25 January 2009

Don Do-Don Don, Don Do-Don Don Donnnn!!!!

Well, someone had to present the case for the defence of Nigel Don, MSP for North East Scotland, and Paul Hutcheon's latest hapless victim. For those who are unsure, the Sunday Herald's political editior has hit upon a novel way of meeting his filing deadlines on a week when little major news has emerged from Holyrood: he scours MSPs' expense records until he happens on something juicy. Indeed, Hutcheon has had a hand in the defenestration of both David McLetchie and Wendy Alexander as leaders of their respective parties. So everyone has cause to be wary of the man. And make sure that all of their records are above board and seen to be above board.

Unfortunately, Nigel Don has not realised this, and this can probably be put down to a rookie mistake, though he has attempted to put his side of the story across through means of an interview with Hutcheon, which the Sunday Herald appears to carry verbatim. As such, he probably has a better shot of gettign through this than anyone else to face up to the journalist: the instinctive response is to circle the wagons and it usually fails.

Where Nigel Don has gone wrong is pretty clear: yes, he's entitled to this, yes, every procedure has been followed as it should have been and yes, there are practical reasons for the move to Aberdeen and establishment of a second home in Edinburgh. But he's forgotten the Golden Rule: politics is never about what is. It's about what appears to be. And as the man himself admits, it looks dodgy. So whatever his intentions - and I don't view them as malicious - there is an element of naivety at work. Especially as the writing appeared to be on the wall for the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance at that stage.

But the fact is that his work wasn't in Dundee (I'll come to that later): it was in Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Now, Dundee is the least bad place to be if you want to travel to both of those cities regularly, but it's still far from ideal. Dundee-Edinburgh-Dundee is not a commute I'd like to make day in and day out for four years. Neither is Dundee-Aberdeen-Dundee. Yet the rules of the EAA plainly expected Nigel Don to make the former, while circumstances demanded the latter. This goes to show that there was an arbitrary element to the nuts and bolts of the scheme, which offered a gravy train for some MSPs, and made unrealistic expectations of others.

So what this story tells us is what we already knew: that the EAA was and is a complete pain.

But now to the other point: the main thrust of reaction to the story is indignation at the idea that Nigel Don is not travelling the length and breadth of a cobbled-together region which stretches from the Buchan Coast to the Firth of Tay, but focusing on the non-SNP areas, which are all focused in and around Aberdeen.

Now, firstly, you wouldn't expect a Highlands and Islands MSP to cover the entirety of the region from Lerwick to Campbelltown so why Nigel Don should be expected to go on a magical mystery tour taking in Dundee, Forfar, Brechin, Stonehaven, Aberdeen and Peterhead is beyond me.

Anyway, let's begin at constitutional principle. What is Nigel Don's job? Let's look at the two types of MSP. The Constituency MSP's job is to represent the Constituency as its sole voice. They are, if you're a purist, elected as an individual and just happen to be standing as a Party's candidate. Their primary duty is, therefore, to represent the entire constituency. It's the constituency > individual > party hierarchy that explains firstly why MP's refer to each other as the Member for Such-and-such, and why we have to have a By-Election to replace a Constituency Member.

But a Regional MSP's purpose is different. Why were they established? Well, the cynic's view would that they were established a) to prevent the SNP from ever gaining a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and b) as a sop to the LibDems. The purists' answer is simple: to redress the political imbalance in a region caused by distorted FPTP results. In short, Nigel Don, as a Regional MSP, was not elected as a community voice, but strictly as an SNP one, to make sure that the number of MSPs emerging from the North East broadly reflected the way votes had been cast in the region. If there is a representational element at all, it must surely be to provide an SNP alternative to SNP supporters who find themselves with a Constituency MSP of another party and would feel happier taking up issues with a more politically sympathetic ear. The only formal duty that he is charged with is to be active in at least two of the region's constituencies. Nigel Don ticks that box.

