Tag Archives: SNP

Immediate Thoughts on #IndyRef2

Shortly after The EU Referendum I was with a few like minded Labour friends discussing where we go from here. We had all been part of the No campaigns in the #IndyRef in 2014 and all bore the scars of that 18 month long campaign. We remembered the long days,the abuse we faced, the lack of sleep, the 20+ hour polling day – but also the celebrations afterwards.

In spite of this, we all agreed that, if there was another independence referendum was called, after the 2015 Election; after the Scottish Elections just past; after Brexit; after Theresa May…we’d  vote Yes.

We were angry. We were angry with Brexit that Scotland opposed, but the UK accepted. We were angry with the Tories exploiting the situation during the election and presenting themselves as the only opposition voice in Scotland. We were angry with the UK leadership casually flirting with the SNP as part of a ‘progressive alliance’. We were angry and ready to give up.

But, in time, we all went back to No. The moment was over before it had begun. After the Summer passed so did our brief flirtation with independence. Our heads regained control of our hearts – and our hearts remembered what they really loved.

There is no doubting, I think, that Brexit has changed things. The dynamics in place in 2014 no longer apply in 2017, and won’t in 2018/2019. Something ‘feels’ different. I’m still not convinced a second referendum is needed – or, indeed, wanted – but it has been clear for some time that it was coming. Not because the country was crying out for it; not because Nicola Sturgeon particularly thinks she can win it; but because there is only so long you can promise to lead the faithful to the promised land before they leave you alone in the desert. It had to come – sooner or later, for better or worse.

But then, when you think about it, what does Brexit change, exactly? If notification under Article 50 is given by the end of March 2017 – we will be out of the EU by April 2019. So, unless Sturgeon is suggesting that we can go from referendum to independence within 7 months, Scotland will be leaving the EU. It won’t be ‘negotiating from the inside’ or seeking a ‘continued membership’ (as was dubiously argued by Yes in 2014), we would be on the outside looking to get back in. This has already been confirmed by EU (and NATO) spokespeople. This is now a fact no longer up for debate.

So – if we are outside we will, presumably be looking to get back in. This isn’t a given since remaining something is not the same proposition as becoming something – but if we didn’t re-apply for EU membership, what would Independence be for? So, when we apply we will have to meet the convergence criteria to join the EU – which include joining the ERM and agreeing to eventually join the Euro. At least that solves on of the 2014 #IndyRef’s biggest issues for the Yes Campaign – except the first 2 (at least) years where we won’t be allowed to use the Euro until we show we can meet the convergence criteria. So we still need to decide what we want to do for that time.

And then we have to actually go about meeting the convergence criteria which include a limit on the Deficit to GDP ratio of no more than 3% – Scotland’s is currently estimated to be about 9%. So we either have to increase tax or cut spending. Given that the current Scottish government have shown no inclination for the former (despite now having the power to do so – which they campaigned for during the 2014 referendum), one can only assume they would pursue the latter.

If that were the case, then how would their social policy, or investment in public services be any different to that currently being pursued by the UK Government? You can argue that the current party of government won’t necessarily be the first party of an independent Scotland’s government – but any government would face the same choices. We would need to get our deficit down if EU Membership was the end goal.

And it may not even be a choice to cut spending – it would almost certianly be required out of economic necessity. The most recent GERS figures show that Scotland has a larger than expected deficit. This taken with the fact that the Barnett Formula gives Scotland c. £1,400 per head means that some policy decision will have to be taken by necessity – whether or not EU Membership is the goal.

All this while we have to deal with the problems of current Scotland. Scotland where education is underfunded and under-resourced to such an extent that parents are having to take on classroom based roles. A Scotland where the NHS is facing budget cuts and in Glasgow had to cut £60million in one year to stay within budget, with the job cuts and reduction in service delivery that involved and when it’s newest shiniest hospital has faced issue after issue with no long term answers in sight. A Scotland where the Police Force is underfunded, the Crown office overworked, courts being closed, the already poorly paying Legal Aid budget shrinking in real terms year-on-year and cases take longer and longer to reach trial. A Scotland where Local Authority budgets have been cut – in Glasgow by over £300million in 10 years – and cuts of £58million this year alone leading to under-investment in roads, schools, breakfast clubs, bin collection and social care where a 15 minute care visit becomes the goal, not the baseline.

