01 January 2009

2009: Predicting the Unpredictable

Seeing as practically the entire planet seems to be in a massive state of flux right now, making predictions for the year ahead might seem barmy. But I'm not going to let that stop me - here's how the parties are going to find 2009:


At Holyrood, this is going to be an odd mix. The most buttock-clenching moment of last year was the Budget process, but the early signs are that this will be far more sedate than last year. My guess is that the other parties will be more likely to engage in an attempt to force major concessions from the Government, and the Finance Committee meetings could be painful, but the end result will be a budget that no one is particularly unhappy to pass, meaning the uncertainty that faced Holyrood before isn't likely to repeat itself. The only major threat to consensus comes from the row with Westminster over the funding available to Scotland: the SNP will criticise the UK Government for cutting the budget, while Labour will attempt to attack the Scottish Government for blaming its inability to fund its commitments on Westminster. But seeing as it's Westminster that provides the money, and the cash available to the Scottish Government isn't quite as abundant as it may otherwise have been, you can't help but think that the SNP do have a point. Nevertheless, the Budget will pass. It's individual pieces of policy that might struggle to get through: watch for continuing and intensifying attacks on the Local Income Tax and the Scottish Futures Trust.

One other thing to watch for: this May will represent the second anniversary of the SNP Government and the mid-point in the Parliamentary term, so the summer will provide the ideal moment to freshen up the Ministerial team with a re-shuffle, particularly as there will be, at a minimum, the European elections from which to take stock and make changes as required. As I'm expecting a 2010 Election, it'll also be the last sensible chance to make changes in advance of that - anything later will look like panic. Also, as Opposition parties now seem to be making a serious attempt to go after Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, the First Minister has only a small window of opportunity to shuffle her out of harm's way.

At Westminster, the team does not yet enjoy a high profile, despite the two Westminster By-Elections in the second half of 2008. If the group there can rip into the UK Government regarding the cuts to the Holyrood Budget, then there's scope for some traction for Angus Robertson and Treasury Spokesman Stewart Hosie. However, if the By-Election campaigns are any indicator, it's still Alex Salmond in the driving seat and with two elections coming up where he won't even be a candidate - since his resumption of the Leadership, he's been a successful candidate in both the 2005 and 2007 Elections - that's not a favourable situation and the FM needs to start delegating with a view to giving the SNP MPs (and MEPs) a little more of the limelight so that the can defend their seats, and gain new ones, more effectively.

For the European Election, even the swings from the disappointing result in Glenrothes would see the SNP come first - a massive morale booster and great source of momentum going into 2010. But the fact that those swings didn't result in first place in Glenrothes could pose a problem: people vote for perceived winners and the result there knocked that perception for the SNP. Party oranisers are taking the June election seriously and will be fighting hard, however, so first place is possible. And it's necessary: it will give the SNP a major PR advantage going into 2010. Second place will give the SNP's opponents that advantage instead.


The signs are that Labour MSPs are beginning to regroup, after the turmoil of electoral defeat and Wendy Alexander's disastrous stewardship of the party. However, they now face the Paradox of Opposition: they have to challenge the Government, they have to provide their own model, or they're accused of favouring the status quo and being the 'do-nothing' party. But they can't offer any concrete policies or they'll either get shot to ribbons or the Government will adopt them and claim the credit. Meanwhile, Iain Gray has his own profile problems: he's in danger of being overshadowed by Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland, who seems to be far more prominent in his challenges to the SNP than the Leader of the Opposition. You could go so far as to say that he is the real Leader of Scottish Labour at this time, relegating Iain Gray to a sort of Deputy's role. I don't foresee this changing in 2009 but this may hinge on the European Elections. A good performance will see them scrambling to take the credit - if that happens, Jim Murphy will win this one hands down - while a poor one will see them passing the leadership - and, with it, the blame - around. It'll be left to Iain Gray to pick up the pieces.

While we're on the subject of the Euro Elections, they provide a real test for Labour UK-wide. We will see to a degree just how strong support for the Government is during the downturn, and the polls will be backed up - or blown out of the water - by real evidence of behaviour at the ballot box. However, Euro Elections are second-order, and often misleading. The Tories won the Euros in 1999 and went on to get gubbed in 2001. They won again in 2004, but Labour still won a third term in Government a year later, so second place UK-wide is spinnable. However, in Scotland, they have to come first. End of story. Second place would be a disaster, confirming them as the second place party in Scotland, rather than showing 2007 as some sort of aberration. The runner-up spot in two consecutive elections in something that Labour hasn't seen happen to it in half a century. If it happens now, they're in trouble.

At Westminster, it has to be said that the recession has brought new life - and new purpose - into the Brown Government. That said, I don't foresee a 2009 General Election. It's just too risky: it will take place at a point where it's biting the hardest for the most people, and a random event just before or during the campaign could blow the whole thing off course. A 2010 Election provides time to recover from events and the chance of the economy heading out of reverse. And a guaranteed extra year in office.


At Holyrood, there are signs that Tories are getting ready to go on the attack, having been co-operative previously. However, if that does bear out, it could be a costly gamble. The Tories have gained relevance through their willingness to engage positively with the SNP, and have for the first time since 1997, been able to influence Government policy in Scotland in a serious way. If the SNP manage to work around the Tories, they revert to the sidelined status they suffered from before 2007, with a larger party (this time Labour) providing the primary opposition, and the LibDems in a stronger position to get a deal. They cannot afford to burn their bridges now.

