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Let’s have another debate on Scottish independence just in case the hermits missed all the others

It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:

First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.

So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.

Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).

Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.

Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.

 

 

 

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In the Scottish Parliament election, the only clear majority was secured by men

Although the symbolic representation of women in the Scottish Parliament was a key plank of the ‘new politics’ of Scottish devolution, women continue to secure just over one-third of seats. In 2016, women secured 45 of 129 seats (35%), which compares with 37% in 1999, 40% in 2003, 33% in 2007, and 35% in 2011.

The number of women in the Scottish Parliament used to depend strongly on the fate of Scottish Labour: the high point of 40% in 2003 was on the back of 28 Labour MSPs representing 56% of its group and accounting for 55% of women MSPs (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 106; Cairney et al, 2015). At the time, it was the only party to ‘twin’ constituencies and alternate women/ men candidates on the regional list (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 86-7).

Other parties pursued less systematic or effective measures: the Liberal Democrats’ were ‘half hearted’ (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 8; Cairney, 2011, 30); the SNP had ‘an informal rule of thumb that [regional] lists should be more-or less gender balanced’ (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 87), the Conservatives sometimes ensured that women ‘were generally placed in favourable positions on the party lists’, and the Greens alternated men and women on party lists with uncertain effect (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 9).

Now, as Labour’s fortunes have dropped, the decision by the SNP to use stronger measures – including All Women Shortlists for seats vacated by retiring MSPs – seems particularly important (Kenny and Mackay, 2013; Kenny, 2015; Swann, 2016a; on the substantive representation of women, see Engender 2016a; 2016b).

You can see the difference in the membership of the parties that really try …

Women MSPs, by Party, 1999-2016

1999 2003 2007 2011 2016
SNP 15 (42.9%) 9 (33.3%) 12 (25.5%) 19 (27.5%) 27 (42.9%)
Conservative 3 (16.7%) 4 (22.2%) 5 (31.2%) 6 (40.0%) 6 (19.4%)
Labour 28 (50.0%) 28 (56.0%) 23 (50.0%) 17 (45.9%) 11 (45.8%)
Greens 0 (0%) 2 (28.6%) 0 (0%) 1 (50%) 1 (16.7%)
Lib Dems 2   (11.8%) 2   (11.8%) 2   (12.5%) 1   (20.0%) 0 (0%)
Total 48 (37.2%) 51 (39.5%) 43 (33.3%) 45 (34.9%) 45 (34.9%)

 

Source: adapted and updated (using figures from Gender Politics, 2016 and Swann, 2016b) from Cairney et al (2015: 9). Table does not include ‘other’ parties/ independents.

table 3 women

Apologies for the Harvard versus weblink referencing. This is a short section  copy/pasted from an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16

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Would the Scottish Conservatives provide ‘strong opposition’? Not really

The Scottish Conservatives are running with the idea that they would provide strong opposition to the SNP. What does this really mean?

  1. We know we won’t win, but we might come second. It’s a decent way to turn a quite-low-but-maybe-rising share of the vote into a huge moral victory. It’s a good slogan that might sway some people if they don’t think too much about the details.
  2. We will hold the SNP to account in the Scottish Parliament. No, it won’t. The Conservatives will have a small representation in committee and plenary votes and won’t be able to do more than it did from 2011 (can you think of any examples of its strong opposition since then?). The only difference is that it would go first in First Minister’s Questions every week. FMQs has always been the Scottish Parliament’s equivalent of theatre. It is not an arena for ‘strong’ opposition. It’s there for some very poor entertainment.
  3. We could replace the SNP. This is the least convincing element of ‘strong opposition’. Usually, the implicit opposition message is that, if the government has a shocker, and the opposition is on top of things, the latter might get elected in the former’s place. This will not happen. So, in that sense, and however badly they are doing just now, it seems more realistic to favour Scottish Labour as the most realistic opposition party. In these terms, you might say that Scottish Labour would offer a bit less weak opposition.

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What happens when policymakers have multiple, potentially contradictory, objectives? The curious case of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’

It is common in policy studies to state that policymakers or governments have many potentially-contradictory objectives:

  • When we focus on ‘complex government’ we note their large size, tendency to break functions down into specialist departments and units, and for those units to produce policies which undermine those of others.
  • When we focus on policymakers, we question their ability to produce a consistent set of rank-ordered preferences.