Beyond that, anything else is incidental, and Nigel Don has no individual duty. The Regional MSP hierarchy is party > individual > region. He was elected on an SNP List as an SNP candidate, but does get to keep his seat until the next election should he change his affiliation. Should he cease to be an MSP, Karen Shirron, who was next on the List, would automatically take his place. Indeed, Nigel Don did not campaign as an individual candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 2007: he was not a constituency candidate, so the only votes received for Nigel Don during the entire 2007 electoral process were those on the North East selection ballot of SNP members in the region, and perhaps any Constituency in which he might have put his name forward for selection. The only members of the general public to vote for him were the voters of Lochee Ward on Dundee City Council. They did give him a personal mandate, one he surrendered when he realised that his MSP work would take him either to Aberdeen or Edinburgh, but that his role in Dundee would be limited. Otherwise, the idea that Nigel Don, and indeed all the Regional MSPs, have to cover the entire region is undoubtedly noble but somewhat misplaced.

For instance, even if you discount the Constituency element which Nigel Don correctly cited, the idea that everyone elected should cover the whole region does raise the issue of what happens when there's more than one elected member from a party. Does it make sense for the two to duplicate the workload, and get under each other's feet, or is it wiser to divvy the region up into more manageable chunks, which each member can cover? Plainly, the latter is the more sensible option.

Now let's bring in the full gamut of elected officials. Constituency MSPs already face turf wars from Councillors of any and all political hues, MPs who may not necessarily be from the same party but still face re-election and want their picture in the local paper and Regional MSPs of rival parties. So Andrew Welsh (SNP, Angus) will notice that Tory Regional MSP Alex Johnstone was his challenger in 2007 (and Robert Smith, LibDem MP for West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine will surely be aware that Johnstone is after his sea at the next Westminster election); Stewart Stevenson (SNP, Banff & Buchan) defeated Alison McInnes, who became a LibDem Regional MSP so is still very much a presence. Brian Adam (SNP, Aberdeen North) has Labour MP Frank Doran to contend with, while Joe FitzPatrick (SNP, Dundee West) has to deal with Labour MP Jim McGovern. Alex Salmond (Gordon) and Nicol Stephen (LD, Aberdeen South) have a double whammy: the FM is in LibDem MP Malcolm Bruce's stomping grounds and has Tory MSP Nanette Milne in the background, while the former LibDem leader has to look over his shoulder at Labour MP Anne Begg and SNP Regional MSP Maureen Watt.

So on that basis, the last thing Constituency MSPs need is Regional MSPs from the same party moving in. It's also the same duplication of effort that would be expected if every Regional MSP had to cover the entire region.

So in Nigel Don's case, he is an SNP alternative in areas where one isn't available: Aberdeen Central, Aberdeen South and West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine. The other Regional SNP MSP, Maureen Watt, faces the same task, but can focus on her ministerial role while Nigel has her back. Joe FitzPatrick is a backbencher so doesn't need much in the way of backup: he has time to devote to his Constituency. Shona Robison (Dundee East) may have ministerial work to contend with, but she has backup in the form of her husband, and the area's MP, Stewart Hosie. Andrew Welsh is the Convener of the Finance Committee, but that just means he has some extra work to do when Parliament is sitting - when he's already in Edinburgh. So as far as Dundee and the surrounding area is concerned, Nigel Don's work is already being done.

In the rest of the region, aside from the gap in SNP Constituency representation, Brian Adam (Aberdeen North) is the SNP's Chief Whip, meaning extra work making sure that SNP MSPs are where they're supposed to be, but again, that boils down to extra work when he's already in Edinburgh. Any backup he'd need would be minimal. Alex Salmond would need some help as there'll be lots of demands on his time as FM and the MP in the area is, as we've established, a Liberal Democrat, so an extra bit of SNP backup would be useful to him, and Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson would have an SNP MP to help lighten the load, but that MP is the already-busy First Minister, so again, Nigel Don has a role to play there. But what do Salmond and Stevenson's constituencies have in common?

Simple. They're as far away from Dundee as you can get while still being a) in the North East region, and b) on dry land. There's no two ways about it: Nigel Don's job is not in Dundee, whee he'd be duplicating someone else's workload. It's in Edinburgh, and it's in Aberdeen and the surrounding area.

