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The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 1)

The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.

For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.

  1. The language of Scottish elections.

The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:

  • Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
  • The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
  • If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.

So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.

  1. The language of governance and policy studies

Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:

  • Policy communities. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy.
  • Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
  • Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.

The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity

I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.

There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:

  • civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
  • many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
  • local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
  • stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
  • service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive

So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.

The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.

The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:

  • On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
  • On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.

So what?

The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?

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Sturgeon’s Ferrero Rocher moment: dodgy allegations followed by dodgier analysis

The Telegraph ran a story alleging that Nicola Sturgeon would prefer a Conservative government. It is based on the allegation that she made this confession to a French diplomat, unaware that it would get back to UK Government civil servants and/ or leaked to the press. Since then, Sturgeon has denied saying it and representatives of the French embassy have denied ever hearing it. Yet, the story rumbles on in the usual ‘she would say that, wouldn’t she?’ style.

The story is dodgy, and seems to have been knocked up in a hurry without following the usual journalistic rules (such as calling up the people involved to see if the story is true). Yet, even dodgier is the subsequent analysis of what is going on. I’m not talking so much about the Clouseau-esque discussion of who had the greatest motive to plant, and benefit from, the story. I’m talking more about the conclusion by many that, even if the story is completely false, it has merit because Sturgeon does indeed want a Conservative government.

The problem with the latter is that, for me, it is simplistic and out of date. People are talking as if the referendum didn’t just happen. The flawed logic is this: the SNP wants another referendum; if the Tories are elected, the SNP will either get one soon as part of a minority government deal (unlikely), or people in Scotland will get so pissed off at Tory government that they’ll want to vote Yes next time (and soon).

The problem with this argument is that many people were already pissed off with Tory government but  55% still voted No. It seems unlikely to me that enough people will change their beliefs so fundamentally in such a short space of time.

It also seems unlikely that the SNP leadership, which has shown such competence for such a long time, would seek a referendum so quickly unless it thought it would win this time (also unlikely). Another loss, so quickly, would hurt the SNP far more than the first, and would push the issue into the long grass, potentially for decades.

Instead, the SNP will want to maintain its electoral strength until a longer term opportunity arises. For me, that suggests at least a 10-year, not a 5-year, plan. In Scotland, it involves maintaining majority government in the Scottish Parliament and demonstrating the high level of governing competence that got it a majority in the first place. In the UK, it involves ‘standing up for Scotland’, and showing the immediate pay-off from electing SNP MPs. For me, that payoff is just as likely (if not more) to come from being Labour’s conscience, and securing high profile concessions, than spending another 5 years declaring that the Tories are ruining the country.

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