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Archives for April 2011

Coalition electoral tactics

Brian Taylor | 15:05 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011

With Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Scotland, attention has understandably shifted towards the potential impact of the UK coalition upon these Holyrood elections.

Tavish Scott may lead an autonomous party in the Scottish Liberal Democrats but he knows - he knows only too well - that does not provide him with immunity from voter disquiet over Westminster issues.

Talking of which, did you catch his remarkable party election broadcast? After outlining a range of key Scottish policies, he confronted directly the prospect that Scots might turn against his team because they were in a UK pact with the Conservatives.

Indeed, he majored on the "T-word" - Thatcher, that is, not Tories. Scotland, he averred, had learned to distrust the Tories. The LibDems were about containing the Conservatives, not advancing them.

Broadly, Mr Clegg pursued much the same theme on his Scottish campaign tour today. It was, he said, 2011, not 1979. The LibDems would not allow the same "damage" to be wreaked upon Scotland again.

Tricky call for the LibDems. Do they defend the coalition flat out and against all comers? Or do they modulate that defence, tailoring it to circumstances?

In Scotland, they have now plainly chosen the second option - which is to depict themselves as the voice of moderation in an electoral arrangement driven by necessity.

Such a tactic might be inevitable in Scotland - but, of itself, it might also add to the strains within that UK coalition. Unless, of course, Team Cameron accept that rough things must be said in elections.

That prospect is probably assisted, ironically, by the AV Referendum. Team Clegg are already deploying fairly blunt language against the Tories over that issue. Scotland merely adds to that mix, seen in a UK context.

In any case, Mr Clegg will not have to face the electors until the close of Westminster's newly fixed term. His challenge is years away. Tavish Scott is facing the electorate next week.

Initially, Mr Scott seemed slightly unsure as to how to treat the coalition issue. Distance himself completely? Claim gains like tax exemption and pensions uprating? Defend Clegg to the hilt?

Now - and particularly with that party election broadcast - he has found a formula. He will find out next week whether the voters are buying.

Turning to the senior partners in the UK coalition, it was Annabel Goldie at last year's election who tried a punning gag about the UK LibDem leader. A cleg, in Scots, is a horse fly: capable, according to Miss Goldie, of leaving a "nasty little blemish to remind you of how troublesome it once was".

But this time around the Tories are attempting to mirror the LibDems in one regard:that of offering to act as a shield.

Their strategy over the last few days has been to forecast an SNP victory - hoping thereby to stir their instinctive support into turning out and voting for a sizeable Tory phalanx as, again in Miss Goldie's words, "a bulwark".

Far from disavowing the coalition to any degree, Miss Goldie talks of the necessity of curbing spending, of its intrinsic virtue.

As noted here before, two very different tactics by the UK coalition parties. With the same objective: winning Holyrood votes.

'Seminal moment'

Brian Taylor | 15:40 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The reports tell of a seminal moment in the campaign. There is talk of radical change, of transformational tactics.

And what has happened to merit such analysis? The principal opposition party at Holyrood has decided to have a bit of a go at the party of government.

In normal circumstances, such an event would be routine. Thus far, this election has pursued a somewhat abnormal course.

Until yesterday, Labour has operated as if it wanted to rerun the UK General Election 2010.

Understandable, perhaps, given that they did rather well in that contest in Scotland (by contrast with England and Wales.)

The phrase most commonly heard from Labour lips has been "now that the Tories are back . . ."

They have talked of Tory cuts. By no means solely, but largely. They have warned of a Tory threat to jobs.

They have demonised the Conservatives, playing to what they believe remains visceral distrust of the party of Disraeli, Peel - and Thatcher.

Current circumstances

They hoped thereby to position themselves as the party best placed to counter such cuts, to slay the demon.

And what of their view upon the SNP? The party of government at Holyrood? The party which defeated Scottish Labour four years ago? Rather popular leader, according to the polls?

Labour's phase one verdict was that the SNP were too "distracted" by independence to be able to offer much to the people of Scotland in the current circumstances, post the UK election which returned the Tories to (shared) power.

That is not to say that they sought to ignore the Nationalists entirely.

But they did seek to marginalise them, to play down their salience.

With what result? The SNP, it seems, have contrived to shrug off the handicaps assigned to them by Labour - and to build an apparently healthy lead in the polls.

Now, that might have happened anyway. Folk are now beginning to concentrate seriously upon the election.

Perhaps they simply prefer Alex Salmond to Iain Gray.

Party in power

But, in any event, Labour has concluded that a little recalibration is in order.

As a matter of course, we are assured that such a change of tack was always in preparation.

We are told that, having established the context of a UK Tory-led government, it is time to turn the fire upon the party in power at Holyrood.

Phase two. The wicked media, displaying more than the customary insolence, seem disinclined to accept these assurances.

Anyway, the "distraction" is now back at the core, for Labour. SNP = independence = "complete disaster", according to Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, in Edinburgh today.

As for Alex Salmond, he appears to be taking a Kiplingesque attitude to phases one and two, meeting triumph (those poll indications) and disaster (today's Labour claim) in the same manner.