At Westminster, the economic crisis has not been kind to David Cameron, as the Paradox of Opposition kicks in. Hopes for the Tories rest on the Government making a massive mistake or things getting a lot worse - and for a catalogue of the job losses and businesses going under so far, check out The Wilted Rose, which seems to be providing a far more devastating critique of Labour policy than the Tory front bench can muster right now. Worse, Cameron faces another paradox: George Osborne's efficacy as Shadow Chancellor is questionable right now, but moving him would be devastating politically. Whether he goes or stays, he is the Conservatives' Achilles Heel.

In Europe, the Tories will most likely lose one of their seats in Scotland, as a result of the reduction of Scottish seats from seven to six, and they will stay in third place. UK-wide, however, first place is a must: William Hague and Michael Howard achieved it, so if David Cameron can't in his first nationwide electoral test, it'll be a massive humiliation. However, he's not helped by the perception that Tory MEPs are mired in sleaze (watch the North West of England, where the row over Den Dover's expense claims will rear its head again). Also, even if he gets everything he wants, there's still a potential setback waiting in the wings: Cameron is staking a lot of capital on being able to form a new group in the European Parliament - the Movement for European Reform. To do that, he'll need 30 MEPs from seven member states. He can get the 30 MEPs, but the seven member states may prove a problem. If he fails, it'll be an embarrassment that Labour will seek to make hay from. In short, this year could ever provide a staging post for the Tory revival, or it could damage David Cameron heavily. Time will tell.

Liberal Democrats

As the Tories are pushing away from the SNP, so the LibDems are looking to engage more constructively, perhaps because the policies being looked at now come from areas where the two parties' policies overlap. In any case, Tavish Scott has up to now confounded my initial forecast that he'd seek to kill Alex Salmond just to watch him die. The problem is that scepticism will remain and any offers made to the LibDems will have to be impossible to refuse. Nevertheless, relations between the two parties are defrosting: that the two parties were in broadly the same place where the fate of HBOS was concerned helped there. The fact that Tavish Scott actually has a personality, unlike his predecessor Nicol Stephen, means that together with the thawing of relations with the SNP, the Scottish LibDems are stronger and more relevant at Holyrood than they were this time last year.

At Westminster, however, it's a different story. Their only hope of salvation is to wheel out Vince Cable at every opportunity, and even the party's economic Cassandra may not be able to save them from the gathering storm. The Labour/Tory contest brewing pushes them out, Clegg is not exactly Mister Charisma, and what distinctive policies they have are either ignored or scorned (it's hard to tell which is worse in politics).

For Europe, third place is a must now that UKIP are far weaker than they appeared to be in 2004. If they come behind them again then their credibility is gone. There's also the defection of NW England MEP Saj Karrim to the Tories, and the vulnerability of their MEP in Scotland. With Elspeth Attwooll retiring, George Lyon (who lost his Holyrood seat to Jim Mather in 2007) is picking up the LibDem baton and looking at recent elections, the idea that the SNP may once again gain a seat at his expense is entirely plausible.


I don't know what to make of the Greens. Their ability to tip the political balance should give their two MSPs disproportionate influence, but last year, that wasn't happening as much as it could have done: decisions taken by the other parties - either to gang up or abstain - meant that for a lot of the time, the Greens were out of the loop and their only hope is to use the 2007 deal with the SNP to get to Ministers before policies can even reach Parliament. Also watch to see if Patrick Harvie, having gained the Co-Convenership of the Party, cedes his Convenership of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee to Robin Harper.

And speaking of the Co-Convenership, sadly, this year, it's going to look like a sham. We will see nothing of Eleanor Scott while Patrick Harvie will be the one making waves. Scott's only hope for prominence would have been to top the list for the Euro Elections, but that task goes to Elaine Morrison instead. Indeed, if people do sense a joint Leadership structure, they may be under the misapprehension that the team consists of Patrick Harvie - the Green everyone sees on the political programmes - and Caroline Lucas MEP, Leader of the English & Welsh Greens.

However, the de facto single Leadership of Harvie might be just the thing: they'll have a single, recognisable figure, but an attempt to change the rules to an official one-Leader structure might expose a few divisions within the party, between the younger get-serious politicians who see the party as a political force, and the older, more traditional elements who perhaps view themselves more as a glorified pressure group. It's something most parties go through: Labour went through it from the 1983 Manifesto through the row with Militant Tendency to the new Clause 4. The Tories suffered it from Maastricht all the way through to the election of David Cameron. The SDP had the row over the merger with the Liberals, and the SNP found itself in the same position during John Swinney's Leadership. So it would be a sign that the Greens have made it to the big time but it might have come too soon and at a time when they're too vulnerable, with only two MSPs. It's a row for another year.

So that's what I see in 2009. Now to spend the year backtracking when things don't follow the script...


Anonymous said...

Interesting predicitions Will. Any ideas who might come into government in an SNP reshuffle?

Will said...

Anon, I'm guessing completely here, but if a Cabinet-level vacancy were to arise, I'd say it would be filled by either Mike Russell or Shona Robison. At Junior Ministerial level, I'd have my money on the following: Angela Constance, Nigel Don, and/or Kenny Gibson. Those are just hunches though.