And that’s why, after a few weeks, me and my Labour Party friends returned to where we began – agreeing Scotland is stronger when part of the United Kingdom.

Because as ‘engaging’ as the first Independence Referendum was in 2014 – it was easy to forget that children still needed to go to school, people still got sick and people still needed to travel to work every day. Politics isn’t just the grand ideas – it’s getting on with life. A life that we share with our friends, neighbours, and strangers south of the border too. The same struggles of austerity and underfunded health care that people in Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Newcastle and Stoke face just as the people of Glasgow, Perth, Inverness, Dundee and Kincardine do. It’s this desire to fight these problems, together, that got me really involved in politics in the first place. That’s why I joined the Labour Party – part of a movement of like minded people up and down the UK aiming for a better Britain.

And – when we have been given the chance – Labour has created a better Britain. The creation of the NHS; Founding the Open University; de-criminalising homosexuality; Civil Partnerships; The National Minimum Wage; increasing Child benefit; Independence for the Bank of England; Devolution for Scotland and Wales; Peace in Northern Ireland; lifting 600,000 children out of poverty over the 10 years of the last Labour government; Health and Safety at Work; Human Rights. All achievements of Labour in Britain – only achievable and sustainable because of the UK coming together and using its strength to make positive change, because we believe that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.

But this, as well as Brexit, present another break from 2014 and a challeneg to those who want Scotland to Remain in the UK. Back then The SNP and Labour were virtually neck-and neck in Holyrood polls and Labour still 20/30 points ahead in Westminster polling. With a General Election just around the corner it seems possible, nae likely, that Ed Miliband could be Prime Minister and a Labour Government would always be better than a Tory one. Maybe, just maybe, it was worth giving the UK a final shot to convince us it would be that revolutionary reforming country once again. Now, just over 2 years and a 19-point Tory lead later – is it possible to see a possible future Labour government, in any form, to put our faith in again?

Advertisements

Elections, Prime Ministers and their Causes – Part 3

The 2015 General Election is one of uncertainties. Who will be the largest Party? Who will work with whom? Who will be Prime Minister? Will anyone be able to get enough support to pass that magic number of 326 (half the seat in the House of Commons +1) and form a Government? What does it mean if they can’t?
With all this uncertainty, the possibility of a SECOND General Election this year has been mooted.

This week, I want to look at these questions in a bit of detail, combining the Legal Framework with the Political Reality of #GE15. Over the course of three posts this week, I will examine “What causes a General Election”, “What ends a Prime Minister” and “What Creates a new one”, all through a #GE15 lens.

In part 2 we reached a situation where David Cameron could no longer stay Prime Minister, but now we have to face a governmental vacuum. So, “What Creates a New Prime Minister”?


Who, then, could replace Cameron once he resigns? The country cannot be left Prime Minister-less. The Queen (for it is at her pleasure the PM serves) would have to invite someone else to fill the role. According to the definitive guide to such things, the Cabinet Office Manual, that person would be the person “best placed” to command the confidence of the House of Commons. That person, in the current election, is Ed Miliband.
It is important to note that it is not incumbent on Miliband to prove he can command the confidence of the House, merely that he is best placed to do so. In practice, this will be tested when Prime Minister Miliband presents his Queen’s Speech. If that fails to pass (which is a possibility), it will then be clear than he doesn’t command the confidence of the House of Commons and the duty then falls on him to resign as Prime Minister. Who would replace him…it’s hard to tell. It would, theoretically be the (new) leader of the Conservatives – whose Queen’s speech would fail and would have to resign to be replaced by the (new) leader of the Labour party – whose Queen’s Speech would fail…and so on.

All of this is going on without another general election happening, since while the Queen’s Speech is a test of the Prime Minister’s ability to command the Confidence of the House of Commons, as we discussed in Part 1 it is not one of the statutorily defined triggers set-out in the FTPA2011. It then becomes a political calculation for the smaller parties (since the 2 main parties will never support the government of another in peace-time), to decide which side of the fence they come down on.
It would take an MP to table one of the motions quoted above to cause an election and see if the mess sorts itself out – or the House could vote to repeal/amend the FTPA 2011 and we go back Prime Ministers being able to call an election at a time of their choice (though even whether that would happen is a controversial legal proposition).