To be clear, Mr Salmond has not played the independence card much in this campaign, preferring to focus on such issues as green jobs and police numbers.

His justification for this is that folk are electing a Holyrood government - with a subsequent opportunity to decide upon independence if and when a referendum can be called.

Future plebiscite

Astute observers might recognise this tactic of deferral.

It was deployed with notable success by Labour in 1997 when voters were assured that there would be a chance to decide on devolution in a later plebiscite.

However, just as devolution was intrinsic to the Labour pitch of '97, independence as an objective is implicit in today's SNP offer.

An objective which, as Mr Salmond would aver, the Nationalists have scarcely hidden.

Will phase two work for Labour? Depends, as ever, upon the voters.

An all-out attack on independence was not notably successful in 2007 - although Labour contends that, post recession and banking crisis, voters are more open to an argument that Scotland could not afford to detach from the Union.

Against that, the SNP argues that there are many who, while not immediate, overt supporters of independence, are relatively tolerant of such an eventual outcome - or, at least, not scared off by it.

Plus the two parties differ on the interpretation of Labour, phase two.

Holyrood campaign

Labour themselves say it is primarily a positive offer, contrasting their plans for jobs with what they say would be the damaging uncertainty of an independence referendum.

The SNP say Labour's tone is negative: inimical, they argue, to voters in search of reassurance and uplift.

As for the others, the current Conservative narrative is that Labour has "blown it" and that only a sizeable Tory presence at Holyrood can provide a check upon the SNP.

The Liberal Democrats offer Labour a mischievous welcome to the Holyrood campaign while stressing their own determination to focus upon individual issues such as preserving individual police forces.

Fun fortnight

Brian Taylor | 12:42 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

Intriguing poll in The Times and The Sun today suggesting a healthy lead for Alex Salmond's SNP in the Holyrood election contest.

Both papers treat the Ipsos MORI finding of an apparent ten point lead with duly apocalyptic language, tailored for their readers: "unassailable" in the Thunderer, "whopping" in the currant bun.

Self-evidently, this will occasion constrained delight in the SNP camp and measured gloom on the Labour side.

But, as ever, there are caveats to be lodged beyond the customary one that polls can be wrong.

Firstly, the pollsters themselves note that roughly one third of their respondents indicate they have yet to fix their final position, that they may change their minds before May 5.

Secondly, even an accurate poll may not translate uniformly across Scotland. The "ground war" can mean that individual constituencies and even regions buck an apparent trend, with potential impact.

These days, that ground war is exceptionally sophisticated.

Voters are asked about their circumstances, their predilections, their place in society. Individual respondents will then receive targeted messages, precision leaflets.

Individual victories

From that, a mosaic picture of a constituency develops, far more subtle than the old-style canvassing which tended to settle around: Yes, No, Maybe, Don't Dare Darken that Door.

Liberal Democrats, in particular, have proven adept in the past at securing individual victories in the face of apparent difficulties.

It is a skill they may require in these elections

However, more generally, it is arguable that the momentum may lie with the incumbent SNP.

While expressing considerable caution, their own strategists attribute this to their increasing stress upon the Scotland-wide pitch of "Alex Salmond for First Minister."

To be frank, they believe that their guy is a better sell when voters are settling down, seriously, to consider their options.

Much of the election "air war" can, frankly, appear as noise to voters who are, understandably, preoccupied with other matters.

But persistent elements emerge.

The SNP believe their guy is a constant factor within that clanjamfrie, a political lodestone.

Perceived persona

Naturally, that is disputed by Labour. They argue that Iain Gray is steadily gaining a good reputation with the voters as he gets around key constituencies, as he appears on the telly.

They reckon folk warm to him.

Ditto, of course, the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

Indeed, the Tories in particular are leaning more and more upon the perceived persona of their leader as the campaign progresses.

A fun fortnight to come.

Historical connections

Brian Taylor | 17:18 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

In pursuit of votes, David Cameron was in Inverness today, speaking in the chamber where the British Cabinet met in emergency session in 1921.

Perhaps it was that historical connection that led him to draw upon Winston Churchill for an attack upon the Alternative Vote.

Churchill - who attended that 1921 event as the Colonial Secretary - apparently called AV "the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal" method of electing politicians.

Mind you, Churchill wasn't always entirely consistent in his opinions.

A Tory who became a Liberal then a Tory again, he commented that anyone could rat on a party but it took a certain ingenuity to "re-rat."

On another historical note, those Inverness discussions forged the formula which led, ultimately, to the creation of the Irish Free State.

Mr Cameron did not seem in a mood to replicate such a process with regard to Scotland.

Government efforts

Addressing nationalists, he argued that Scottish independence would damage Scotland's economy, adding, with emphasis: "Don't these people get it?"

At roughly the same time, Alex Salmond was in Kilmarnock arguing that the latest round of economic figures proved the case for his government's efforts - and the need for more economic powers in Scotland.

Resolutely declining to "get it", Mr Salmond argued that the biggest threat to Scotland lay in the economic policies being pursued by the UK coalition.

