Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wobbly Wednesday for the Nats

Alex Salmond may well have been jealous of Gordon Brown yesterday. Sure the Tim'rous Beastie of Downing Street has had his trouble but they haven't hit three main policy threads on the same day to quite the same devastating effect.

Yesterday it was Alex's turn to miscalculate, face tax problems and be attack whilst on the U-Turn. The Nats have been quick to attack Labour on the illegality of donations and awards for donations, yet seem content to draw a fine line over what legally they themselves can do, under the powers vested in them.

The miscalculation comes in education, which must be an embarrassment, especially for a former Economist like Alex. The SNP had set aside £40 million to reduce class sizes in primary 1 through 3 to 18. It now appears that the figure they told us was undersold in Holyrood building size proportions as just over a year later we find it is actually going to cost £420 million.

Now where is this revenue going to come from? I did hint yesterday that the Finance Minister was looking for help from the Unionist Parties on that one. He'd better first of all sort out local government taxation. The SNP seem set to carry on regardless with their centrally set rate for Local Income Tax to replace the Council Tax. However, Alan Page a professor of public law at Dundee University has warned that because of the legality issues arising out of what is allowed under the Scotland act it could become another Poll Tax scenario. People may end up refusing to pay stating that the Scottish Parliament does not have the right to do what they are attempting.

Finally the whole PFI-lite, sorry Scottish Futures Trust debacle also reached the floor of Holyrood. The plans to remove the PFI funding mechanism and the £150 million a year that raises looks like being replaced by a plan that is awfully similar if less clear. John Swinney made a statement which failed to reassure MSPs when he said the SFT was of the 'PFI Family' and that he would be using the local councils as the borrowing mechanism to raise the Private investment in their projects, again something that the administration has no legal powers to do.

So while Wendy's House on the opposition benches does teeter, Alex's foundations also look far from secure.


Anonymous said...


Some very good points. It does show the SNP that being in government and having your plans scrutinised (especially by non-political people) is never easy.

I think part of the problem with all these issues stems from the similar ideologies/outlooks that the main parties in Holyrood share, not least the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems.

If you strip out the constitutional question we don’t really have massive left/right/etc differences – simply a range of parties that want to get elected but, whilst they sometimes offer different policies, don’t really have any radical differences. This means that all the parties have to try and ramp up whatever differences do exist 9and some that don’t) to try and attract votes.

The SFT is a good case-in-point. Part of the problem with the campaign against PPP which the SNP were part of is that there was an inference that any politician who supported this was an evil capitalist, hell bent on taking from the public and giving it to their rich private sector pals. This is nonsense of course.

I’m always of the view that politicians will take the course which gives them less trouble if it’s possible to do; they will also steal good ideas from elsewhere if possible. Therefore if the SFT had genuinely been an easy way to keep building new schools, etc whilst saving the public sector money (meaning there’s more available elsewhere) then other parties would have done this long ago. I think that’s what the SNP are finding out now.

The class sizes issue is another good example. The Labour/Lib Dem administration wanted smaller classes in S1/S2 for Maths and English; the SNP want smaller class sizes in p1-3. There’s not a huge difference there and to be honest I’m inclined to think that unless you reduce class sizes across the board it will have a minimal long-term impact.

I suppose it would be better if politicians from all parties were prepared to work together on what is actually feasible (in the way that Holyrood’s committee system works so well) and what the best way forward would be because they clearly agree on a broad direction.

But then that gives up electoral advantage!

Stephen Glenn said...

Admittedly with reference to the class size debate the Lib Dems were looking at only P1 and 2 and had a costing which if memory serves was higher than the SNPs original estimate for the reduction in P1-3.

I think the main problem that is starting to be highlighted by the SNP is that they did promnise all things to all men and hadn't quite come up with the means to pay. Sorry they had but it meant getting their hands on the oil money. I think I did blog about the finacial black hole well before the election. Even if I didn't I'm sure it was mentioned elsewhere.

Jeff said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with having lofty aspirations.

I think there's a real possibility that:

(1) the SNP will have 'promised' LIT but have to settle with the status quo.

(2) the SNP will have assessed SFT but have to accept a diluted version.

(3) the SNP will strive for smaller class sizes but have to go for a compromise.

I still don't see these eventualities harming their popularity too much. They'll have had a good idea, had a crack at it and learned from the experience if it didn't pay off.

My point is, if some of these honest efforts gang aglae, then sneer and jeer at your peril ;)

Stephen Glenn said...

Jeff I have nothing against lofty ambitions it is the ability to deliver that the Nats have fallen short on.

1) We also promised a LIT ours is more local than the Nats with the level being set by the tax spending powers. Not anything like the status quo but avoiding the problem that the Nats currently face.

2) The Nats opposed PFI and created SFT which turns out to be PFI-lite and actually also has serious implications on whether it can be delivered by the central government again raising the monies through local authority means.

3) Again the Lib Dems promised smaller class sizes, I believe we'd aimed for 20 rather than 18, and only in P1 and P2 rather than P1 through 3. And our costings came out higher than what the Nats promised to deliver.

It's ok to talk to talk. But next time at the ballot box whether in a referendum or election it is how they have walked that walk that the SNP will be judged. Not doing too well at the moment.

Oh and in previous 8 years many of the Lib Dems lofty ambitions were delivered.

Jeff said...

Yes, i don't know if the Lib Dems got the full praise they often deserved in delivering what they promised over their 8 years. I'm still a bit bummed there is no SNP/LD coalition but of course the impasse is understandably not going to be fixed any time soon.

Which links to my overall point; let it not be forgotten that the SNP are a minority administration. There's nothing stopping Lib Dems or other opposition parties coming up with better suggestions to SNP aims.

(1) With LIT you have done so and I'm sure once LDs get around the table with Swinney etc you'll fix something out. Both parties will look good with Labour/Tory carping on the sides.

(2) & (3) is where my warning applies. In the absense of another party with a better idea and a drive to push it forward, the same people who voted SNP may well do so again if they feel the opposition's comments and contributions are less than constructive.

I may be wrong; the wheels of the SNP bandwagon are starting to wobble at best but whether that translates into a dip in poll ratings will be very interesting.

Stephen Glenn said...

Regarding LIT I believe the Lib Dems already did offer to help by pointing out the rate of the local tax needs to be set locally.

I believe it is Swinney and Salmond who having carried out coup one with the universal freeze also want to be able to set the rate of LIT centrally, at Holyrood, as well despite this being a separation of setting, spending and accountabilty thereof, as well as in contravention of the Scotland Act powers.

Jeff said...

Yes, this is where my skin deep knowledge of Scotish Politics gets shown up!

Not sure of the differences at that level or for that matter who is talking to who etc but from a high level their positions are surely close enough that the squabbling could be put on hold for a bit and a deal could be worked out painfully enough.

Or am I naively expecting too much of our political leaders there!

Stephen Glenn said...

Possibly. But then at times Jeff maybe so do I, and I'm on first name terms with most of mine.


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