Sunday, August 10, 2008

Leadership Campaign: Edinburgh Hustings 4 The Q&A Session

Yesterday I covered the opening speeches of the 3 candidates Mike Rumbles, Ross Finnie and Tavish Scott. Today I'll look at the answers they gave to the 10 questions that ended up being put to them from the floor. Plus take a brief look at the impact this hustings seemed to have on some of the people present. (If the question setters are reading this and I haven't totally accurately reported the question I trust I have the main thrust of what you asked.)

Q1. Given that this is likely to be only a 19 day honeymoon period between the naming of our leader and the announcement of another party's group leader in Holyrood how will the candidates make the most of this period of focus on our new leader?

Mike said his campaign was about change and that would be picked up by the media when he won. Ross said when he won a different approach would be the theme, his working with the party to create a new narrative, which he expected would start quickly after the result. Tavish said that the next day he would name the three keys issues affecting Scotland and challenge the SNP government on their policies in these areas.

Q2. Asked how the candidates would respond should the Calman Commission differ in view from the Steel Commission.

Ross started by pointing out until Calman reported this was a hypothetical question, but pointed out that the Steel Commission pointed out that the greatest weakness devolved Scotland had from other federal systems was the lack of taxation powers. He was hopeful that rather than differ Calman would merely add more detail to this and other areas. Tavish said that if they differed he wanted to make the Lib Dems a vital part of the debate for a) a strengthened Parliament, if Calman was weak on this aspect he would oppose those moves and b) to ensure a responsible balance sheet. Mike said it would not be an either/or question should it arise, but that the party should not abandon Lib Dem beliefs. Therefore if Calman Commission is liberal and democratic in the right direction he would back it.

Q3. How do the candidate marry our green environmental thrust with the current fuel problems facing the population?

Tavish admitted there has been a tightening in the economy but that climate change still matters. Energy was an important debate and recently nuclear energy was returning to the table from people who hadn't been advocating it previously. He said that as we watch the Olympics we may well be getting a visual aid as to the importance of seeking cleaner energy, but said that the SNP's fund cutting for research into alternative energies was wrong as there was no better time for this funding to be there. Ross said the issue was bigger than merely energy but our failure to live sustainably. We shouldn't allow the excuse that energy is a difficult problem to be solved to overshadow our own failings. We need to be pushing for better resource management. Mike said we have a moral imperative to strive of greener energy solutions as well as the management of our resources.

Q4: Asked the candidates how they would set about the management of the party ensuring the Lib Dems had better results and a higher profile.

Mike said this would be achieved by having a clear message, which we have lacked. He would empower membership more and encourage debate, just because we have a policy on something doesn't mean we can't revisit it and debate it again as times and issues change. Tavish said we needed to work on the linkages between the high profile Holyrood representative and the grassroots. He said MSPs spend too much time working on their 4 minute speeches which received minimum coverage and needed to get out to the local parties where the real issues were affecting real people. Ross put his hand up to admit that recently the party has become Holyrood-centric. We don't have the mechanism in place at present to allow us to oppose the SNP in one place in the Royal Mile while working with them in partnership slightly further up the hill. He aims to make the sum of the many parts greater than the whole and make sure they work together.

Q5. (This was when the Leader of our City Council stole my question, sort of*) The SNP have mentioned entering discussions with us over implementing Local Income Tax (LIT) what did the candidates feel about that?

Ross said that he was not aware of any formal approaches from the SNP regarding talks on LIT. If however they do want to talk some preconditions would have to be set, most importantly that the rate has got to be set locally as with all previous local authority tax raising systems. Mike pointed out that John Swinney had spoken vigorously and voted against Tommy Sheridan's centrally set Service Tax replacement to council tax. What was the difference now? The whole point of LIT is about local decision making both in setting and spending the monies raised. Movement would need to be made by the SNP rather than the proposal to follow their LIT for a few years before moving to ours, that is not compromise. Tavish turned to the other two and the room while saying we want to get rid of the council tax. He said that the SNP have had 3 position on what they want to do to get rid of it in the last 4 days. He said he wouldn't believe the SNP proposal until he saw it in writing either in a policy proposal or a letter from the first minister outlying his proposals for discussion. However, what they currently are proposing isn't a Local Income Tax but a National Income Tax.