Scotland needed fiscal autonomy.

Mr Cameron had more to say on the economy.

Labour's only offer, he said, was to spend much more money on interventionist schemes.

Deliberately echoing the departing Labour Chief Secretary, he said there was no money left: Labour had spent it.

Again unaccountably, Labour's Iain Gray declined to heed this message.

Debt payments

Labour, he argued, would be able to divert resources into tackling youth unemployment in particular.

Back in the Highland capital, the PM argued that the spending cuts were necessary to tackle the deficit and cut debt payments.

He argued further that Britain, including Scotland, would be revived through an entrepreneurial boost to the private sector.

Intriguingly, the PM's visit to Inverness coincided with a homecoming campaign tour by Danny Alexander, his Cabinet colleague as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Mr Alexander - once more, to widespread astonishment - disdained the advice on offer from the PM, at least with regard to Scotland. (As coalition colleagues, they share a wider perspective on the economy.)

The LibDems, he asserted, had the right ideas for Scotland with their proposals for regional development banks.

And AV was a good wheeze, whatever Churchill had said.

Greens see red

Brian Taylor | 16:07 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The setting could scarcely have been more Green: hard by the bio-diversity section of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

There were veggie sandwiches on offer along with the obligatory bacon rolls.

The statutory charming infant was on hand, quietly munching on a copy of the manifesto.

But this was hard-edged politics nonetheless. Indeed, at some points, it sounded more Red than Green - although, of course, those two traditions have frequently overlapped in the past.

Patrick Harvie is a shrewd politician. He plainly sees a gap in the market, presented by the sundry efforts to cope with UK spending cuts as they impact on Scotland.

Mr Harvie is not for coping. Indeed, as he answered umpteen questions from the wicked media, he seemed to be tempted to break into a chant: "They say cut back, we say fight back."

But, while he joins the occasional protest, he also aspires to be a player, dealing with the "mainstream" parties as he calls them.

The Greens, you may recall, signed a pact with the SNP in the early days after the last election when Alex Salmond was still seeking chums.

Numbers game

That was before he discovered the joys of minority government.

In practice, little came of that pact. And the Greens' reputation with the mainstreamers rather came unstuck when Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper swithered over a deal which could have saved the SNP budget which, temporarily, fell.

The Greens blame last-minute intervention by the FM. Whatever, the other parties may tend to be somewhat cautious as a consequence.

The issue may not arise, of course. The Greens may not have the numbers.

The arithmetic, more generally, may not stack up. The Greens may refuse to bargain, pleading principle.

Their red lines, they say, are opposition to nuclear and coal-fired power stations; free education; and efforts to protect the poor from cuts.

The last one is open to interpretation.

The second would match either the SNP or Labour manifestos.

'Reverse cuts'

On the face of it, the first would present less of a challenge to the SNP than Labour, at least with regard to the principle of nuclear power (although not coal.)

And that "gap in the market"? Mr Harvie argues that his rivals are being pusillanimous.

Instead of coping, they should reverse the cuts and increase taxation in Scotland.

The Greens insist that their tax plans would benefit the bulk of folk who are on relatively low incomes and in relatively small properties.

But, on examination, there wasn't over much in the way of precise detail at the launch itself.

They intend to replace the council tax and business rates with a system of Land Value Taxation.

As Mr Harvie noted, this is an idea with an extended pedigree in radical politics.

The Greens say that folk who are currently in council tax bands A to E would benefit, roughly 85% they reckon.

'Speculative landowners'

Those above would pay more - as would "big business" and those who are leaving land unused.

This system, they say, would deter speculative landowners.

But what about the impact on business?

Small concerns, they insist, would not be hit. Larger companies could afford to pay.

Beyond that, they plan an increase in the basic rate of income tax, using the Scottish variable rate for the first time.

If cuts are still in process, there would be an increase of half of one per cent from 2013.

And what would all this buy? Investment in affordable housing, further and higher education, home insulation: £2.6bn for local authorities more generally.

They are against the Forth replacement crossing and the Aberdeen by-pass, preferring to fund public transport infrastructure projects.

And finally, sport. They favour "community ownership" of clubs to help Scotland's national game. (For the avoidance of doubt, that's football.)

A question of power

Brian Taylor | 10:46 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

It is, in essence, a power game. In demanding - and getting - a council tax freeze, John Swinney made local authorities an offer they couldn't refuse.

If they were good, they were spared savage cuts in spending. But if they were bad.......

Again considering the balance of power, one can sympathise with the leaders of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities who are now kicking up a fuss about the sundry freezes on offer to the voters in the Holyrood elections.

Hang on, they say. MSPs don't set the council tax. Local authorities do. Holyrood leaders can promise a freeze for two years, five years or a century. It's still up to councils.
It must be truly galling to watch from the sidelines as one set of elected politicians battle over a power which lies with others.

So, one can sympathise - up to a point. Firstly, it's up to councils, individually, not collectively. Holyrood doesn't set the council tax - but nor does COSLA.

