26 August 2008

Great Scott?

Tavish Scott is the new LibDem Leader: he won a majority of the votes cast, polling 1,450 members to Ross Finnie's 568 and Mike Rumbles' 439.

He has a tough job - he is now the Leader of Scotland's third opposition party. There's no doubting that the LibDems, particularly in Scotland, are in a mire: Scott's predecessor Nicol Stephen inherited a party that had just come second in terms of Scottish seats and votes in a Westminster election. On his watch, the LibDems won Dunfermline & West Fife. They were the 'Party of Real Momentum' and people in the party were talking about being the largest group in Holyrood after May 2007, with Nicol Stephen as First Minister, and they weren't giggling when they said it.

But the bubble burst: when the votes were finally counted last May, the LibDems had ended up with one seat fewer than in 2003. They ended up on the Opposition benches, alongside (and behind) Labour and the Tories.

That on its own is grim, but the way things unfolded made the situation far worse. The Greens secured some kind of basic working deal with the SNP, with got them a sneak peak at big policies and a Committee Convenership, in return for support for SNP First Ministerial, Ministerial and Junior Ministerial candidates. The Tories exacted huge concessions on the Budget. The LibDems aimed for nothing. They got nothing. They went into a massive strop and when they came out of it, they had zero relevance.

So the task of the new Leader should be to get them out of that mess.

But it was the new Leader who did the most to get them into it. Scott reportedly threatened a walkout if his party spoke to the SNP, then went on the BBC the Sunday after the Election and pretty much unilaterally called off any Coalition negotiations with any party. He did more than anyone to cut them adrift.

And Scott's initial speech on assuming the Leadership - during which the only thing actually said basically amounted to a casual egg-throw in the direction of Alex Salmond - shows that he may not have much to offer besides a visceral hatred of the SNP. Now that's more than Nicol Stephen had to offer (also Tavish Scott's voice is more suited to public speaking than Stephen's feeble whine, but that's beside the point) but it's presently being offered by Labour. If you want to kill the First Minister simply to watch him die, you already have a party to vote for and they're in second place, which is far more credible and far stronger than fourth.

Therefore, you get the feeling that the Local Income Tax is screwed. You get the feeling that Scott just won't work with the SNP even when it's plainly in the LibDem interest to do so, when they have a chance of getting one of their biggest policies implemented, at least in part. You get the feeling that he won't even sit down and work out some sort of deal on the basis of LibDem policies being put into practice in a way that the Tories have managed. So you don't get the feeling that the LibDems will have any real impact on the country until 2011 at the earliest.

And his position means that by default, the LibDems will find themselves aligning closer and closer to Labour - a Coalition that will have lasted twelve years in both Government and Opposition by the time of the next election. Now, that will disturb Scottish LibDem MPs like Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Willie Rennie who are in direct competition with Labour, and will make life hard for PPCs in Edinburgh and Aberdeen: they'll be arguing that they and only they can get Labour out, but LibDem MSPs will appear to be trying to put Labour back in again. And in the eyes of the voters, it will be come increasingly pointless to vote for the LibDem monkey when Labour's organ grinder is also on the ballot paper.

Basically, whichever way you look at it, this was the wrong choice for the LibDems. LibDem members have voted for irrelevance.

There will, of course, be a reshuffle to watch out for in the coming days - let's hope it's sorted out quicker than Nicol Stephen's post-Election reshuffle was. But to put it bluntly, I don't see much reason beyond that for posts about the LibDems in the near future: their MSPs aren't likely to say or do anything that may generate a post.

11 comments:

GavinS said...

Will - this is nonsense.

Tavish Scott has already been in talks with the SNP about ways of co-operating over LIT and both parties have attested to their constructive nature. There is no reason to expect that to change - indeed, he has said it will not. If anything scuppers that plan it will be the SNP's denied (and therefore presumably true) desire to do a u-turn on this...along with all the rest of it.

Stories of the Lib Dems not co-operating have been greatly exaggerated. They've voted with the Scottish Government on plenty of things, sometimes crucially.

It's about time the SNP (yourself included) spent less time trying to make up stories about opponents and worried a bit more about what your Ministers are getting up to. It might serve you better with the public in the long run, and you could even find it helped you to win the trust of others in politics.