So although it would be noble for Nigel Don to make a heroic effort and pop up everywhere across the region talking to as many of the hundreds of thousands of people that live there as possible, that would reduce his efficacy as an MSP. He is needed more in Aberdeenshire than in Dundee. And while the timing and appearance of his EAA claim that is unfortunate, the decision to up sticks to the Granite City, and set up a proper second home in Edinburgh was, on balance, right one. Staying in Dundee would have made his job - and his life - more difficult.

I can't honestly say that I wouldn't do any different in Nigel Don's shoes. It's perception that's made him vulnerable. Well, that and the misfortune that Paul Hutcheon has reached the D's.

Hutcheon nobbled Wendy Alexander in December 2007. He's onto Nigel Don now. So the real moral of the story is that MSPs whose surname begins with G have twelve months to get their house in order.


Jeff said...

My goodness man, Hutcheon may be on the D's and E's but you certainly have the P's and Q's minded. What a stupefyingly excellent rebuttal.

I'd send it on to Don himself, help the supposed Knockoff Nigel feel a bit better about the situation.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the reaction from elsewhere, wasn't Fraser MacPherson too busy being mugged by rent-boys who he tried to purchase "services" from to comment?

Glass houses...

James said...

What you've presented is a defence of focusing efforts on the parts of the region not represented by SNP constituency MSPs.

Even on that bit, though, I disagree with you. There are plenty of reasons why even SNP voters might want help they can't get from their SNP constituency MSP elsewhere in the region. Three are Ministers, for a start, and they have other legitimate pressures on their time.

What if you vote SNP but have a beef with the way the Scottish Government is acting? Does Nigel ignore your letter? Hell, what if you want an MSP to put down a PQ on an issue you care about: you ask a Minister?

Anyway, the rest of the argument is that he manoeuvred his property holdings so he could get two mortgages paid for by the taxpayer, ahead of the certain ending of that discredited allowance. He's admitted that, I think. The word "coordinated" is his, not Hutcheon's. I'm keen to know why that's acceptable.

Grogipher said...

Of course if you write to him he wouldn't ignore your letter - he is there to represent everyone in the NE, I think you've missed the point James. Politicians have to be where they can be reached by those who need them most, which is essentially the thrust of this article. My MSP and MP live in my constituency, as I would expect them to.

How about we look at the NE Labour folks? You've got Marlyn Glen and Richard Baker - Marlyn tends to stick to Dundee while he sticks to Aberdeen, is that not a sensible arrangement? Is Richard 'cheating' by doing that? No. Of course not.

It's a very well written piece though, well done! Far more thought out and considered than either of the two other blogs you link to.

Rob Marrs said...

Great stuff, Will. Great stuff. I don't agree with his politics but this seems fair enough.

I think this does raise the question of what do we expect from Regional MSPs. A South of Scotland MSP covers a huge area - from Stranraer in the West through to just north of Berwick in the East. Firstly, obviously, this is very difficult (although, one presumes in other countries that are bigger than the UK this is the norm). Secondly, how they wor

Incidentally, I'll admit that the system was dreamt up to stop the SNP getting a majority government. James Kellas, one of the advisors behind the project, was my university lecturer in first year. He admitted that the brief was Great stuff, Will. Great stuff. I don't agree with his politics but this seems fair enough.

I think this does raise the question of what do we expect from Regional MSPs. A South of Scotland MSP covers a huge area - from Stranraer in the West through to just north of Berwick in the East. Firstly, obviously, this is very difficult (although, one presumes in other countries that are bigger than the UK this is the norm). The areas can also be massively diverse.

Secondly, how they work together. It is sad, but probably true, that a fine MSP (regional) will stay out of areas that they are supposed to be representing to save the skin of another MSP of their same party in a constituency. That said, whilst it makes political sense and, indeed, common sense it suggests that the system isn't working properly.

However, surely, this bit doesn't make sense, Will.