John Swinney's offer as the Finance Secretary in the SNP government was delivered collectively at Holyrood - but it applied individually.

Each council was entirely free to plump for penury instead of largesse in terms of central government grants, thereby pushing up the council tax for their own citizens. It was a fully free - if less than palatable - choice.

Secondly, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, Holyrood is a law-making Parliament, not an over-sized local authority. Holyrood sets the budget for Scottish local authorities.

Three options

Holyrood, ultimately, has the power to decide which services are run by councils - or not.

In this election, we have a range of offers which might impinge on local authority clout. For example, the notion of merging social care with the NHS. Or various ideas for giving greater power to individual schools.

So, to be blunt, Holyrood has three options when faced with recalcitrant councils.

MSPs can stuff their mouths with money (to borrow the rather hideous phrase derived from the assuaging of consultants at the foundation of the NHS.)

Or they can legislate to enforce a freeze - or, indeed, a different system of local authority funding entirely. Or they can remove powers from local government, shifting the financial burden to central government - and thereby driving a back-door freeze or cut.

Smiling benignly, the would-be financial godfathers in this election will all stress that they don't want to be so brutal. They don't want to impose. They want to work with councils. They want agreement.

But it goes without saying that they also want to deliver their manifesto promise. Ideally, by concordat, historic or otherwise. Implicitly, by dictat, if necessary.
Here, the parties depart from each other.
Among the majors, the Liberal Democrats are the most reluctant. They dislike the concept of imposing a freeze which breaches local authority autonomy - but offer one, frankly, in order to match the other parties.

Prevailing circumstances, they say, drive their decision.

Their distinctive offer, pending Local Income Tax, is to offer to scrap the tax for the poorest pensioners, those earning below £10k.

The Tories backed a freeze in the last Parliament - and are offering to extend it for a further two years, followed by local plebiscites if a council plans an increase above the rate of inflation.

They are also offering a £200 council tax discount for households where all the adults are pensioners.

Then Labour and the SNP. Labour is a relatively late convert to the cause of freezing the council tax. But, with the zeal of the convert, they insist they would make a better job than the SNP.

They are offering to freeze the tax for the next two years - and say that they would "fully fund" such a decision, arguing that the SNP fell short.

That assertion is disputed by the SNP who say that, in some years, the cost of a freeze was, if anything, over-funded. Their manifesto pledges to extend the freeze throughout the next Parliament.
The SNP's biggest pitch is to say that they delivered a freeze throughout the past Parliament - when there were comparable warnings of doom from the councils and forecasts of failure from others.

Further, they say they would use the five years of the next Holyrood term to prepare the ground for Local Income Tax - once enhanced powers, over income tax and council tax benefit, have been devolved.

Now, of course, these Holyrood elections are not the end of the matter. There are local council elections next year.

If a further freeze is on course, then those councillors who feel especially aggrieved can use the hustings next year to promise that they will contest such a freeze in their locality with all the power they can muster.

No doubt their Holyrood colleagues will wish them loadsaluck with that.

Number crunching

Brian Taylor | 21:04 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

I doubt whether folk judge politics in an entirely arithmetical fashion: they are more likely to reach an overall qualitative assessment.

Nonetheless, the SNP have done the right thing in publishing the details of their oft-repeated claim that they have achieved 84 out of their 94 headline commitments.

In fact, they might have been better to have got this out of the way some time back - before the claim was rather too oft repeated and the wicked media got grumpy about being invited to report an assertion which was not backed by published evidence.

Privately, party strategists say they contemplated outlining the list at the dissolution of parliament but concluded that it was better to publish a full analysis around the time of the manifesto launch.

The list contains the achievements: abolishing the graduate endowment, putting one thousand more police officers on the street, meeting new cancer waiting times, freezing the council tax, abolishing bridge tolls.

Fell short

It also contains 10 areas where the SNP fell short in office - including five in the field of education.

In essence, the party offers three justifications for these.

Resources fell short - that applies to the issue of taking over student debt.

Opposition from rivals in Holyrood - the independence referendum, for example.

Pursuing different options in government - first time buyers grant.

Anent the council tax, it is being said by some that the promise of a freeze did not feature in the manifesto.

True - but SNP policy folk point out that it featured in an accompanying wrap-round document setting out first steps.

That document, they say, was an integral part of the manifesto offer.

Opposition reaction

So the freeze which was a "first step" en route to the introduction of a Local Income Tax ended up being the final step not just for the past parliament - but, if the party is re-elected, for the one to come.

Opposition reaction varies.

Labour points to the education promises - and particularly the offer to "dump student debt." That, they say, adds up to a £2bn broken promise.

The SNP says the idea of eliminating debt faced Holyrood opposition - and that, in the event, they found other ways of targeting help to students.

The Liberal Democrats, similarly, accuse the SNP of letting voters down.

The Tories, while echoing that theme, also argue that certain key pledges, such as bobbies on the beat, would not have been delivered without them.

Individual people, individual sectors, may be so delighted by a particular promise kept or so scunnered by a failure to deliver that they may tailor their vote accordingly.

