06 February 2008

Cashing In

Scotland's Government now has a Budget, having been passed by 64 votes to one with 60 abstentions.

The SNP have the most to celebrate: this is the Party's first Budget, and it is now ready to be put into practice. Alex Salmond's threat to resign as First Minister, and set the 28-day timer on a very early election no longer needs to be carried out. The accusation has been made that the First Minister did not need to make the threat, that the deal was already done. But why make it, if that was the case? If success is guaranteed, or even highly probable, why admit in public that failure is a possibility? Why discuss failure at all? No, failure was a possibility, and the First Minister was making clear what failure would mean. If the Government could not pass its own spending plans, how could it govern?

Hot on the heels of the SNP are the Tories: they gain concessions from the Government and therefore have had a real impact on how taxpayers' money will be spent. This is the first time that Conservatives could say that at any level higher than a local Council since 1997. It loks like they are starting to strengthen, and even gain influence. The last time the Tories could be described as an electoral threat in Scotland - despite a net gain in 1992 - was arguably the 1983 Westminster Election. With momentum building, could the Tories once again be an electoral threat in Scotland for the first time in a quarter of a century? I'm not sure how to answer that, but now is the time to start thinking about the question. The SNP especially need to work this one out: of the Party's six Westminster constituencies, the Tories are second in four, there's only one of those four that could be considered safe, and the candidate who has made it safe (a certain Mr. A.E.A. Salmond) will no longer be a candidate.

I'm tempted to say that Margo flexed her muscles, but events have disproven that at Stage 3, given the number of abstentions. But it could have been very different, and Margo MacDonald, whose many absences and excessive use of the 'abstain' button are reffered to time and again in my Sunday Whip feature. She is a formidable woman (and I have first-hand, trouser-soilingly terrifying experience of that), but we rarely see evidence of that these days. Today she showed just why she has the potential to be important.

The Greens I am bemused by. After announcing that they voted 'yes' or 'no', they abstained. I don't get what's happened to them: despite the electoral reverse, they had a deal with the SNP, they had the Committee Convenership, they seemed to have influence and now they seem to have wussed out of the whole political process. When I saw that the result was 64 to 1, I initially (and wrongly) assumed that the Greens had opted to hedge their bets, and have one voting for the Budget and the other voting against. Then they would, at least, be voting 'yes' or 'no'. (in fact, they would be voting 'yes' AND 'no'! Instead they went back on their position and abstained. What is going on?

But the Labour and LibDem position bemuses me. Why spend so much time attacking the Budget, only to abstain at the end? Was it simply because of the amendment, with SNP support, that there should be a review of skills provision. Was that, on its own, enough to stop them opposing it? I'll come back to Labour. But the LibDems abstained on the amendment, and attacked the Budget all the way until the end. Why speak against it, until, faced with a motion they claimed not to like, with an amendment to which they were either indifferent or ambivalent, they chose to abstain? Again, what is going on?

Now I come to Labour: they secured their amendment, but still decried the Budget as one that would fail vulnerable people. They still were hostile, and opposed the principle of there even being a Budget at Stage 1. Now, they had second thoughts.

Was the amendment enough to satisfy their concerns? On the one hand, moves like this might at the very least mean that they couldn't oppose it. But on the other, if this was the deal-breaker, and they secured it, couldn't they have supported it? And if the rest of the package put them off from doing so, why does the possibility of a further series of statements - which are not the same as action, and the call for Ministers to issue those statements is not necessarily binding - change the Labour position from 'No!' to 'Ummm...'?

Was this a vote for stability? Was there an idea that any Budget is better than no Budget, and that they would acquiesce so as to ensure that political life in Scotland could continue? After all, Labour MSPs did abstain on the motion proposing SNP Ministers, so guaranteeing their appointment. But if that were the case, why vote against the Budget at Stage 1, on the general principles of the Bill? Why try to kill the Budget at that early stage, when it could potentially still be changed in their favour, only to accept the need a for a Budget - any Budget - to pass in the end?

Was this a reaction to Alex Salmond's threat to resign? Did they brick it at the possibility of an early election, given the turmoil facing their leader Wendy Alexander? Now, Iain Gray's speech today suggested that he saw through the FM, that the 'resignation' threat was just a ruse, and the First Minister knew that a deal was done. I disagree with that, and if it was a genuine Labour calculation, then the abstention still makes no sense: they disagree with the Budget, the Budget will pass, there will be no election whatever they do, they may as well oppose the thing. On that basis, I have to call into question not just whether their calculation was on the mark, but whether or not even they believed it. Therefore, I find myself once again expecting the worst of the Labour Group: they took a look not at the sums, but at their seats, and the turkeys decided not to vote for an early Christmas. Now, of course, someone could argue that Labour are optimistic about their prospects in any poll, that they believe they could overtake the SNP and return to power with Wendy Alexander as First Minister. I would simply point out that they had an opportunity to put that belief to the test tonight, and chose not to take it.

