01 January 2008

The Crystal Ball

Yup, it's the traditional look ahead to the likely goings-on this year. Let me start by predicting that Jackie Bird will pester various people at BBC TV Centre to be allowed on Strictly Come Dancing. They will tell her to sling her bahookie and I'd guess that the scene is one that may well have been played out for the past few years. Anyway, on to the serious stuff. The start of the year will see venom bouncing of the walls at Holyrood: there will be attempts to pick Trumpton up where it was left for Christmas, but I suspect it will go on to the back burner until John Swinney inevitably announces that the plans will go ahead. The Electoral Commission will report back on Donorgate, which will place a spotlight on Wendy Alexander. And everyone will be hooked on the Trial of Tommy Sheridan, which will see an unstoppable force - Sheridan's ability to pull something out of the bag when you don't necessarily expect it - come up against an immovable object - Donald Findlay's habit of participation in high-profile cases, only for his client to be found guilty - and I'm not sure which of these factors will have the biggest impact. Besides that, expect a row over the first minority Budget, which will spend the early part of the year wending its way through Parliament.

However, as the year moves on, we will almost certainly see the focus move South, not just as party conference season begins, but also as we move closer to 2009 and the renewed possibility of a General Election. And even if Gordon Brown completely bricks it and waits until 2010, there's still a European Election on the cards that year, with both the SNP (in Scotland) and the Tories (GB-wide) looking to give Labour a bloody nose, and the LibDems looking for credibility. Either way, for the UK-wide parties, it will all be about Gordon Brown (not Wendy Alexander or her successor), David Cameron (not Annabel Goldie) and Nick Clegg (not Nicol Stephen) - unless they do particularly badly in Scotland, in which case it's the Holyrood leaders who'll get the blame, regardless of whose fault it actually is.


The Budget is undoubtedly the Government's toughest test in the early part of the year, though the Donald Trump saga ranks a close second. The former will require some element of consensus-building in a very hostile place. Labour won't do a deal no matter what is offered: they will see a chance to obstruct the Government. The LibDems might, but it's unlikely: it's blatantly obvious that they would prefer to be in with Labour. Movement on a local income tax or student funding might tempt them, but the money isn't there for either of those things so their hostility is guaranteed. That means the SNP have to talk to the Tories if they're going to make concessions. But that isn't enough: the Government absolutely has to make sure that the Greens are happy with the proposals if they're to pass.

However, that is nothing compared to the balancing act the Party will have to do as the year goes on: as the focus moves to Westminster, the SNP has to showcase its efforts there. That means Angus Robertson has to be let off the leash and be presented as the leader of an Opposition group that he is. But it has to be made absolutely clear that it's an SNP attack and not a Scottish Government attack, and the press will want it to appear like the latter, which will allow accusations that the Government in Scotland is picking fights with Whitehall to increase. Robertson has to play a very canny game.


Labour's fortunes at Holyrood desperately require a conclusion to Wendygate - one way or the other. Wendy Alexander's best hope is for a whitewash of a report which exonerates her completely - even the slightest criticism will be exploited by the SNP and the Tories. If that doesn't happen, then she's in trouble. Either way, the problem is Charlie Gordon, who, if cleared, resigned his post on the frontbench for nothing and could become a threat to her authority, and if damned, could end up having to resign his seat, triggering a By-Election that she would not want. Her ideal scenario is to be entirely cleared of any wrongdoing, but for Gordon's position as an MSP to become untenable, and for the SNP to field Mr. Creosote from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life as its candidate in the subsequent poll. Unfortunately for her, that isn't likely.

So when attention moves to London, it will be a blessed release, either for her or her successor. The problem is that things are very much not within Labour's control at the moment, which is a bit of a problem for a government. Brown is having a 'kamikaze' moment by pressing on with plans to extend the 28-day time limit on detention to 42 days, and could end up inflicting defeat upon himself by digging in. Economists are issuing dark mutterings about a recession. And who knows what random events are round the corner? If Brown can handle everything well, then he goes into 2009 happy. If not (and this is the more likely outcome), then in 2010 I'll be blogging about David Cameron becoming PM. The one shining light for Brown is that Ken Livingstone is likely to be re-elected as London's Mayor, thus denting David Cameron's credibility for a little while. That will prevent mass hysteria from infecting the Labour Party as a whole: it's only the Scottish branch that will press the self-destruct button. It's certainly only the Scottish branch that will press it repeatedly.