Indeed, Lindblom’s famous suggestion is that policymakers only know how to rank their preferences when they are forced to choose between them.

Yet, in the case of Scotland’s finances, the other option is to defer those choices (perhaps indefinitely, perhaps until events supersede the original problem).

In that sense, the deferment of a key part of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’ is part of a fine tradition in Scottish politics to try one’s hardest not to talk about the size of the Scottish Government budget. The mythical ‘Barnett formula’ served this purpose well by providing an almost automatic way to adjust the size of the grant that the Treasury gives to the Scottish Government.

Here is the curious bit

Then came the famous ‘Vow’ which promised to maintain Barnett, and then came the new fiscal framework to deliver greater Scottish Government fiscal autonomy while also protecting the Barnett formula.

The problem is that these developments are starting to show how contradictory Scotland’s devolution settlement is becoming:

  • The ‘Barnett formula’ is a way to adjust the Treasury’s allocation of funds to the Scottish Government. Giving the Scottish Government a greater ability to control taxation reduces the role of the Barnett formula that the party leaders vowed to protect (in part, this only seems like such a contradiction because ‘Barnett’ is often used to describe Scotland’s good financial settlement, not the formula itself).
  • The two key principles underpinning the new fiscal framework – neither government should be disadvantaged by the decision to devolve (the Smith Commission’s ‘no detriment’ principle) and the reforms should not provide greater public services for one area without an equivalent rise in its taxes (‘taxpayer fairness’) – do not get along. As Bell, Eiser, and Phillips argue:

it is impossible to design a block grant adjustment system that satisfies the spirit of the ‘no detriment from the decision to devolve’ principle at the same time as fully achieving the ‘taxpayer fairness’ principle: at least while the Barnett Formula remains in place.

Instead, they present three main options which come closer to one principle and further from the other.

So, to resolve this issue once and for all, the UK Government needs to form an agreement with the Scottish Government (or make a decision based on the extent to which it wants to please the Scottish Government), knowing that it will likely satisfy one policy aim at the expense of the other.

What seems to have happened is (a) an agreement between governments that neither government wants (a ‘compromise’), secured by (b) an agreement to see how it goes for 5 years before revisiting the issue again. In part, this allows the UK Government and the Conservative party to argue that it has delivered ‘the vow’ and put off the big fiscal decision until after the 2016 election.

So, the new framework no longer delivers the advantage of the Barnett formula (the ability to continue for a long period with minimal attention, combining a generous block settlement sort-of-adjusted according to population). Instead, we may be treated to the same tense negotiation and ‘compromise’ every run up to a Scottish Parliament election.

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What happens when we are too distracted by referendums to pay attention to policy?

It is common for people to argue that our obsession with the UK constitution distracts us from the day to day business of policymaking. It was a feature of the Scottish independence referendum and seems to be a feature of the Brexit debate. There are a few variations of the argument, but they seem to relate to two general concerns plus (now) an extra concern for the devolved governments:

(1) central government ministers indulge their obsession with a referendum instead of solving policy problems

(2) other actors (the media, parliament, the interested public) will pay attention to the referendum instead of keeping pressure on ministers to solve policy problems.

(3) the Brexit referendum will overshadow devolved elections.

The Scottish referendum suggests that some of these concerns were misplaced because it provided an opportunity to debate the ‘big questions’ of policy (such as, for example, should Scotland become a social democratic state?) and attracted the interest of parts of the public that usually don’t engage in (party) politics.

Still, some people retained the sense that we were talking about post-independence public services while the services themselves were going to crap (the usual examples relate to education attainment, the NHS, and Police Scotland).

All I want to add to this discussion is this point:

Such arguments presuppose that ministers make a big difference when they pay attention to policy problems, particularly when many potentially-critical audiences are watching them like hawks. In other words, they have the resources (including money, staffing, ideas, cognitive skills, and ‘political will’) to turn around services and close inequalities in outcomes.

There are two main reasons to qualify this assumption.

  1. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of their responsibilities anyway

There are 101 theories and concepts in policy studies which describe the limits to ministerial and central government control. The big message is that policymakers already ignore almost all of the issues for which they could take responsibility (and the ‘semi-sovereign public’ ignores far more). This is not to say that more distractions won’t make a difference. Rather, my point is to reject the binary distinction between total and zero policymaker attention.