Most, I reckon, will reach a more wide-ranging assessment, based on a comprehensive impression of how they reckon the SNP fared in office by comparision with what they might expect from alternatives.

The SNP's opponents, of course, expect that assessment to be negative.

SNP leaders, as I noted here yesterday, believe that folk will give them credit, overall, for a decent effort.

Alex Salmond's gig

Brian Taylor | 15:19 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Even the most assured performers welcome a good warm-up.

Such was on hand today for Alex Salmond's gig at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

Eager young party aides rushed around dispening croissants, fruit and party policies in roughly equal numbers.

The large audience looked determinedly enthusiastic (the party activists) and grumpily sceptical (the wicked media.)

Booming out was the SNP sound track anthem "Let's Work Together".

One or two of the more energetic candidates appeared sufficiently moved as to be moving, more or less in time to the beat.

Then the mandatory warm-up videos - closing, mischievously, with a shortlist of those backing Alex Salmond for first minister.

Brian Cox. Midge Ure. John Farquhar Munro . . . Cue knowing, rascally laughter.

You could see the assembled activists thinking: it doesn't get any better than this.

'Good performance'

You could see the wicked media thinking: is there still time to nip out for a coffee?

Finally, on stage came the one who would be FM for a second shottie. Lest we missed the point, the word "Re-elect" was displayed behind him in a huge font.

For the manifesto launch itself, a good performance by Mr Salmond.

He's been party leader - twice - over a prolonged period. He's been the boss of devolved Scotland for four years.

But he still seemed energised, enthusiastic.

On the subject of renewable energy and the low-carbon economy, he was positively evangelical, positing the reindustralisation of Scotland.

The big announcement - (as forecast by me for those of you sensible enough to be listening to Good Morning Scotland on the wireless) - was an extension of the council tax freeze.

Not another two years - but five more, for the duration of the next (extended) Holyrood Parliament.

Trumping strategy

I inquired gently whether this policy had been changed late in the day in order to outpace those rival parties which had moved to match the previous two year deal.

Not so, I was assured. Like a good bridge player, the party had apparently anticipated their rivals' move - and had prepared a strategy to trump them.

And how to pay for this?

A pay freeze for those earning more than £21k in the public sector together with
enforced efficiency savings, starting at 3%.

Other offers? Protect health spending, keep 1,000 extra police, decline to use the Tartan Tax, enhance apprenticeships.

You see therein an inherent challenge for incumbents seeking re-election.

Do they trumpet what they have done - regretting the gaps and offering to build on existing foundations?

Or do they seek entirely new policy areas - leaving the voters wondering why they hadn't pursued such issues while in power?

'Competent government'

The SNP answer to this conundrum is to link the past four years with the next five in a continuum.

Much done, more to do.

"The best is yet to come", as the manifesto argues at one point.

Basically, their belief is that the public reckon they have done all right in office.

That they have been, as Mr Salmond said in his opening remarks, a "competent" government.

That they can be trusted with another go.

As the activists departed, presumably in search of more croissants, I asked Mr Salmond whether he would be returned as first minister.

With commendable brevity, he replied: "Yes."

Rivals, naturally, dissent. As ever, a larger audience than those assembled at the RSAMD will decide.

Parties work for job vote

Brian Taylor | 12:33 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

What is it that can be described simultaneously as "progress" and "grim reading"?

What apparently exemplifies both "robust action" on the part of government - and "a damning indictment of their complacency", according to taste?

The answer, as you have undoubtedly twigged by now, is the monthly statistical exercise listing the numbers in and out of work, here in Scotland.

To be clear, the preponderance of views in the political field lies in the direction of a qualified welcome.

Even Labour - authors of the "grim" diagnosis - note at the outset of their statement that "any signs of improvement are welcome".

The difference in interpretation rests largely upon time frame.

The SNP (and indeed the UK government in the shape of the Scotland Office) stress the present trend which is a positive one of declining unemployment and rising employment.

Labour looks further back, noting that there are more out of work in Scotland than at this time last year - and that the Scottish unemployment percentage is currently higher than that for the UK by contrast, they say, with the situation which prevailed when the SNP took power.

The views of voters are likely to be less arithmetical. They can be defined as the feel-good factor. Am I in work? Are my family in work - or with the prospect of work? Do I see rising employment in my community, my city, my peer group?

For these devolved elections, the political impact is also harder to gauge. If there is a relative feel-good factor as a consequence of current trends, does that attach itself to the incumbent party at Holyrood even though macro-economic policy is reserved to Westminster?

Equally, if folk still feel apprehensive despite seeming encouragement in the current trends, is there a political aftermath - and where would that apply?

To recap the basics, Scottish unemployment is down by 7,000 over the last quarter - although the percentage rate, at 8.1, remains higher than the comparable UK level.

The Scottish employment rate is better than the UK average - and has improved again this month. The claimant count in Scotland fell slightly.

Understandably, each of the parties interprets these results in terms of their own offer to the voters at these forthcoming Holyrood elections.