Bringing all this Together

Attempting to tie all this together then, it is entirely possible that we are in for a confusing and rocky few months after this election. Unlike in 2010, its clear going into the election who’s most likely to side with whom, so when the results come in, the blocs should be easier to make up.
If there are more ‘Anti-Tory’ MP’s (LAB+SNP+GRN+SDLP+RESPECT) on May 8th than ‘Coalition Friendly MPs’ (CON+LD+DUP/UUP) then Cameron’s days as Prime Minister are numbered, and Ed Miliband will eventually be invited to replace him.
However, that could well prove to be the simplest part of the process. Ed would then need to demonstrate that he commanded the confidence of the House of Commons by passing his first Queen’s Speech. He doesn’t need MP’s to just be ‘Anti-Tory’ – he needs them to be ‘Pro-Labour’ as-well. It’s possible that LAB+SNP alone will have enough votes to get Ed into Number 10 – but if the SNP abstain from voting in the Queen’s Speech (which is entirely possible), then it could still fail, meaning Ed might not have enough confidence after all. The SNP’s line that they will “lock out the Tories” isn’t enough in the longer-term; they need to be willing to keep Miliband in for there not to be another General Election.
If they don’t  though, we wouldn’t be bracing ourselves for #GE15.2 quite yet, because there are only 2 ways to hold an early General Election under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2011:

  • 434 MP’s vote to hold one.
  • 1/2 of MP’s voting support the motion, “That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government.” and that MP’s do not pass the motion, “That this House has confidence in her Majesty’s Government.” within 14 days of doing so.

Analysing the SNP’s position in all this then, the following is entirely possible:

  • they count AGAINST David Cameron, and therefore would lead to his resignation as PM.
  • ABSTAIN from Miliband’s Queen’s Speech (not wanting to vote against it because of the perception; but not wanting to vote for it because they haven’t got any concessions – which is what Miliband seemed to signal in the TV Debates last week).

They would then have to decide whether to support an election-causing confidence motion. Do they Support the motion, bringing down a Labour government and creating echos of 1979, which they have tried to escape? Do they oppose it, rendering their opposition to the Queen’s Speech a little weaker, and making them look a little uncertain of what they actually want? Or, do they abstain, and risk being made to look missing in action – and risk abetting the collapse of a Labour government, if not abetting it?
The Lib Dems would also have to look at the lay of the land, depending on their numbers. I’ve talked about them being ‘Tory-friendly’, but it’s more the current leadership than the party itself. Whether Nick Clegg is still an MP after May (let alone Lib Dem leader) is still up for discussion – so it’s entirely possible the party my shift to be more pro-Labour, and that may well be enough to see Miliband securely in No.10 until 2020. But even then, that depend on a Lib Dem MP who is sympathetic to Labour – many of whom are unlikely to survive this election – becoming the new leader.

The only thing that’s certain is that the 2015 General Election will not finish when voting does.


See Part 1, “What Causes a General Election”;
And Part 2, “What Ends a Prime Minister”.

Lessons from Kirkcaldy…

…or why no-one can be completely happy.


At any other time, Labour wouldn’t have to worry. A by-election in Kirkcaldy East (deepest Brown territory) cause by the resignation of an SNP councillor because of interesting business dealings in Austria. In 2012, the result was clear: Labour Candidates got just shy of 50% of the vote compared to the SNP’s 36.4%. Labour had half the electorate behind them. Easy, right:

Kirkcady East By-Election results

In the end it was the SNP who were victorious – bagging 47.3% of the vote and Labour falling back to the 35% mark. This should leave SNP folk buoyant, they’ve just won a seat that they should have really lost. That’s true, but in the longer term, there are other considerations that might not make it quite so joyous.

Firstly let’s quickly look at the state of the ‘other’ parties:

  • The Tories: Slight increase in %age support, but nothing big. It’s most likely down to the traditional low by-election turnout.
  • The Lib Dems: Disaster. The Lib Dems have lost yet another by-election deposit and only lost a whole 2/3’s of their 2012 support. They also managed to get only a 1/3rd of the votes UKIP did. That itself is a terrible result.
  • The Greens and UKIPBoth of the “minor” parties didn’t stand in 2012, so any support they got would be a gain for them. Both also lost their deposit but the greens narrowly (by 9 votes) pipped UKIP – based on polls, it should have been the other way around.

