Holding the government to account: How are opposition parties performing?
Last week’s budget discussions, and the deal agreed between the Scottish Green Party and the SNP, have once again thrown light on to the role of the opposition parties in Holyrood. With the current session of parliament well under way, and those new to Holyrood well settled in, it’s time to take a look back and review how each of the opposition parties have been faring.
Ruth Davidson successfully led the Conservatives to become the party of opposition, promising to stand up to the SNP, and hold them to account after years of majority dominance.
As the leader of the opposition, Davidson performs consistently well at First Minister’s Question, and is a formidable opponent for Nicola Sturgeon. Davidson can speak passionately and seriously on the issues, but also has the rare quality of being effortlessly humorous, a skill she often deploys to great effect.
Her Shadow Finance Secretary, Murdo Fraser, has performed well in budget debates, relentlessly pushing the line that Scotland is now the “highest taxed part of the UK”, something likely to resonate with many voters. As long as there is an income tax differential with the rest of the UK, prepare to hear this same line for many years to come, as the Conservatives continue to build a narrative of an overtaxed, uncompetitive economy.
Despite Labour’s decline, likely to continue in the upcoming local government elections, many of their MSPs have been tireless in Holyrood, pressing the government on a range of issues.
The appointment of former Daily Mail political editor, Alan Roden, as Communications Director has appeared to provide a more simplified structure to Labour’s message, one that is proving effective. The party’s campaigning on the NHS and the railways are good examples of this; a straightforward message that voters can wholeheartedly relate to.
Simultaneously, Labour MSPs such as Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar, two seasoned politicians, are well read on their briefs, and actively engage in scrutinising policy. Baillie has held the government to account over missing fuel poverty targets, and is pushing hard for a statutory deadline on its complete elimination. While Sarwar has been critical of the government over the delays to the new Trauma Centres, and the effects this will have on healthcare provision.
The Lib Dems are pushing hard on mental health, campaigning for more funds and criticising the government’s record. They are continuing this message into the local government elections, but as of yet, the campaign hasn’t appeared to gain much traction since the election, with relatively little coverage.
Where the Lib Dems have proved more successful is in the familiar territory of local issues. With the government looking to make relatively minor reforms to Highlands and Islands enterprise, local MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur whipped up great opposition to the plans, organising a petition and winning a vote on the issue in the chamber.
The Greens recently made headlines by joining with the government to pass the budget, and appeared to sell out relatively cheaply on minor spending increases. The move comes as a significant stepdown, with Patrick Harvie previously advocating for a much more radical use of income tax powers, lobbying for a 60% top rate of tax.
However, this decision is largely regarded as tactical, with the Greens hopeful that siding with the government will help them pick up second preference votes from SNP supporters in the upcoming local government elections. Once those elections are settled, expect the Greens to place more distance between themselves and the SNP, in an attempt to pick off some of the more radical supporters of the SNP, perhaps growing disillusioned by the government’s centrist platform.
The opposition therefore appear to be making inroads and holding the Government to account, but there is little real sign of collaborative campaigning apart from on one or two issues. With Brexit dominating the scene, it is hard to see the parties having much of a common cause. However, the Committees are still not making the impact they should in their scrutiny of Government policy. For the opposition parties this is surely their next challenge.