeon said the post holder’s responsibility would be to “stimulate growth, boost productivity and create jobs”, allowing the Finance Secretary to focus on the new tax and welfare powers that Holyrood will have for the first time.

If Mr Swinney remains in one of the two finance and economy posts it could mean promotion for another who has performed well and, given Ms. Sturgeon’s commitment to a gender balanced cabinet it is possible the roles, which would be considered the most senior positions after the First Minister could be split between a man and a woman, likely meaning a major reshuffle is on the cards around the Cabinet table.

Possible contenders include Infrastructure Secretary, Keith Brown, seen as a safe and competent Cabinet Secretary since his promotion from transport when he steadied the ship after Stewart Stevenson was forced to resign. Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, is another who could be promoted to a cabinet secretary role.

Angela Constance is expected to be moved from the education brief and the post will be one of the most important in Ms Sturgeon’s new government following her commitment to tackle the attainment gap between the most and least affluent pupils.

Pollok MSP, Humza Yousaf, is developing a growing reputation within the party and is close to Ms Sturgeon. After spending most of his first term as external affairs minister he could be in line for promotion.

New MSP, Jeane Freeman, could be catapulted straight into government with her experience already as a government adviser and enhanced reputation during the referendum campaign whilst former MSP, Shirley-Anne Somerville, destined for government before she lost her seat in 2011, could be in line for another job on her return.

With some junior ministers not returning to Parliament there are some posts to be filled and opportunities for long-standing MSPs and new faces to make their mark lower down the ministerial ladder.  Housing Minister, Margaret Burgess MSP, did not seek re-election, like fellow Local Government Minister Marco Biagi and environment minister, Aileen McLeod lost her seat, leaving three junior posts to be filled.

Having secured her personal mandate, where previously she had inherited the post from Alex Salmond, along with his team, the new First Minister will now feel fully free to shape the new administration as she sees fit.


Scottish Parliament election is set to be a truly taxing affair

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By Alex Orr Alex_M_Orr


The issue of tax is set to form the key battleground for the political parties at the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections on 5th May.

In April 2017, the Scottish Parliament will receive a package of powers. These include:

  • power to set the rates and bands of income tax on non-savings and non-dividend income
  • half the share of VAT receipts in Scotland being assigned to the Scottish government’s budget
  • and power over Air Passenger Duty and Aggregates LevySo, for the first time, significant powers will form a key plank of party manifestoes, and voters will face a spread of ideas and choices over the best balance of taxation and spending.


The SNP has said it will not adopt Mr Osborne’s announcement in the Budget to take anyone earning less than £45,000 out of the 40p tax rate. However, it does not intend to increase the 45p rate currently levied on those earning £150,000 or more a year.

The argument for not raising the top rate of income tax straight away is, according to Nicola Sturgeon, that this would see Scotland lose up to £30m a year due to income tax avoidance. She has however not ruled this out for future years and has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to see whether that risk can be mitigated.

George Osborne aims to put up the starting threshold for basic rate of tax from £11,000 to £12,500 by 2020. Nicola Sturgeon says she wants to put it up to £12,750 by the following year.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour has put on record that it does not want to see the threshold change north of the border. This is at odds with the UK party which has not objected to the Conservative government’s proposal.

Scottish Labour has also made clear that it wants to put 1p on tax rates in order to raise money “to protect public services”. It said it could give a rebate to those earning less than £20,000. In addition, it would like to see the highest rate of tax – affecting those earning more than £150,000 a year – raised from 45p to 50p.

Scottish Conservatives

A Scottish Conservative-appointed commission argued that the total tax burden should not rise any higher in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK. It backs the Chancellor’s approach to thresholds, arguing that the proposals by the other political parties would make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the UK, but tax cuts look set to remain merely “aspirational”.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats want a similar penny increase as Scottish Labour, aimed at protection of education spending. It also says it objects to the 40p threshold change.

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens have set out plans to introduce a new 60p rate of income tax for Scotland’s highest earners. The party wants the new rate to apply to those earning more than £150,000 and it also plans a new 43p rate, starting at £43,000.

The Scottish Greens have also said they want to reduce the income tax paid by those earning less than £26,500 a year.


Napoleon’s strategy of the centre has, rightly, become military gospel

The French emperor consistently put his army in the middle of two or more larger opponents, allowing him to fight, and usually defeat each army in turn, rather than facing an overwhelming combined force.

Like Napoleon, its tax proposals leave the SNP as broadly camped across the middle ground of Scottish politics as it could ever wish to be, opting for a tax policy that risks the minimum amount of harm, by having the minimum difference with Westminster. Nicer than the Tories, more responsible than Labour.

Though it may be tempting to raise the 45% rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000, that is a choice that it currently sees as more symbolic than useful in raising revenue.

Given its lead in the polls the SNP can almost certainly live until early May’s election with the tensions and inconsistencies of talking radical and redistributive on one hand, while acting safely centrist on the other.

Labour’s pitch looks like one that is aimed at its traditional core – a narrower appeal to a chunk of the more radical left, and is designed to outflank the SNP by being more “progressive”. That’s in the hope it can be peeled away from its recent adherence to the SNP but leaves its leader, Kezia Dugdale, being exposed on all fronts as being irresponsible for wanting to raise tax.