—–

So having dealt with the minor parties,  the swing here is important. For the SNP to win there had to be a LAB>SNP swing of 7%. They managed to bash straight through that got a swing of c.12.8%. Even on the low turnout – that’s a pretty good result. But, it possibly should have been better.
The most recent polling is placing the SNP lead somewhere around 20-25%. In 2010, LAB’s vote lead was 22% – meaning there has been a c.20% swing since the last General Election. Yet, in the by-election, the swing was only 13%. And this difference is significant. Come May, the SNP need a swing form Labour of 15% to really do substantial damage to Labour. 15% would see them take 20 seats from Labour. 13% would only give them 11 gains…which is not what the SNP are preparing themselves for. So while Thursday’s by-election sin was a good result on the night, more needs to be done if the SNP tidal wave is to strike in May.

Obviously, there are lots of caveats that must be made. It was a by-election last Thursday, which always suffer from decreased turnouts. A council election is not a Westminster election, so different factors can be at play. But, as a friend on twitter put it, this by-election can serve as a “straw in the wind” to give the general direction of travel, if not a precise landing point.
There are still 3 months to go until The General Election, and lots more is bound to happen that will change people’s minds…but as things stand, neither the SNP nor Labour can be truly happy with how things are.

The Reality of Politics

…or why I’ve accepted I need to get a hair cut.


Remember 1999 (I don’t I was 6 at the time, but bear with me)? The Scottish Parliament was just about to come into being and it was the dawn of a ‘New Politics’. MSPs wouldn’t face-off against each other, but would sit in a semi-circle. We wouldn’t have the confrontation of the old ways, but we’d be a lot more consensual and work together to get the best deal for Scots. A PR system would mean that all our voices would be heard – SSP, Greens, Scottish Senior Unity Citizens’ Party (seriously – 6th most votes in 2011) would be a presence in the Parliament. Committees would make MSP’s put their party political selves aside and work to ensure the best possible legislation came out of Scotland’s Parliament. It would be the start of a New Politics.
Today, Scotland is possibly the most polarised it’s ever been. While the SSP and Independents have had some limited success (as in the much celebrated 2003 ‘Rainbow Parliament’), in 2011 only 3 seats were not won by one of the 4 main parties. Committees, all agree, have failed. MSP’s have proven unable to set aside their party-politicalness, leading to minimal scrutiny and, in some cases, extremely questionable behaviour. It seems that, really, nothing much has changed.

Remember 2010 (I was here for this one)? For the first time in almost 50 years, a coalition government was a real possibility. The Liberal Democrats, the minorest major party, were a major player. The old dichotomy of Labour and Tory would be broken. Everyone was clambering over themselves to “Agree with Nick”, who was the face of a new way. It would be the start of a New Politics.
Today, we have a Tory Government and are preparing for one that will be led (or made entirely) by Labour. The Liberal Democrats will be lucky to stay above 20 seats. Even Nick Clegg, who has gone from triumphant to traitor, is at serious risk of losing his seat. Even those in his own party are finding it hard to agree with Nick. It seems that, really, nothing much has changed.

Remember 2014 (I’d hope so)? Scotland has gone through the biggest decision of its history. Almost 85% of the country turned out to decide whether Scotland should go independent or stay as part of the UK. Even after the vote, there seemed to be a dawn of something different. The SNP tripled it membership – and it’s new leader led packed out The Hydro with activists. Those newly invigorated folks were going to change the way politics was done. The feeling of the grassroots-led Yes Scotland (which lost the referendum) would set the mould for the future of Scottish Politics. People Power and not Professionalism would be the way from now on. It was the start of a New Politics.
Today, people seem to be shocked that political parties still like to retain some control over their election candidates. It’s as if party leadership wouldn’t want a guy who said that No voters (the people that party needs to reach) were “so stupid [he was] astonished that their cerebral cortex can transmit a signal that sparks respiration. They are probably not capable of ever noticing their error.” or that were “either evil, or quite extraordinarily thick.” They can’t believe that only the party that really represents Scotland would dare try and fight the people’s will. It must be “establishment stooges” or “unionist agents”. It couldn’t be that a political party knows what it needs to do to win elections (which it has done very well since 2011, and looks set to do again) and others just have to bow down to that wisdom – even if they rather wouldn’t. Because, if that was the case, it would mean that, really, nothing much has changed…and it couldn’t be that.

