As Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) begin to return from their summer breaks, attention is turning to manifestos for the Holyrood 2016 election. Policy roundtables, forums, working-groups, commissions, stakeholder meetings, events, member debates and backroom conversations are warming-up from the top to the bottom of political parties to create respective visions to take to the people of Scotland.
Though poured over by politicos, the wider relevance of ‘the manifesto’ has been questioned. Whether it’s policies being watered-down, policies merged and blurred through coalition deals or verbose wording which delivers little substance and is vague enough to spin, the manifesto is rarely read by voters and something for hacks to shelve for the inevitable ‘u-turn’ stories. However, the Holyrood 2016 manifesto is different. The parties now have to create policies to determine the direction of what is set to be, the most powerful devolved nation in the world.
This step-change requires the Scottish parties to set out how they would use the devolved powers to come; creating greater opportunities, significantly more responsibility and giving the Scottish Parliament more accountability. The powers move it further from the characterisation as the ‘wee pretendy parliament’ and gives the parties less space to hide when it comes to bold decision-making and creating a vision for Scotland. If, as is the intention, the Scotland Bill proceeds through the UK Parliament and is completed in time for the 2016 Holyrood election, Scotland’s political parties will need to establish concrete positions on income tax, a raft of welfare policies, the use of VAT accrued funds, Air Passenger Duty, fracking, Crown-Estate assets and consumer advocacy.
An expanded range of policy levers lends itself to creating greater differentiation between parties, more internal party debate and will remake the Scottish political landscape. There are enough powers not only to reshape, but reinvent public services, consumer protection, energy generation, the tourist industry and wealth redistribution. Moving to 40% of taxes raised in Scotland through the powers of the Scotland Bill, the Finance Secretary will have greater tax decisions to make, rather than (by law) having to balance the budget and divide the pie.
So, what are the big challenges for each party?
The Scottish Autumn Budget and perhaps a refreshed legislative programme, is likely to give the SNP’s game away earlier than May 2016. Before the superseding powers of the Scotland Bill, the Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT) will come into force from April 2016. John Swinney will need to set out if and how he will adjust the 10p in each income tax band.
Revenue generated from the SRIT will make up a significant part of the money spent on Scotland’s public services, so this decision is very significant. Its significance grows ever greater given the knock-on effects to the Scottish Government’s budget which will arise from the departmental budget cuts of the UK Comprehensive Spending Review. Will the Finance Secretary fill the public spending gap with a tax-rise and risk alienating his hard-earned middle class vote? It seems unlikely, but when and where will the SNP make the big decisions if it’s serious about the redistribution of wealth? Can the party continue their spin to outflank Labour, whilst holding the middle ground in Government?
Though seen as competent, the SNP Government’s record has come under greater scrutiny. Widening educational attainment; the unstable centralised police force; longer NHS waiting times and slow improvements in health outcomes, have led to questions over the real achievements of eight years of SNP Government. What is their resounding achievement since 2007? It is clear that Sturgeon is more fundamental in her social democratic convictions than Mr Salmond, but she has yet to tackle deeper-seated issues. Although land reform was seen as a progressive step in this direction, to truly brand her leadership, Sturgeon will have to tackle more substantial reform on issues such as, council tax to combat inequality and poverty. George Osborne stole some of Sturgeon’s clothes in her plans for the living wage and childcare. This will mean she will require an even more distinct offer for 2016.
Of course, the question with the greatest media interest is whether a pledge of a second independence referendum will be included in the manifesto. The First Minister is genuine in her comments that her party are divided over the issue and is one which could pull the party apart – perhaps the only one. Following the 2014 referendum, high-profile members of the party considered a pro-independence “Yes-Alliance” party. If the SNP fail to include the pledge, there is a risk that this could idea could rise again, drive members away and divide elected representatives.
Sturgeon treads the uneasy line between the risk of party breakdown and having a second ‘No’ referendum which pushes independence further from the party’s grasp. A head versus heart argument for every member of the SNP, but one which ultimately falls to Nicola.
Without a Leader and a subdued party machine with low membership, Scottish Labour are unsure of their offer for 2016. It’s widely held that the new leader, (likely to be Kezia Dugdale), will need until 2021 (or 2019) to mount a challenge to the SNP. The focus for Scottish Labour is about rebuilding the party from the wreckage of post-May 2015. With the risk of being wiped out in every constituency in 2016, the party will need a new, rapid policy focus to hold on at Holyrood. Kezia has education in her sites as a number one priority for the party in the run-up to 2016, and she knows it’s a sore point for Nicola and her party.
To become the party of fairness and social justice again will take time. However, if the party can rebuild itself to a sufficient degree, the new powers delivered through the Scotland Bill and the low expectation of the party, it also has the opportunity for a radical agenda to test new ideas for 2016. Whilst chipping away at the veneer of a progressive SNP Government, it can boldly set out how to use the new devolved powers and reclaim the mantle of ‘the party of devolution’. But the party needs to take Scotland with it. It will need to use a new generation of Scottish Labour leaders to engender a greater motivation in Scotland to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s outcomes on health and education, in the same way the Yes campaign invigorated debate about Scotland’s future.
The new powers in the Scotland Bill offer the greatest opportunity to the Scottish Conservatives. With a swathe of the ‘old guard’ stepping down at Holyrood, the 2016 manifesto is the chance for the Tories to differentiate themselves as the modern, centre-right alternative. In line with the Conservative focus to move the Scottish constitutional conversation from process to policy, leader Ruth Davidson has stated that powers for Holyrood should be used to reduce the tax burden on families and businesses, and is set to run on a policy of ‘tax-cuts for all’ next year.
The party has set up the machinery for a manifesto which will have financial responsibility and responsible Government at its heart. An independent tax commission, headed by former CBI Scotland Chief, Iain McMillan, is looking at existing and proposed taxes to examine their effectiveness in growing the Scottish economy and will also make recommendations on public spending levels to the party’s policy board.
Davidson will be campaigning on decentralisation to loosen the hold of the public “central belt bureaucracy” which is in need of reform. But the Scottish manifesto will have more of a blue-collar angle and a particular Scottish flavour, distinct from the UK party.
She has proposed allowing parents to purchase childcare from any provider they choose with vouchers and freeing schools from council control. She previously promised that employers paying the living wage should receive tax credits to offset their increased costs; however this is likely to be shelved given the shift by the Chancellor at the Budget. The party’s rural commission recommendations will also be central to the manifesto to maintain its core vote, which will be strengthened by the UK policy to end the subsidies for onshore wind farms.
(A lot of ifs and buts) but if the party can continue to realign its identity, distance itself from the Thatcherite hang-ups still held in Scotland and can manage the unpopularity of the spending cuts to come, the party can create an alternative centre-right offer to hold ground or gain in the face of SNP dominance.
The Scottish political parties are currently consulting stakeholders on their manifestos and will continue to do so into the autumn when the Scottish party conference season takes place. TheGardenLobby.com, our dedicated Scottish public affairs blog, will cover the manifesto challenges for the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens in a separate blog soon as well as covering the run-up to the May 2016 Holyrood elections.
If you require further information on the manifesto process for Holyrood 2016, get in touch with our public affairs consultants at Grayling’s Edinburgh office at ScotlandTeam@grayling.com.