I know, i know...it's not what the emails from Edinburgh tell you to do.

Caron said...

I, who am probably much more well disposed to the SNP than many of our MSPs, would still not support the LIT if its level were to be nationally set. It kind of defeats the point.

I expect that Tavish will stick to that position.

As for the rest, Gavin has summed it up pretty well.

Richard Thomson said...

Sorry Gavins - I've just had my email in from cybernat HQ in Edinburgh ordering me to comment. Hope you don't mind :-)

I actually think this is a pretty fair summation of things from Will.

I'd love to think that the LIT will get through Parliament. However, from the way Tavish has conducted himself to date, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if there were pre-negotiation demands, before he leads his troops away on the basis of an arcane point of detail on which the SNP apparently won't compromise, which we will then be invited to believe shows up the intrasigence, arrogance, economic illiteracy etc ad nausem supposedly typical of the SNP.

Hope I'm wrong, but I can't help but feel Ross Finnie would have been the better choice in terms of regaining influence. Tavish at the moment looks like a no change candidate, who's USP is that his personal volume control goes up to 11.

McChatterer said...

If LIT gets implemented it will reflect *extremely* well on both the SNP and Libs with the voters. Some horsetrading might even see the Lib idea for LIT implemented in exchange for support for a referendum - on the other hand, I can see how the SNP's simpler idea of a country-wide tax would work, but I'm not sure how practical the Lib idea of different taxes in different council areas is. Scotland already has the power to vary income tax by 3%, but different rates across the country will surely require a change to the law in Westminster...

boxthejack said...

Also worth noting that he's now declaring himself not opposed to the constitutional referendum. The Lib Dem's bizarre objection to a referendum was one reason I voted SNP at the last election.

Anyway, Will is right that the Lib Dem's didn't come across as constructive enough in the immediate aftermath of last May though.

But I rather think that had more to do with a fear of looking too much like a fair-weather friend of whoever's in power rather than a collective huff. The LDs and the SNP are surely more compatible than Labour and the LDs were.

All in all, I think the LDs have done a pretty good job when it's come to policy - both when opposing and when supporting the SNP. The rhetoric has sometimes reflected Salmond's tiresome bluster, but I suppose that is inevitable.

Will said...

GavinS - sorry to burst your bubble, but no emails are received, nor are they sought, as regards blog posts. I work to my own chaotic schedule and plans.

And the LibDems' co-operation has been decisive only three times: on the graduate endowment; on Home Detention, which LibDem whips botched and it was their failure to organise that lost the vote; and on Wendy Alexander's position at the Standards Committee.

The fact is - and it has been reported on in the press from the get-go - that Scott did more than anyone to scupper a deal with the SNP. And Ming Campbell has all but confirmed that. The result has been that week in, week out, the LibDems have appeared to be in Labour's pocket at Decision Time.

Further, SNP ministers have "got up to" the abolition of the Living in Fife Tax (i.e. the bridge tolls), keeping local A&E services going, reducing rates for small businesses, freezing the Council Tax, and scrapping the Graduate Endowment. They are now "getting up to" making sure that sufferers of asbestos-related illnesses can claim damages, introducing democracy to local health boards, reforming sexual offence law and reforming the judiciary. SNP Ministers are - get this - doing their jobs, leaving bloggers like me to be a sort of Holyrood equivalent of the "3 a.m. Girls" (my breasts are big enough for that role, anyway).

If you actually read this blog, you'd know that I am not afraid to chide SNP MSPs and Ministers when appropriate and that I do not resort to 'making up' stories. I react to reports that are already out there, and speculate on the future. You'd also know that I focus on the personalities and the interaction between the different parties as that where the stories are usually found.

Personally, I would prefer the LibDems to do a deal with the SNP on LIT and get the variable rate, but as Richard says, they will find some point on which to kybosh any deal.

After all, he appeared open to a deal on a referendum for 30 seconds, open he's backed away from that position already. LIT, I fear, is next.

Ted Harvey said...

gavins, sorry but you are plain wrong on this, especially when you come out with the childish:
"It's about time the SNP (yourself included) spent less time trying to make up stories about opponents..."