''He was elected on an SNP List as an SNP candidate, but does get to keep his seat until the next election should he change his affiliation''

Surely, that means it is 'Individual-Party-Region'. If the party affiliation is non-binding, which it isn't then the individual has primacy (if the party did, should he leave the SNP, he should leave Parliament and be replaced by AN Other).

It's a subtle quibble, admittedly, but a quibble nonethless.

Also, as an aside, I am fairly certain the Parliament was set up as we see it for the 'cynics' reasons. I was lucky enough to be taught by James Kellas as a 1st year politics student - he was clever enough not to admit it but it was certainly hinted that they were tasked to come up with was a system that made it impossible for one party to get a majority. We used to get knowing nods saying 'and it doesn't take a genius to work out which party was meant'.

Best, as ever,


Will said...

Thanks to all who have commented so far. In terms of the substantive points:

Anon, I think the good Councillor's interests have very much been registered. There may have been an element of dodgy-ness there, and his excuses for the incident weren't so much lame as immobile, but he's allowed his occasional high horse just as the rest of us are.

Rob, you raise fair points, but I do wish to counter-quibble. In terms of the Regional MSP hierarchy, I concede your point that once a Regional MSP has been elected, he or she is free to move around the Chamber at will. However, where the largest print on a Constituency ballot paper is for a candidate's surname, it's a party nomenclature that receives the prominence on a Regional paper and in the run-up to the election, the only individuals that get a look in on the Regional election are independent candidates (well, OK, and Alex Salmond). While floating voters might have taken the time to consider the relative merits of, say, Shona Robison and Iain Luke or Joe FitzPatrick and Jill Shimi, I'm sure that Nigel Don won't be too put out if I suggest that few, if any voters backed the SNP on the Regional Vote because they wanted to see him elected to Parliament. And were he (or any Regional MSP) to leave his party and then the Parliament, the replacement would be the next name on the original list and the state of the parties would revert to what it was before the change in affiliation, so I stand by my initial ranking. In addition, although no one to my knowledge has tried this in the Scottish Parliament, there's the precedent of the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly (where despite the different electoral system, the party of the outgoing MLA simply nominates a replacement), where members were reported to have pre-signed an undated letter announcing that they were giving up their seat, to be handed in by the Party should they defect. While such a system would risk a dangerous By-Election if applied to Constituency MSPs, it remains a feasible possibility for Regional MSPs and would give the party in question a massive degree of control over the individual member's conduct.

Also, in terms of the motives, I suspect that of the two parties who were the main players in the design of the Holyrood electoral system, one in particular was persuaded to the merits of the procedure by the more cynical reasons. The other, I suspect, can be given the benefit of the doubt.

James, as Grogipher points out, no sensible MSP would ignore or reject any approach from a member of the public. However, waiting to be approached is only part of the MSP's job (if that's all they're doing, they're not doing it right): there has to be some sort of active effort to reach out to people, and for Nigel Don to do it where there is already someone else in place would be a massive waste of his time. Consequently, it makes sense to base his active operations where there are no other SNP Parliamentarians to do so - the Aberdeen Central/South/West Aberdeenshire area.

Further, I flag up the very possibility that you raise of Nigel Don stepping in to support efforts where the Constituency MSP is a Minister, and conclude that the constituencies where that would be most productive are Gordon and Banff & Buchan: the northernmost constituencies in the region and the furthest away from Dundee. As for the rest of it, you'll note that I hail the move as a practical one, though concede that the flaws in the timing and manner of its execution (although I think we can all be impressed by his willingness to 'fess up to Hutcheon once the latter had finished his bedtime reading - I don't think anyone else has tried that and it may well be the wisest and most effective approach).

So unless you're saying that he should have stayed in Dundee and commuted to both his Chamber AND his "outreach" work (and I'd love to see what the carbon footprint would be for that arrangement), you're arguing on the points of fact which I've conceded, and the need to cover in Ministers' constituencies which I pointed out. It's a rare argument where the two parties involved actually agree, but there you are...