If You Play With Fire…

…or why I feel kinda sorry for Nicola Sturgeon.


It has become generally accepted that while Yes lost the #IndyRef, in the end the SNP won. They’ve had a Massive boost in membership, a new leader to replace an increasingly divisive one and a promise of a stronger Scottish Parliament. On top of that, Labour are in turmoil and in the middle of a long drawn-out Leadership contest. What can possibly go wrong? Well…

This video shows three Renfrewshire SNP councillors burning a copy of the Smith Commission Report, which is barely a week old. When the report was released, the SNP were quick to denounce it as a betrayal to the almighty Vow – in a “People who support Independence don’t support not-Independence” shock. That’s to be expected and it would be absolutely astounding if Nicola Sturgeon stood up and said, “Aye, fair enough. We’ll pack it in now”.
But this is different. This isn’t just asking why further powers weren’t devolved, or denouncing the Commission as a stitch-up. This video shows a group of elected representatives burning a publication that is highly political in a (still) highly-charged situation. “The 45” still wear their defeat with pride. The word ‘traitor’ is still banded about freely. Saltires still wave defiantly in front-gardens (although, I regret to report, Duggy Dug seems to have gone to stay in a farm in the country).

When Nicola Sturgeon began her tenure as First Minister, she said that she wanted to unite Scotland. Last week she unveiled a fairly impressive and ambitious Programme for Government over the next 12/18 months. This will take work and supreme leadership, and as leader of the largest political party in Scotland (and 3rd biggest in the UK), she should have the power behind her to do it.
Except, in the 2 and a bit months since the 18th September, SNP membership is up c.250%…and there is only one reason those people can have joined the country’s largest pro-independence party at this particular time, and it ain’t Land Reform. Most of those members want another referendum. forget the Edinburgh Agreement, that’s void now. It’s a fact that amuses me, but 6% of people who voted Yes in September signed a petition demanding a “re-vote” because they thought the referendum was rigged. I am willing to bet that most of these people are now members of the SNP.
We can see that the SNP’s focus hasn’t moved away from Independence – SNPFest 2014 at The Hydro talked about little else. There is a very clear reason for that: the SNP is now a ‘fundamentalist’ party. The pendulum between the Salmond gradualists (who seek to achieve independence over a longer-term by slowly gaining more and more power from Westminster) and the fundamentalists (who adopt a much more ‘Indy-or-Die’ approach) has swung firmly in favour of the latter in terms of numbers. To even suggest that the referendum not be run again, or that independence won’t happen soon is heresy. There is a reason Stewart Hosie addressed the masses and not Keith Brown.

Which all, of course, brings us back to the binder-burning councillors. I am not outraged at what they did. I am not appalled, or disgusted, or shocked. I’m just stupefied. Four Elected representatives of Scotland’s governing party had the following though process and believed it to be perfectly normal:

1) I could burn a copy of the Smith Report outside Council HQ.
2) That would be a good idea.
3) I could put YesScotland and SNP stuff around it.
4) I’ll need to get someone to film it though. Put it on YouTube.
5) Where’s the lighter?
6) Nothing can possibly go wrong.

It’s incredibly obvious what Nicola Sturgeon should do with the people involved. They should be ‘sacked’ from the party. They should be denounced as silly people who do not represent the official views of the SNP and their actions are not condoned. Sturgeon should do that – but could she? These councillors (who are, worryingly, pre-#Indyref members) probably represent the views of many, many members of the party. Can a new leader risk slapping down this fundamentalist faction so harshly so soon? This, not government policy, could be the first big decision of her leadership.

Personally, I think she should go for it and stamp her authority all over the party: Those who make trouble, pull stunts and denounce everyone who disagrees with the SNP line as traitors are not welcome. There wouldn’t be a rebellion, there’d be a realisation! What a signal that would be, and it would prevent so many problems down the line.  Remember the UKIP guy who said that silly thingno the other oneNO, the other oneNO THE OTHER OTHER ONE! Just as UKIP have become the “We Could Never Say This in Any Other Party” Party in England, the SNP risk becoming the “FREEDOOOOM” Party – an image they had to do so much to successfully shake off. If Nicola stamps down now, there is a chance people will listen and she will regain the momentum. If she hesitates, the pendulum will swing too far to reclaim, and the fundamentalists may well have their time in power.


