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.

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
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.

Advertisements

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

 

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
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.

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.

 

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.

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

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
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.

 

Why I’ve only voted Labour once

Orbit Communications - Jordan Ferguson
By, Jordan Ferguson  @JordanwFerguson

Jordan Ferguson talks frankly about his own personal experience of falling out of love with Scottish Labour

With five weeks to go until we elect arguably the most powerful parliament Scotland has ever known I find myself party-less. That is to say I no longer have membership of a political party. I let my membership lapse last month through predictable forgetfulness and my refusal to arrange yet another direct debit.  So I decided to make the most of my unexpected political freedom and shop around a little.

After a month of high expectations it turns out I’m not green enough for the Greens, not liberal enough for the Liberals, not conservative enough for the Conservatives and, having no interest venturing as far left as Rise, was left with Labour.

Like most people from Glasgow, I was brought up to support Labour and overall I mostly agree with Labour policies. I grew up around the whole Cool Britannia thing and was just young enough to think Tony Blair was cool because he had Oasis at No. 10, although I am now however ashamed to admit I ever thought Noel or Liam were cool.  I like what Gordon Brown did as chancellor and most of what Labour achieved for Scotland. Thing is, the only time I ever voted Labour was 2010 and that was more a vote against the Tories.  So why have I only ever put an X in the box next to labour once?

It’s not because the candidates where I’ve lived have been bad they have been quite good at times. I just find the parties taste in leaders terrible.

Now, I’ve heard veteran members in pubs and podcasts praise Kezia’s leadership of the Scottish Labour Party and for the life of me cannot understand why. My assumption is she does a lot behind the scenes that only party members are aware of. Well that would make her a good politician not necessarily a good leader.

I genuinely cringe when I hear her talk at FMQs. She stirs up memories of sitting through countless university presentations when someone read a script on something they neither understood nor cared about.  She has just the right amount of media training to know to over emphasise key words but, to me, still comes off as disingenuous and entirely unnatural.

At FMQs, Kezia seems to follows a very simple format.  Open with an attack on the SNP, big or small, back up the statement with some mock outrage and then slot a question loosely relating to the first statement at the end. It seems to me as though her objective is to slag off the SNP and asking questions is really just an inconvenience for her.  Is this really the great Labour plan? A strategy modelled on Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank, just chip away small amounts over 20 years and eventually you’ll break through.

Like it or not the SNP are quite popular in Scotland. They may not have won the independence referendum but they definitely won the Scottish people. They hold a majority government in a parliament designed specifically to stop any one party having a majority and come May that majority will probably increase.

They have realised a potential of the Scottish Parliament that Labour never could.  And let’s be honest, they have actually done a good job of being in Government. Even its record on education isn’t really as bad as Labour tries to make out.  Actually all attempts at vilifying them have backfired and given them more credibility. So maybe, just maybe, it is not a good idea to attack as Labour seem so determined to do.

I understand the role of the opposition is to hold the government to account but only when there is something to be held to account on. I thought with parliament dissolved she might see her role differently. As I watched the leaders debate I realised I was wrong.

The other leaders seemed to have moved away from the expected SNP bashing with Patrick Harvie staying remarkably quiet and Ruth Davidson choosing to target Labour in the fight for second place.

Either arrogance or ignorance has led to this positon where the party feels no need to justify past actions or even attempt to repair its reputation. Instead it seems to me that the Labour Party in Scotland only exists to destroy the SNP.  It seems to have no concern for its own reputation or in holding power. Instead it appears focussed on ruining one party so badly that it’s willing to destroy itself in order to do so.  As a result, I suspect I will remain in my party political no-mans land for a little while yet.

Scottish Parliament election is set to be a truly taxing affair

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
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.

SNP

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.

Conclusion

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.