The SNP notes that this is the fifth consecutive monthly fall in unemployment together with the ninth monthly rise in employment.

They say this reflects the "robust actions" taken by their party in devolved power - while arguing that Scotland requires the full panoply of economic tools in order to avoid slipping back.

Labour stresses the extent of youth unemployment and, as billed above, highlights the longer term trends.

The Conservatives welcome the fall in unemployment - but argue that the focus now should be on entrepreneurial efforts to enhance the private sector rather than relying, as in the past, on public sector employment.

The Liberal Democrats also welcome these figures and the recent trend as "good news" - while offering their policies of regional development banks, a home insulation programme and superfast broadband as the route to future growth.

'Utmost seriousness'

Brian Taylor | 16:19 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

In many respects, the brilliant series "Yes Minister" resembles a documentary, rather than the comedy it purports to be.

Throughout the century or so in which I have covered politics, there have been umpteen points of conjunction between Hacker, Sir Humphrey et al and what affects to be real life.

Remember this definition?

"The matter is 'under consideration' means we have lost the file. The matter is 'under active consideration' means we are trying to find the file."

Simply brilliant - and familiar to those who are aware that most senior political and governmental careers are spent in a glorious spree of uncertainty and confusion, with rival issues competing for inevitably limited attention.

(For the avoidance of doubt, journalism is the same.)

There is an episode where Jim, Sir Humphrey and the chief whip are discussing the prospective succession at Downing Street.

'Serious matters'

None of the three wants to be too specific - or to offer any ideas.

So each assures the other sententiously that the matter is "serious". With "serious repercussions". Of "the utmost seriousness."

In short, they are agreed. It is serious.

This, of course, is a totemic Yes Minister satire, applicable to other situations.

All will agree that the matter is grave. Serious.

But somehow there is seldom a proposal for addressing the problem other than the customary subterfuge and guile.

This vague recollection floated to the surface as I contemplated these present Holyrood elections.

Do the voters really want blunt talking? Do they really want political leaders to tell it like it is? Really?

No money

Or do they, perhaps, prefer, to some extent, comforting obfuscation, a contented smudge?

Folk will insist that they want the hard truth. Tell me straight. OK, there's absolutely no money left and your kid's school is going to close.

And about that public sector job you have . . .

You can appreciate the problem. Such straight talking may be fine in generality. Indeed it may be regarded as an admirable characteristic.

But in the particular . . .

The Tories have made a relative virtue of bluntness in these elections, arguing for example for a graduate levy to fund universities and for the resurrection of prescription charges.

Further, they insist that their plans are costed on the basis of available funds - and are not predicated upon further efficiency savings being found.

Public spending

However, it is not all austerity. They are not daft.

So, at the same time, they stress areas where they have directed and fostered public spending, arguing for example that it was their pressure which ensured the recruitment of 1000 police officers during the last parliament.

And they are supporting individual give-aways such as their proposed discount on council tax for all pensioners.

To varying degrees, the other parties are all offering a mixed ensemble; hair shirt and party frock. For example, their talk of a tough public sector pay freeze is sweetened by the promise - from each, in different ways - of more jobs in the economy.

To be clear, I do not remotely blame them. Any of them.

There are distinct limits to the quota of "courageous decisions" which it is sensible to deploy when seeking to attract popular support.

Why is that?

Is it because, for all the emphasis upon blunt speaking, a worried and fretful electorate tends to welcome a degree of reassurance?

Yes, Minister.

The people's priorities

Brian Taylor | 15:05 UK time, Sunday, 10 April 2011

To start, a few words of caution.

This is an opinion poll: it offers a wide-angle snapshot, not the precision of a microscope.

Further, we reminded those taking part that Holyrood may not have the time or the money to do everything at once.

We asked, therefore, for priorities.

But some people, perhaps many people, might still be inclined, in effect, to tick "all of the above" when asked to rank priorities.

Certainly, it would appear that the focus is still upon the services which can be funded by public spending.

For example, two policies ostensibly designed to help business - regional development banks and reduced taxation - were way down the poll.

But, still, there are some intriguing findings.

Let us consider firstly the issue of policing - an issue driven by two elements: recruitment and police boards.

The SNP, supported by the Tories, increased police numbers by 1,000.

The idea of maintaining that number ranks second in the poll.

Meanwhile the notion of combining the eight separate forces into a single national force comes second bottom.

The Liberal Democrats have opposed a single force and will undoubtedly take comfort from that.

Equally, it may now be incumbent upon those who back reform - which they believe will save money - to express their views in the context of sustaining front-line policing.

Labour will be pleased that one of their policies - halving waiting times to see a cancer specialist - has come top of the poll.

To be fair, other parties also have offers on waiting times and waiting lists.

But glance a little further down the poll.

The idea of spending more on the health service falls outside the top 10, at number 12.

Why? Surely that runs contrary to other findings.

No - because of the caveat.

Our pollsters asked if people would prioritise increased spending on the health service "even if means cuts in spending on other things."

You may say that is unfairly loading the question.