I am pleased to report that for the first time I came up with 2 potential titles for a blog post that I was happy with. In the end, I went the one with more angles, but I reserve the right to switch it to “The Smith Commission Heats Up…” at any time.

Free is not Cheaper…

…or why I want the Scottish Government to burden me with Student Debt.


As Nicola Sturgeon took over the reins of the SNP at the weekend, she declared that now they, and not the Labour Party, were the party of social justice in Scotland. In support of this, the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish Students in Scotland. The Labour Party opposed this, and so showed their true colours. They wanted students to pay their own fees, and so seemingly barred the poorest from enjoying Higher Education.

The logic of no Higher Education fees are obvious. No debt looming over them for the rest of their life. This in turn, would encourage more people from families with no University history (such as mine) into Higher Education, and so broaden their horizons. These people are then more likely to be able to fight their way out of poverty, driving up living standards. Everybody wins!
Or so it would seem , except that fees are just one aspect of the cost of university living. There are many other costs that must be paid to go to Uni. There’s travel expenses, for example, which can be expensive – but no support is specifically available for them. The same with rent, books and study materials (which if you are a law student can run into the £100s of pounds a semester) and other living expenses as they appear. The only support available to meet these for most students is a student loan of between £4,750 – £7,500 a year, depending on household income. For a student living away from home this is not a lot to go on, and for the poorest student – with perhaps little support available – this could be a greater disincentive than tuition fees.
What’s key to remember is that after a student graduates, debt is debt. Whether it comes from tuition fees or living expenses; is owed to the government or the bank; debt it debt. So a promise of “Free Tuition” is only good and useful for students from low-income backgrounds if it can be backed up with support for living costs – which it clearly does not.
What it does do, however, is offer an extraordinary level of support to those from wealthy households. Indeed, a February 2014 report by the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity stated that:

There is only one significant group for which it is clearly accurate to describe the Scottish system as the best in the UK, which is the most well off, provided they study in-country. [p.57]

This is a damning claim against the truism that Scotland’s University funding system is the “fairest” in the UK. But when you think about how are system works, it makes sense. By focusing on providing free tuition, everyone – low, medium and high income students get a £3,000 debt relief. But by abolishing grants and limiting the availability of bursaries, the free support once available to low-income students is reduced, leading to a reliance on loans – and thereby pushing up total debt levels upon graduation. The same report estimates that a low-income students will leave with c.£20,000 total debt; higher-income students having no debt at all. The system we have does not work.
Not only does it not work, but it doesn’t work at great cost. Since 2011 Scottish colleges have faced unprecedented cuts, with over 100,000 students disappearing, along with 7,000 staff. Colleges are another route to extended education, most often used by those from low-income backgrounds or with no family history of higher education. Therefore, the Scottish Government have been funding £0-debt-graduations for rich students by cutting services most often used by lower-income families. Not progressive at all.
Similarly, postgraduate students have also suffered. Turning to what I know, the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (a compulsory qualification for solicitors) used to be funded. But now, where grants once stood, student loans for only half of the cost have appeared. This means that any aspiring lawyer of tomorrow has to find c.£3,000 to fund their Diploma from other means. And, to put it bluntly, it’s more likely that the daughter of a lawyer will be able to ask their parents for the money than the son of a shop-worker. The effect this is having on those from “less privileged backgrounds” entering into the profession is already being noticed, and it is not a small one. The same issues apply to almost all aspects of postgraduate education i.e. the only method of funding is a loan, which does nothing to remove the overall debt burden at the end of Uni life. If social mobility is the aim, it is a long way off being achieved. In the end, the tuition fees of rich student’s undergraduate degree are being paid by the grants funding once given to postgraduate students from low-income backgrounds. The system is simultaneously on and off its head.