  1. Elections can be bigger distractions than referendums

High stakes elections tend to prompt political parties to make promises that are achievable and easy to explain with simple stories. There is not much incentive to tell voters that policy problems (and policymaking systems) are complex, central governments can only do so much to solve them (especially within 5 year electoral terms), and maybe they should delegate a lot of this responsibility to local actors. So, the short term promises often provide far bigger distractions to long term aims.  This is not to say that more distractions won’t make things worse. Rather, my point is to reject the idea that we were half-way to solving life’s big problems before people got obsessed with the constitution. Or maybe my point is that a lot of media and public attention prompts policymakers to do silly things, to try to look like they are trying to solve policy problems. A distraction is not always unwelcome.

I expand on both points in this post, so won’t repeat them here. Still, if you have read a few of my posts now, you might be getting the impression that I just make these same points in each one. If so, my message to you is: thank you for reading a few of my posts. I enjoy the hits.

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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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Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

Sometimes, in politics, people know and agree about basic facts. This agreement provides the basis on which they can articulate their values, debate policy choices, and sell their choices to a reasonably well informed public. There are winners and losers from the choices, but at least it is based on a process in which facts or evidence play a major part.

Sometimes, people don’t seem to agree on anything. The extent to which they disagree seems wacky (as in the devil shift). So, there is no factual basis for a debate. Instead, people tell stories to each other and the debate hinges on the extent to which (a) someone tells a persuasive story, and (b) you already agree with its ‘moral’ and/ or the person telling you the story.*

Silly example one: the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT)

The SRIT is a great example because it shows you that people can’t even agree on how to describe the arithmetic underpinning policy choices. My favourite example is here, on how to describe % increases on percentages:

cashley blair m srit

This problem amplifies the more important problem: the income tax is toxic, few politicians want to touch it, and they would rather show you the dire effects of other people using it. Currently, the best way to do this is to worry about the effect of any tax rise on the pay of nurses (almost always the heroes of the NHS and most-uncalled-for victims of policy change). So, if you combine the arithmetic debate with the focus on nurses, you get this:

cashley et al nurses srit

What you make of it will, I think, depend largely on who you trust, such as Calum C for the SNP/ Yes versus Blair M for Labour/ No. Then if you want to read more you can, for example, choose to read some Scottish Labour-friendly analysis of its plans to increase the SRIT by 1p while compensating lower earners (a, b), see it as a disaster not criticised enough by the BBC, or take your pick of two stories on the extent to which it did a ‘U-turn’.

This is before we even get to the big debate! 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 (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.

So, your choice is to (a) do a lot of reading and critical analysis to get your head around the SRIT, or (b) decide who to trust to tell you what’s what.

Silly example two: who should you give your ‘second vote’ to?

The SNP will gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament 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.

So, if the SNP wins almost all of the constituency seats, the competition for votes has taken on an unusual dimension: all the other parties will be getting all or most of their seats from the regional vote.

This situation has prompted some debate about the extent to which SNP-voters should (a) vote SNP twice (#bothvotessnp) to secure a very small number of extra seats in the regions where they don’t win all constituency contests, or (b) give their ‘second’/regional vote to a Yes-supporting smaller party like the Scottish Greens or RISE.

Here comes the silly bit. When John Curtice sort-of-seemed-not-really to suggest that people should choose option b (see original report by the ERS, described in The Herald) you’d think that he’d put a bag of shit on the SNP’s doorstep and the ERS had set fire to it and rung the doorbell.

So, unless you are willing to read about the kind of sophisticated calculations discussed in the ERS report, your next choice is to listen to a story about (a) people out to get the heroic SNP by duping voters into increasing the chances of more Union-loving MSPs (e.g. Labour or Conservative) getting in through the back door, or (b) those plucky heroes, such as the Greens or RISE, standing up to the villainous SNP.

In both cases, it is inevitable that many people will base their decisions on such stories, which is why they look so silly but matter so much.

 

*For the most part, the cause is the ‘complexity’ of the world and our need to adapt to it by ignoring most of it. To do so, we (just like policymakers) use major cognitive short cuts – including our emotional, gut, and habitual responses – to turn too-much information into a manageable amount. This process helps make us susceptible to ‘framing’ when people present that information to us in a particular way.

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