To the contrary, I would argue that, within a fixed budget as Scotland has, it is fair to confront voters with the fact that more money for Peter means a bit less for Paul.

It would seem plausible to infer that the very mention of cuts in any form taints an issue for people in Scotland - even when the remainder features the commonly popular NHS.

Folk don't like talk of cuts. They are still not resiled to cuts - or, perhaps, to making the choices which may be demanded of our public sector when the cuts in-train start to bite.

Again, that is entirely understandable, given the scale of the challenge.

Folk are still struggling to find options that may be more palatable, that may involve less pain for fewer people.

Look now at the bottom of the poll.

Very few accord priority to the Conservative policy of allowing 14-year-olds to leave school to train for a trade.

It would seem, at the very least, that they have some way to go before they can begin to convince the voters that this is a policy worth pursuing.

Look too at the issue of a referendum on independence.

That appears well down the list, at number 22.

The SNP's opponents will undoubtedly say that is the standing view of the people of Scotland.

Perhaps, though, it reflects the focus of these elections in particular: against the background of economic stringency.

It may also partly reflect the focus of the SNP's own campaign which has been to place their independence ambition in the broader context of fiscal powers to remedy the economy while majoring on immediate pressing concerns such as growth.

Look too at the council tax. Various offers to freeze it or cut it for pensioners are all ranked in the top 10.

But the notion of replacing it with a Local Income Tax is further down, at 21.

Again, that may reflect the desire of voters to concentrate upon their immediate worries while relegating wider reform.

Also, the parties advocating this change - the SNP and LibDems - have said that it will have to await the further devolution of tax powers which means, in effect, the parliament after next.

In all, fascinating.

Labour sounds alarm

Brian Taylor | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Politicians frequently set alarm bells ringing with their comments. Today Labour managed the same by just turning up for their manifesto launch.

The wicked media and sundry Labour supporters had gathered in the elegant surroundings of Clydebank College to hear Iain Gray set out his plans for the parliament ahead.

Cue ringing bells and flashing lights. We did what all normal citizens do when the alarm sounds. That is, stand around looking bemused, thoughtfully dipping a biscuit into a cup of tea.

What had happened? SNP sabotage? Had someone lit up a fly fag under the smoke alarm? Was it a false alarm? Alas, no. We were efficiently shepherded outside into the gentle but persistent Clydeside rain.

When the event got going again - after a few droll gags from the platform party - we were treated to a form of political alarm-sounding.

But the menace detected by Iain Gray's sensors was not Alex Salmond, the First Minister he hopes to replace.

Rather, it was David Cameron, the Prime Minister he posits as an external threat to Scotland.

Scottish psyche

His biggest applause line (from the supporters, that is, not the wicked m.) came when he declared that the Tories feared a Labour victory in Scotland.

His argument is that the Scottish Parliament can be used as a bulwark to buttress Scotland against "Tory cuts" - that devolution, carefully deployed, can counter the policies being driven by the UK Government.

His words, the very venue, reached out to what he perceives to be an anxiety deep in the Scottish psyche.

He offered images of the evisceration of Scotland under Margaret Thatcher. He glanced out the window to the derelict site of the former John Brown's shipyard.

It was all quite deliberately designed to depict the Tories as an external evil, to summon the malign wraith - only to offer Labour as the party of calm exorcism.

Politically, it is intended to replicate the success which Scottish Labour enjoyed at the UK election last year - in contradistinction to their decline elsewhere in the UK.

As to policies, the emphasis is upon economic renewal and job creation - a target of 250,000 new posts over a decade with an early emphasis on eradicating youth unemployment in the next parliament.

More teachers

Paid for, says Labour, by public sector reform (including a single police force), by other savings such as in the NHS drugs bill and by a continuing drive for efficiencies: a "conservative" two per cent a year, according to Mr Gray.

Other policies include training for more teachers, an emphasis on early years education, a National Care Service - plus, as billed in advance, free university education and a two year council tax freeze.

The sums - which, of course, rivals contest - are primarily set out by Andy Kerr. The manifesto objectives themselves appear to be something of a personal programme for Iain Gray - including the stress on education from this former teacher.

Likewise, the justice programme seems derived from his own personal perspective - allied, Labour believes, to popular proclivities.

So they would impose an automatic six month jail sentence on those found guilty of carrying a knife - despite claims, including from some senior police officers, that this might tend to criminalise rather than deter; and claims from others that the prison system couldn't cope.

Mr Gray says there would be a deterrent - but that they have set aside funds to provide more prison places. Again, his approach is populist (he would say "in tune".) Chastened, frightened communites, he argues, want and need this.

Attack on independence

And what of the SNP? In keeping with the strategy outlined earlier, there was relatively little mention of them. They had failed on key promises, he alleged. (They, of course, contest that.)

And they were "distracted" by independence from addressing the real challenges facing Scotland.

Again, intriguing phrasing there. Distracted? It is a mile away from the previous Labour strategy which was to major with an attack on independence.

Now, they seek to depict the SNP as an irrelevance. Alex Salmond, I suspect, may have more than a word to say on that topic when the SNP launch their manifesto next week.