I remain completely open to the possibility that I am doing Labour MSPs a dis-service. If so, I apologise: perhaps the amendment was enough to secure acquiescence, despite the previous hostility to the rest of the package and the lack of any firm, binding commitments on the SNP's part to what Labour wanted; perhaps Labour did seek stability over partisanship, despite the party's attempt to strangle the Budget at birth; and perhaps Labour had decided that further opposition was futile, despite the fact that abstention is a fundamentally futile stance at the best of times. But nevertheless, I look at the doubts over shadowing all of those possibilities and sadly, I take the view that the only calculations done by Labour MSPs involved their own majorities.

So Labour are in a bad light right now. But they at least had the amendment to call matters into question, which is why I took so long to consider their motives and why I come to the conclusion I reach only by finding fault with the others and viewing that the 'self-interest' case is the least imperfect.

The LibDems, however, offered no alternatives whatever (Labour did), carped about the whole thing all the way until the vote, only to chicken out of everything. But they at least avoided actually stating that they were going to oppose the Budget. Indeed, many corrrctly assumed that the LibDems would abstain, though I confess that I was not one of them: I assumed that Labour would oppose and the LibDems would do what Labour did - so I got the LibDem principle right, just not the action coming from that.

The Greens, though, stated very clearly that they would take a position and come off the fence. They did not take a position; they stayed on the fence. They cracked under pressure, and out of all the parties in the Chamber, they come off the poorest tonight.


Anonymous said...

But the Labour and LibDem position bemuses me."

For heavens sake Arthur-why?

A child of three can see that Labour , being out of power for the first time in generations, simply do NOT KNOW how to act in scottish politics. The quality of their people has sunk so low over this period that they DO NOT KNOW how to react to the new politics!The only thing they know is to OBJECT OBJECT OBJECT to ANYTHING the SNP does.

As for the Libdums, they are simply
latching on to labours coat-tails as they have been instructed by london. This is because a deal is being stitched up whereby when labour lose the next london election, the libdums will support them in coalition!

NOW do you get it??

Will said...

I sympathise with the view, Anon, except in this case the Lab/Lib line has been:

"OBJECT! OBJECT! OBJECT! OBJECT! umm, abstain..."

Why the last-minute change? It doesn't make sense. A failure to adapt to new realities might well explain the LibDem position - i.e. take the huff - but there has to be more to it than that.

Green_Anorak said...

You're wrong on the Greens and Margo, Will. The Greens secured an extra £9m for public transport and climate change mitigation for their two abstentions, while for the 58 Lib Dem and Labour abstentions their parties secured...
absolutely nothing.

There was no way the Greens could have voted for a budget that included the climate-busting M74 and Aberdeen bypass: schemes the Greens have dedicated their political lives to opposing. They told Swinney as much in the negotiations, and in the media tonight he acknowledged it.

As for Margo, if you cast an eye over the PQs on Friday. You'll see the second half of her pay-off.

Will said...

I'm sorry, GA, but I do have to disagree: the Greens stated very clearly that they would vote one way or another. They did not. They got some concessions but still did not see the Budget as a 'green' one; the road-building plans which they oppose are still funded.

Given that Patrick Harvie said it did not go far enough, and given that they had said that they would vote yes or no, I feel that they copped out.

Green_Anorak said...

Your objection to the Greens' stance seems to be on the basis that they went back on their pledge to either vote yes or no - that they wouldn't abstain.

Fair enough, but by those somewhat harsh standards, most of the MSPs in the parliament would be found wanting! I don't know a politician who hasn't gone back on their word at one point or another.

The Greens hoped they could get a shelving of the big road projects to allow them to vote for the budget. In the event, Swinney didn't need their votes, so didn't concede on the roads projects and the Greens abstained. Can't say fairer than that, surely?

Will said...

I accept your basic point - that politicians do go back on their word, that the Green votes weren't needed in any direction and that the Budget was an improvement for them on what it had been.

However, the problem I have with it is that their tactics were very much off: they were the only party (save the SNP, whose position was obvious) who detailed their position before Wednesday, and what we expected of the other parties was supposition, and nothing more. The Greens came out with a clear approach that was altered on the day.

Again, that happens, and the Green decision was overshadowed by the Labour bungle. But the Greens have to be watched, simply because of the balance of power: those two votes can be the key to victory or defeat for the Government. The sign that they gave, I fear, is that the Greens can be leant on very, very easily. It might be a recognition of changes that were made, and it may well have made sense, but in the light of earlier comments it looks like a cop-out.

They either made a mistake by committing themselves so soon, or by not following on that commitment on Wednesday even. But they did make a mistake which will come back to haunt them.