Protempore …


Posted by in June's Magazine

It may have escaped your notice but the Scottish National Party is still the party of Government in Scotland. Anyone reading the media coverage following the election back in May could be forgiven for thinking that the Tories had defied all the odds and suddenly found themselves in charge of the Scottish Parliament.

Granted, the Tories did have their most successful result since 1999 but the SNP were only two short of another majority and the truth of the matter is that with the support of the Green party, there is still a majority within the Parliament that is in favour of an independent Scotland. So why did the Tories and their diminutive leader, Ruth Davidson, garner so much media attention both in the run-up to and after the election? And what difficulties lie ahead for the SNP?

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First of all, Ruth Davidson is probably the first political leader ever to run an election campaign while telling the electorate that her party couldn’t win it. The Tory manifesto and their entire campaign were based on the belief that they would come second. And lo and behold, it worked. Their argument was, that as the SNP were obviously poised to win another election and with the Labour party continuing to self-implode, the only effective opposition to an SNP government would be the Tories.

This approach – added to Davidson’s chummy, head girl act in front of the television cameras – certainly struck home with a large number of voters. The fact that she is an unreconstructed, right-wing Thatcherite who has consistently refused to condemn the bedroom tax or any of George Osborne’s other unrelenting attacks on the poor and vulnerable, doesn’t seem to matter. Davidson is also fundamentally opposed to any increases in income tax and would much rather see cuts to public services in order to balance the books. Little wonder that she is being touted for high office within the UK Tory party.

While the SNP lost some ground this time around (down from 69 seats in 2011 to 63 seats), it’s the Labour party which has suffered the most in terms of party support across the country. From a high of 56 seats in 1999, the party is now on 24 and in third place in the parliament. It’s undoubtedly true that the party has lost a large of number of voters to the SNP, but when you look beyond the SNP’s ultimate goal of independence, it’s difficult to understand why. During the election campaign, Kezia Dugdale fought on a long-held Labour pledge to increase income tax to 50p in the pound for Scotland’s richest residents. Why? Because it was the only way to ensure higher investment in schools, hospitals and jobs.

This is a policy which would have resonated with voters in the past but, for some reason, that policy now fails to convince voters. Perhaps most tellingly, it failed to convince around 30% of former Labour voters who had defected to the SNP. So what’s going on? Why are voters in Scotland suddenly so opposed to the idea of a progressive tax regime which would secure and improve public services? Are they really only interested in independence at any cost? Looking at the numbers behind the election result it certainly looks that way.

From a total of 4,564,905 votes cast, the SNP claimed 2,013,484. In contrast, Labour secured 950,180. And prior to the election, Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that the SNP had no immediate plans to raise income tax at any level. Now that the Scottish Parliament has significant powers over tax and welfare, the SNP is going to have to find money from somewhere to plug significant gaps in the Scottish budget. And there are only two ways to do that – raise taxes or cut public services.

For that reason, the next five years are going to be make or break for the SNP. They’ll either have to back their self-professed centre-left credentials with real action i.e. raising revenue from taxes; or they’ll need to make cuts from somewhere to balance the books. What will be interesting to see is how they form coalitions in the parliament to garner enough support for their policies to prevail. And this is where the Green party come in.
It seems most likely that the pro-independence Greens will be the party to work with the SNP on certain issues but as a party who has also advocated significant tax increases as a way of securing improved public services it’s not likely to be a marriage made in heaven. Or will we see what everyone has until now deemed to be a political impossibility – the SNP and Labour forming a compromise coalition to keep the Tories in their place. Don’t bet against it.

Protempore

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