Triumph over adversity?

Brian Taylor | 17:36 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The venue had been chosen to symbolise economic renewal - but , on the day, it also spotlighted the concept of triumph over adversity.

Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats is keen to offer the former - and equally enthusiastic to see his party achieving the latter.

And that venue? The Caerlee Mills in Innerleithen in the Borders where a diligent and skilled workforce are turning out high-quality cashmere for a global market.

It is, however, a rather smaller workforce these days since a larger enterprise went down last year.

The LibDems are keen to ensure that a comparable down-sizing doesn't afflict their Holyrood team after the votes are cast.

The wicked media had arrived in force, ready to quiz Mr Scott about his apparent problems, notably the decision by a former LibDem MSP to endorse Alex Salmond for first minister.

In the event, we in the the w.m. reverted mostly to our customary sport: that of picking holes in a party's manifesto. Mr Scott appeared relieved to be countering queries on his policy - rather than friendly fire from colleagues.

'Poorest pensioners'

As to content, there is a localism theme: no to a single police force, yes to more influence for teachers and nurses.

There is assistance for the poorest pensioners: those with an annual income below ten thousand pounds would be exempt from council tax.

But the big idea (in fact, make that the Big Idea) centres around Scottish Water.
It would take time. It would not happen immediately. But there was a distinct glint in the eye of Jeremy Purvis at the launch.

This is his wheeze.

In effect, the LibDems want to privatise the loan book of Scottish Water. Not, they stress, to privatise the company. Not to create shareholders.

Scottish Water obtains finance at present from the state: the UK government in the past, the Scottish Government at present.

That borrowing would be transferred to the private market via the issuing of bonds, backed up by the revenue stream accruing to Scottish Water from companies.

According to Mr Purvis, that would provide a one-off windfall of £1.5bn to the Scottish Government, with a further sum going to the Treasury.

Treasury grab?

The LibDems have plans to spend that - on regional development banks to assist companies; on spreading the digital revolution across Scotland; on home insulation; on early years education.

All designed to buttress the economy, long term.

But would that money accrue to Scotland at all? Wouldn't the Treasury grab the lot, as rival parties assert?

The LibDems are adamant that there would be a windfall. And that it would provide a renewed momentum to the Scottish economy.

More, I suspect, on this issue as the election develops and the various manifesto offers emerge.

The Tory goody bag

Brian Taylor | 16:05 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

None of your air kissing from Annabel Goldie. No, a firm peck on each cheek for those supporters who congregated in the Glasgow Science Centre to witness her launch of the party's manifesto.

"I can't kiss you all", she wailed as they clustered round in goodly number. A question of time, one suspects, rather than predilection.

For Tories in Scotland still need all the friends they can get - even after the positive reviews for her performance in the leaders' debates to date.

To govern is to choose but the advance preparation for these Holyrood elections amounted to a dilemma rather than a choice for the Tories.

Their party at Westminster, their Prime Minister, is pursuing a narrative which tells us that this is the age of austerity, that "we're all in this together" (thankfully, he doesn't break into the song) and that, consequently, the pain must be shared.

That left Scottish Tories with little option other than to adopt and adapt; to swallow the medicine and pronounce it delicious or, at least, beneficial; to tell it like it is, in the phrase of the day from the launch.

Free bus fares

They seek to make a virtue of this, arguing that voters in Scotland will tend to trust a party which is blunt about the economic challenges and the consequences for public spending.

Hence £5 prescription fees (with the previous exemptions). Hence a graduate contribution of around £3,600 for each year studied (with a maximum cap of £4000) which falls due when the individual is earning enough.

Hence pegging back free bus fares, restricting them in future to those aged 65 and over (existing users keep the benefit.)

There are goodies too - maintaining health spending and offering pensioner households a £200 council tax discount.

As we in the wicked media speculated on what that said about the Tory voter demographic, the party sought to dispel such thoughts by announcing plans for more health visitors to assist families.

Today's launch featured the contemporary blend familiar at such events - enthusiastic supporters seated alongside sceptical journalists (who are only waiting for the wild applause to die down in order to pose awkward questions.)

The Tory fans today tended to respond most warmly to traditional party themes. (A clue: they are Conservatives.)

Tough time

So they liked the emphasis on the three Rs in schools. They liked the notion of a kid leaving school at 14 to train for a trade if that's available.

They lapped up the idea of giving offenders a tough time, including the reinstatement of short-term jail sentences.

While we're on justice, there are some interesting policy positions to pick through.

They back a single police force for Scotland - but want to mitigate that with elected police commissioners in distinct local areas.

They say the "public expect knife carriers to go to jail" - yet they qualify that somewhat by "recognising the sentencing discretion of the courts."

In the first instance, they'd introduce a knife amnesty.

Their overall message? That times are tough (they blame Labour) - but that targeted support to bolster the private sector can revive the economy.

There are, said Miss Goldie, some notes to cheer within the gloom. And, with one final double-cheeked kiss, she was off.

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