So, how do we solve this? One way would be to make that ever popular political decision that we should raise taxes. This would mitigate the effects of cuts to college places as much as is possible, and with new tax powers coming to Holyrood next year, it’s a possibility. However, it’s unlikely the ‘progressive’ SNP would raise taxes, especially given the 9 year long Council Tax freeze Scotland will have experienced by the time of the 2016 election.
The only other option is to accept that rocks will have to melt in the sun and some level of tuition fee is introduced in Scotland. This initially seems unattractive, but considering the case above, it is clear that the “no tuition fees for anyone” approach is not working. Introducing fees (that aren’t paid up-front) would allow money currently funding richer students’ undergraduate degrees to support more students from lower-income backgrounds, in the form of bursaries and grants that will actually reduce the overall debt level upon graduation. Support can be kept in place to meet tuition fee costs for less-privileged students, but by having those that can support themselves do so, we would be able to offer even more funding to those who don’t have that luxury, ensuring that they have a genuinely improved access to higher and further education. And, even better, it would tackle final levels of graduate debt, by replacing loans with grants.
Free Higher Education is a admirable aim. But it requires funding, and this isn’t in place – and doesn’t seem that it will any time soon. So we need to look at the reality of the situation, and while “Free Higher Education” is a brilliant headline, it masks that reality. It masks the cuts to further education that have been made to fund the policy. It hides the reduction in postgraduate support that has occurred, while undergraduate tuition fees are still paid for all. And, most importantly, it ignores the fact the grants once available for living costs and travel expenses are now replaced by loans, meaning that lower-income students are now getting in to debt just studying for their “free degree”, while their richer friends can rely on their parents helping them out. So, what I’m really saying here is, Nicola Sturgeon, GIVE ME MORE DEBT because I currently live at home and while my family are by no means rich, we’re not poor. All going well – I’ll be able to repay you in 20/30 years time. Others aren’t like me and we should be doing more for them. That’s what “progressive” is all about.

Debating the Point…

…or why ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’ cause nothing but trouble and unnecessary judicial challenges.


No sooner are we finished with one glorious democratic process, than the countdown to the next one starts. The BBC, ITV and Sky revealed their proposals for the 2015 UK General Election TV Debates today and, like last time, there is a bit of a stooshie over who should appear how many times. As things stand, the debates will be:

SKY – April 2nd: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab) 
BBC – April 16th: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab); Nick Clegg (LD)
ITV – April 30th: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab); Nick Clegg (LD); Nigel Farage (UKIP)

Just about everyone seems to disagree with these proposals in one way or another. The primary issue is that UKIP has been invited to take part despite only having their 1 MP sworn in this morning – while the Greens (whose lone MP Caroline Lucas was elected at the last general election) have not been asked. Nor have the SNP or Plaid Cymru, who you can argue are just as influential in the current UK political landscape.

So, Tory and Labour parties aside (their right to 3 appearances is universally accepted), what have parties should be represented in the debates – and why?

The Lib Dems
As obvious/contentious (delete to suit) a statement as this may be to make, the Lib Dems are a major force in UK politics. They are the minorest major party, but they are still a major party. They are the junior partner in the current coalition government and have the 3rd most MP’s in the Parliament. But, most importantly there is a theoretical chance that they could form an outright government in 2015. [ENOUGH LAUGHING IN THE BACK!]
I mean it. Mathematically, should there be a massive national change of heart, the Lib Dems are standing enough candidates that they could be elected to form a Lib-Dem only government. It’s unlikely, but it is a possibility. Surely then, the Lib Dems should play a part in all 3 debates, since, like the Tories and Labour, they could form a government and already have substantial representation and clout in parliament?
If you accept that this is theoretically possible, but politicly unlikely (read “wouldn’t happen in a million years”), and so the Lib Dems should only be at the 2 debates,  isn’t the point of having the debates to inform the political argument, not the other way around? The Lib Dems received the most tangible benefit from the 2010 debates, arguably due to the fact they weren’t just a punchline, but on an equal footing to the two parties that had dominated government for the last 90 years. Because of that, they are now in government (albeit not leading it) for the first time since Lloyd George. You need a very good reason not to include the Deputy Prime Minister in an election debate – and I can’t see it.