Despite an election result that can best be described as "all right, I suppose", the Tories have played their hand very deftly since May and you can't help but give them a grudging respect. All I can say is that in Holyrood, as long as they don't do anything utterly ridiculous like get rid of Annabel Goldie, who is doing a far better job than I anticipated this time last year, then they'll stick to the formula they appear to have developed and it will serve them well.

Organisationally, however, the Scottish Tories are in trouble. To the best of my knowledge, David Mundell is still Party Chairman and therein lies the rub as Mundell seems to be making very little impact other than to antagonise the occasional Constituency Party. I'd say that what they need is a PPC in a winnable Westminster seat to front things, take a more prominent role nationally and guarantee election for themselves (and, more importantly, make a bigger impact than the bland Mundell can). Unfortunately for them, the only seat I can think of where victory is highly likely is Dumfries and Galloway, where the PPC is Peter Duncan, who resigned as Chairman last year. However, Alex Johnstone MSP is a PPC in West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine, which isn't the biggest ask for the Party - and if the UK Party Chairman can be an MP, why can't the Scottish Chairman be an MSP? An MSP AND a PPC in a winnable seat... meh, he'll do for them.

In terms of the UK Party, they'll suffer a dent around May, when Boris Johnson fails to become Mayor of London, but the UK Government will fluff something a few weeks later so they'll pick themselves back up again.

Liberal Democrats

The LibDems in Scotland have a big problem: despite the end of the Lib-Lab Executive and the (formal) end of the Coalition, the LibDems are in serious danger of being viewed as an adjunct to the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, their voting partners at nearly every Decision Time, and so giving up their own individual identity as a distinct political grouping by their own accord. This is something they are going to struggle with: overshadowed by the other opposition groups, and with no more or less influence on proceedings than the Tories - who have become far more willing to exert that influence - and siding with Labour at almost every opportunity, they do make you wonder if there is a point to their presence in Holyrood and they need to do something about this.

At Westminster, the problem is different: their still a secondary opposition party, of course, and Labour has a majority in the Commons so the LibDem vote is not needed, but the problem is that the next election is viewed as a contest between Labour and the Tories for first place, whereas elections in the 80s were viewed as a battle between Labour and the Alliance for second place, and elections in the earlier part of this decade as a battle between the Tories and LibDems for Leadership of the Opposition. So with Gordon Brown and David Cameron squaring up, there's little room for Nick Clegg to present distinctive policies. Of course, this issue is aggravated as he doesn't appear to have the impact that Charles Kennedy did at getting out there to present his ideas - though it would be interesting to see how Kennedy would have fared in the current climate - and even if he did, Clegg occupies the same political grey area as Brown and Cameron. He has nothing to present, no way of presenting it, and no one willing to pay attention to it. Anyone expecting a LibDem revival or Clegg bounce will be disappointed: it is not going to happen.

However, as momentum gathers towards an Election, whenever it happens, we may see a shift - the LibDems as a party are still in trouble, but how they behave will change. The reason is this: the LibDems have to defend a number of gains from Labour, and are the primary challengers to Labour in a number of key seats. Once that happens, and without the wedlock that was Coalition government to sustain civility, the gloves may come off, and we may see the informal alliance that seems to have emerged dissolve.


Despite continued parliamentary survival, a dela with the SNP and a Committee Convenership, it is clear that the Greens are not having the impact I thought they would. Indeed, the Committee Convenership turned into a poisoned chalice when Patrick Harvie had to represent the Transport Committee during the Stage 1 debate on the Abolition of Bridge Tolls Bill, despite being the only member of that Committee who opposed it. They need to speak up a bit more, if they're to continue having any relevance whatsoever.

One opportunity does present itself in the likely demise - regardless of the outcome of Tommy Sheridan's trial for perjury - of Solidarity: with the SSP out of the question for those who left that party to join Sheridan's new creation, the Greens might be a likely destination. Electorally, that would create opportunities to bolster Patrick Harvie's position in Glasgow, and to restore a Green presence in the Highlands. However, all that does is secure one precarious seat and present opportunities to gain one more (a combined Green/Solidarity vote would not have won any more MSPs beyond what the Greens already won in May), and the risks - that the Greens be presented as 'sandal-wearing Socialists' with a far-left agenda, not helped by the influx of new members who promoted precisely that - would outweigh those benefits. It's going to be a lean year for the Greens.

1 comment:

Richard Thomson said...

and for the SNP to field Mr. Creosote from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life as its candidate in the subsequent poll.

That'll be just a tiny, wafer-thin majority, then? ;-)