Q6. Was that in light of some other politicians would the candidates be guided by reason or religion?

Tavish said that ones own beliefs should remain that, personal. He added that it is a worrying sign if a politician like George W. or Tony Blair wore them on their sleeves. Ross agreed adding that anyone like him with strong religious belief has to draw a distinction between a secular political sphere and a personal religious belief. The two should not become blurred. Mike answered straight out that reason should the guide. Evidence, argument and persuasion are how you take people with you he said.

Q7. What would the candidates do to give us a national profile to help win target seats?

Ross reiterated our need for a clear narrative. Our policies and our values are relevant to Scotland. We just need to have an consistency and clarity to our message. Mike said we need a relevant message that grows. One that says why we're relevant and give people a reason to vote for us rather than merely not for someone else. Tavish echoed the others by saying we need a clear message and added we need to campaign locally. However, he did seem to stress too much the single importance of next year's European election naming the candidate who tops our list 3 times in quick succession.

Q8. Was a rambling question about the locality of paying LIT ie where it should be paid.

Mike started by saying we're proposing the fairest that we know but as nobody like tax you will always have someone trying to knock wholes in any system you try and introduce. Tavish said it need to be set locally and the fairest way to do that is based on where you live rather than the ramifications of doing it where you work. Ross said that of course residency is how we should collect our local council's tax, it was a fundamental unshakable principle. The highest degree of local autonomy is how we move forward. He also stressed that the SNP were arguing two different things firstly they wanted more powers devolved to Holyrood yet were taking it away from local authorities much as they complain Westminster does from them.

Q9. How do we embed economic liberalism? Less tax (the questioner put) was a good idea how do we achieve this?

Tavish started by saying that the size of government is overlarge, but the control of size sometimes clashes with our liberal instincts. He agreed with Nick that Gordon Brown has managed to make a complete mess of the tax system, as well as targeting the poorest unfairly who just exceed the threshold for paying, and that savings can be made through simplification. Mike said our taxes should provide like our supermarkets the best quality at the lowest price. We need sustainable economic growth and if we control it ourselves we'd have more control how how we can achieve that. Ross agreed it was a difficult balance, he often finds it hard reconciling Adam Smith and John Meynard Keynes yet they both are members of the party. He went on to say we aren't 'outcome' based on measuring our services, huge amounts of funds are misdirected and wasted but our government only looks at the amount spent rather than the effectiveness of the outcome of that spending.

Q10. Was a veering away from tax for the last question. It was on the issue of sport and how each candidate viewed it for the health of Scotland.

Ross said by saying just as there is word ad numeric illiteracy we have a whole generation that are growing up physically illiterate. People are out of the habit of getting physical activity, which aids cognitive ability, and we need to assist were possible. Mike said we have many good policies in this area but we have misused, misemphasised and miscommunicated them in the past. Tavish went on about the importance of bringing large events to Scotland as a key to encouraging greater involvement in sport (no offence to some of my fellow football fans but that isn't always the key).

Conclusion and Opinions

At the coffee break and afterwards I was mingling with some people and gauged a few responses. One person though that Tavish's speech was like a McDonald's meal, "It filled you up for 5 minutes but left you hungry." Several people had come with open minds and were tempted to change some of their voting intentions. The majority seemed to shift Tavish down the order with either Ross, Mike or both moving up. Although I did talk to one person who was moving Tavish up to their first preference.

I'll leave the last opinion to the son of Edinburgh Councillor Charles Dundas who has recently celebrated his first birthday. While sat amongst the candidates literature he seemed to think that all were highly disposable though contrary to his father endorsement he did hold onto and cuddle Ross Finnie's leaflet for longer than any before rejecting it too.

*My question on this theme would have been: In light of the reports in the Scotsman that the SNP are prepared to ditch a centrally set rate for LIT to invite us into talks with the aim of moving this policy (which they originally seemed to lift from us) forward. What is your view on 'entering talks' with the Nats on this or other future policy issues with some common ground?

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