The Greens and UKIP
So…UKIP. It is a party that had no representation in Westminster whatsoever until last week when it won it’s first ever by-election. The Greens, meanwhile, have had its 1 MP (the impressive Caroline Lucas) since 2010. The argument is that if UKIP are being invited on the back of Carswell’s election, the Greens should to. I fear, however, that this isn’t taking an holistic view of things.
While I’d imagine UKIP will have limited (if any) electoral success, their UK-wide support orbits the 17/18% mark, while the Greens can normally manage 5% on a good day. So far UKIP have announced 240 candidates for constituencies in all parts of Great Britain. The Greens, meanwhile have announced candidates in just 81. While UKIP haven’t hit that magic number of 326 yet (i.e. 50% of Westminster Seats + 1) it is not inconceivable that, like the Lib Dems, they will by the time next April rolls around and the registration deadline closes. In 2010 they stood in 558 seats, and in 2005 they tried in 496. The Greens, meanwhile, stood in just 182 seats in 2005 and still only 310 in 2010, leaving it 16 short from being able to achieve a governing majority, even on a perfect night. So UKIP and The Greens are two different beasts in the 2015 election as things stand. The former will field enough candidates that it could form its own government; the latter, if past trends are anything to go by, will not. Unless it does, the claim that it is a party similar in character to UKIP will be difficult to substantiate. If they do, however, inviting one but not the other will be nigh-on-impossible to justify.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru
So having dealt with UK-wide parties…what about the nation-specific parties in Great Britain: The SNP and Plaid Cymru? Dealing with The SNP first – the prima facie case for including them in the debates is plain. They are, and have been for the last 4 (arguably 5) years the biggest party in Scotland. They form the Scottish Government by majority, have have 6 MP’s already in Westminster and have, thanks to the post-#IndyRef surge in membership, are now have the 3rd largest membership figure in the UK. Excluding them from the debate, then would mean that the UK-establishment are neglecting a massive Scottish Voice…right?
Maybe – but let’s apply the test we’ve developed. Could the SNP mathematically form a UK government on a perfect night? The answer is most definitely no, since the SNP (quite fairly) only field candidates in the 59 Scottish seats. There is no way in which an SNP MP could become Prime Minster (save a disastrous night for the 2/3/4 main parties and there is a Rainbow coalition of the ‘Others’ with the SNP at its head). Why then should the SNP field somebody in what is a Prime Ministerial debate? Who that somebody would be is another issue that would need resolved. Nicola Sturgeon would seem the obvious choice, being the party’s leader and all. But unless she was intending to stand as an MP, the case for her getting involved in a Westminster TV debate is a difficult one to make. It may be more appropriate then for the SNP Leader at Westminster (Angus Robertson MP) to be the face of the SNP – but this might not have the electoral impact the SNP would be hoping for.
Plaid Cymru’s argument for inclusion is weaker still. It has all the regionalist-weakness of the SNP, fielding candidates in only the 40 Welsh seat in the past two elections, and none of the strength in numbers nor governmental advantage. It shoudl be said, though, it does have 3 times as many MP’s as either the Greens or UKIP. Even as the ‘nationalist bloc’ that is sometimes formed between the two, only 100 candidates would be fielded across the UK – well short of the number needed to govern. Add to this the fact that the Court of Session knocked back the SNP’s attempt to appear on the BBC’s 2010 debate. That’s not stopping them launching another challenge this year, but I can’t say I fancy their chances.
The broadcasters have said that there will be additional debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where representatives of “one-nation-only” parties can make the case to the electorate to which they intend to present themselves. This seems a sensible suggestion, though it does mean that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems will have an extra bit of the cherry too, which presents its own problems.

It was suggested to me on twitter that the best way to solve the “who gets to appear and how many times” issue is to have the leaders of all the parties with at least 1 MP in, and everybody else out. There are currently 12 parties (and 1 independent) represented at Westminster so this option is clearly not workable. It also raises the question of whether the Northern Irish parties should be included in the debate given the unique characteristics of its electoral system.
The best way to avoid these pointless arguments and party-political one-upmanship is, of course, to recognise the fact the in the UK we don’t vote for a Prime Minister, we vote for MPs. The Prime Minister is simply the person who is able to “command the confidence” of the majority of those MPs sitting in the House of Commons. Sure, the leaders of the parties undoubtedly have an effect on that party’s image, but they don’t need the debates to make their mark. Most of them manage it pretty well already.