The Scottish Conservatives, in with a sniff of a chance of coming second in this election, are standing on a centre-right platform, positioning itself as the party of the UK and appealing to a traditional middle class following through opposing any proposed tax rises by other parties.

With the parties having set out their stalls on tax and spend, the Scottish electorate will for the first time face a spread of genuine choices in front of them when they enter polling stations on the 5thMay.

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

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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

Scottish Labour playing the expectations game well for once?

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By Graeme Downie  @graemedownie

There is a trick used by staff in restaurants, essentially a well-intentioned manipulation of a customers’ expectations.  It involves telling someone their food will take 45mins when in fact you know it will only take 25, so when it arrives in 30 the service looks amazing when in fact it was quite poor.  It is a remarkably effective technique.  If done correctly.

In politics, “playing the expectations game” is something of a cliché.  If you are on the up, you downplay expectations lest your supporters assume victory is in the bag and ease off, allowing a surprise victory by your opponent.  If you are on the slide, you must ensure you over-emphasise the impending disaster so you can salvage some kind of embers from the ashes and present it as victory.

Over recent years, Scottish Labour has been forced into the latter position on an almost constant basis with talk of “difficult events”, “tough conditions” and “unique circumstances”.  However, such excuses have been vented on election night TV shows whilst, during the campaign, victory has been presented as inevitable despite extensive polling and canvassing evidence to the contrary.  This not only undermines the point of the expectations game in the first place but also points to a total lack of strategy and understanding of the realities of the situations the party has been facing.

As Leader, Kezia Dugdale has achieved two things which lay the foundation for a possible long term recovery for Scottish Labour, both of which seek to recalibrate and manage the longer-term expectations of voters whilst demonstrating there may be an actual strategy in place.  The first has been to pick a small number of target policy areas where there could be potential flaws in the SNP armour after 2016, notably in housing and education, and attempting to feed these into a broader narrative of tackling poverty through aspiration and ambition.  These are areas where Kezia has the knowledge and experience to be credible and genuine, qualities lacking from recent Scottish Labour leaders but which are of the highest importance to voters.

At the same time, she has opted to try and draw a line under the constitutional debate, making it clear there is room for “Yes” in Scottish Labour, calculating that the party cannot hope to defeat the SNP on the issue in any case.  This has started to put in place the pillars of expectations in voters’ minds about what Scottish Labour will be talking about, as well as the tone and style they might anticipate from the party in the coming years.

However, I assume the Scottish Labour Leader is aware that even the most radical policy and rhetoric now is unlikely to prevent an SNP victory in May.  This is the second achievement and sign that a strategy is being put in place.  Rather than simply politicking and making claims around impending successes, Scottish Labour seems to have decided to manage the expectations of voters by highlighting the areas where they will be challenging the SNP in the future and what alternatives policies there might be instead of grasping at headlines trying to win an election whilst ignoring the electoral realities.

By at least playing the expectations game well, and early, should the SNP not address, or be seen to address, these policy areas after the election then Scottish Labour has at least a small chance of being worthy of a second glance from the electorate.

All of this may only be the very beginnings of an attempt to turn the Scottish Labour ship away from the rocks but it is at least the first credible effort and certainly the only that appears to have a longer-term strategy as part of the package.

Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 likely to prove a taxing affair

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By Alex Orr @alexorr2016

Barring some disaster of cataclysmic proportions, the SNP is destined to win the next Holyrood elections in May 2016, with an outright majority if polls are to be believed.

For Scotland the key number in the political pantheon is ‘45’.

The SNP won 45 per cent of the constituency vote in the 2011 Holyrood elections and 45 per cent in last September’s independence referendum.

The key to deliver more seats will be for the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to convince some of those who voted ‘No’ and are concerned about a potential second independence referendum to put their cross in the SNP box.

The challenge in Scottish politics is now no longer between left and right, but between those who voted “Yes” and “No” in the referendum.

The really novel aspect of this election however is that for the first time since the first Holyrood elections in 1999, political parties will have to set out revenue-raising plans to match their spending plans.

Scottish Secretary, David Mundell MP, hopes to put the laws handing over full control of Scottish earned income tax to Holyrood into action in 2017 rather than 2018. Scottish politicians will be responsible for setting taxes to raise about a quarter (around £10.6 billion) of what they spend (£43 billion).

The Scottish Conservatives have become devoted tax devolution enthusiasts, now that the traditional Tory offering of cutting taxes is open to them.

The other parties will also have to come forward with their own fiscal proposals.

That said, there is little chance of the Tories being in, or close to power in Holyrood, although don’t be surprised if they gain a few percentage points and seats.

Labour is still in total disarray, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn leading to a steady decline in popularity.

While an SNP victory can be determined with a degree of certainty, the outcome of the big political decision facing the UK, the EU Referendum, is a little more uncertain, with support now neck and neck between “inners” and “outers”.

Prime Minister Cameron has pledged that the referendum will take place before the end of 2017, and don’t discount that happening next year, as governments are more likely to win referendums early in their term of office.

If business leaders want to secure an “in” vote they need to start campaigning now, as 2016 could indeed be a year of significant political decisions.