Will made a reasonable summation of what we know, and suspect, about the Lib Dems and Tavish Scott at the last election, and there is no denying the truth of when he says that Tavish:
"... then went on the BBC the Sunday after the Election and pretty much unilaterally called off any Coalition negotiations with any party."

From what I could see, the Lib Dem's unfathonable response to the Scottish general election cost them very, very, dearly in terms of credibility. It was the sheer lack of any logic or substance or point to their kind of non-response that did the damage. Many voters came to ask the killer question "What are they for, why do we have them?"

Stuart W said...

So, Will, as regards the so-called "Living in Fife" tax, what's your views on the charges imposed by Peter Grant (the SNP's man in the Glenrothes by-election) as leader of Fife Council, as outlined in this recent letter to the Courier:

http://www.thecourier.co.uk/output/2008/08/27/letters.asp

Anyway, whatever your views, and whatever the merits of the charges, it's nice to see the SNP and LibDems getting it together for once!

Stuart W said...

Sorry, the software hasn't displayed the link properly, but here's the text of the letter:

“A vote for the SNP sends a clear message to the Government in London—that they have to act on rising household bills”. These are the words of the SNP candidate for the Westminster by-election in the Glenrothes constituency.

Has he no sense of irony?

He is the man in whose name hundreds (and before long thousands) of bills are going out—for the first time—to disabled and older people charging them for vital services such as personal and domestic care; shopping delivery and the community alarm.

I’ve met people who are being charged £25 pw, £11 pw, £54 pw and others who expect to pay over £100 pw; some of whom were paying nothing or, at most, £4 pw for home care.

No one has had to pay for the shopping delivery or community alarm service in Fife before. There are hundreds of people who have given up their services because they fear the charges, or feel degraded by the process of having to divulge their personal details to strangers from the council.

Campaign Against Charges wrote to Peter Grant a couple of weeks ago asking him to re-think the implementation of the charges in light of the rises in fuel, food and energy bills and were given short shrift.

The introduction of charges will undoubtedly be the one thing this SNP/Lib Dem council will always be remembered for, regardless of what’s to come. It’s mean-spirited, immoral and illegal. It’ll be interesting to observe which one of these parties will want to blame the other in the coming by-election for this kiss-of-death policy.

So, Councillor Grant, you want the Westminster Government to act on rising household bills—disabled and older people face all of these rises, but the new bills for home care are just about going to be the undoing of them. You have the power to do something brave—halt the implementation before you’re branded a hypocrite.

Maureen Closs. Campaign Against Charges.
1 Barassie Drive,
Kirkcaldy.

Will said...

Stuart - no one over 65 is being charged for personal care in Fife and for those betwen 18 and 65, care is means-tested based on the individual actually receiving care, and looking at what benefits are exempted, the threshold at which charges start and the current level of Incapacity Benefit, anyone receiving care would actually have to be in work before they started having to stump up.

And given that those who do have to pay will only pay a maximum of £11 per week, the only way the author of that letter could possibly have met someone paying £25 per week is if they were receiving home care while working and using fourteen community alarms.

The facts about the payments are here. But at first glance, the setup seems far more progressive than catch-all tolls and a local taxation based on how much you could have sold your house for in 1991.

Stuart W said...

Thanks for the reply Will - perhaps the charging regime is more progressive than the letter writer makes out, but certainly less progressive than before?

Anyway, there's been no response in the Courier yet (Saturday), so it'll be interesting to see what transpires.

Ideologically, it's perhaps a good example of the difficulty of balancing the "not minded so much" Thatcherite economics with the more progressive agenda, and thus demonstrates that the dichotomy recently posited by Alex Salmond was a bit simplistic?

As for the "catch-all" tolls, although I personally paid them most days on the Tay Bridge they didn't really bother me too much, and I viewed their abolition as pandering to the roads lobby, and since the taxation burden in relation to the bridges is now borne by taxpayers in general rather than bridge users it strikes me as not being particularly fair. The semi-permanent roadworks on the bridge means that the former queues for the tolls have just moved elsewhere, but it's funny that the politicians have kept quiet about this since their grandstanding when the tolls were removed (both the SNP and Labour were on the Tay Bridge at midnight!).

Also, weren't the Lib Dems in Fife all over the place with regard to the tolls abolition? With friends like this on Fife Council.....