Thursday, November 25, 2010

Coming Soon - To A Doorstep Near You...

This weekend, on a doorstep not far from your own, a bell rings. Outside, four figures in search of the householder's vote stand huddled against the cold…

Householder: Yes?

First Visitor: Hello, I’m Iain Gray. Leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament.

Second Visitor: And I’m Annabel Goldie. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Third Visitor: How do you do? Tavish Scott. Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Householder: I see. And who is that jumping around behind you, trying to grab my attention?

Fourth visitor: [Excitedly] My name’s Patrick Harvie! And I lead one of the major parties in the Scottish Parliament!

HH: Of course you do. Right, what can I do for you all?

All: [Chorus] We want to tell you about how awful John Swinney is, and what a terrible mess the SNP has made of Scotland’s tax varying powers.

HH: Oh? Why’s that?

IG: He let the Scottish Parliament’s Tax Powers slip!

HH: Goodness! All by himself? And how did he manage that?

AG: He didn’t pay a bill to HMRC which would have allowed the tax powers to be used.

HH: I don’t understand. How can a minister in a government with no powers over the Scotland Act change the terms of that Act simply by not paying a bill?

TS: Er, well, he can’t. But it means that the tax powers can’t be brought into effect as quickly as he said they could.

HH: Ok. But none of your parties even want to use the powers...

PH: [Interrupting excitedly] Mine does!

HH: ...2 MSPs want to use the powers while 127 others don't. So why should John Swinney be spending taxpayers money to maintain at peak readiness a system which wasn't going to be used anyway?

All: That’s not the point!

HH: So how big was this bill that he didn’t pay?

All: Erm, about seven million pounds.

HH: I'm confused – if spending around £7m on the National Conversation was such a waste of money, why would spending money on this be any better?

All: Because the people voted for it so that it could be used if necessary.

HH: Well, what about the fact that Mr Swinney was trying to negotiate a deal with HMRC to ensure the power could be used immediately from next May, but that the HMRC systems were inadequate for the purpose without that £7m being spent. How does that square with the charge that he deliberately let the power slide?

All: But he was in charge. And he didn't tell us what he was doing. So it’s all his fault!

HH: Maybe. But what have you to say about the first response from the UK government to Mr Swinney regarding his querying of this £7m demand coming in a press release from Michael Moore? Isn't there supposed to be a 'respect agenda' working here?

All: Everyone knows that it's always the SNP that starts fights with Westminster.

HH: Doesn't sound like it in this case...

IG, TS & AG: You sound like a raving Nat.

HH: Look, do you want my vote or not?

IG, TS & AG: [Mumbling] Sorry...

HH: Right, moving on. This power is about to be scrapped by the Westminster government anyway, and replaced with the Calman tax powers. What’s the point in maintaining it under those circumstances? And if Scotland is expected to pay for the costs of a tax power that no-one ever intended using, which government is going to end up footing the bill for the Calman tax mechanisms?

All: [shuffle feet and whistle]

HH: I see. So what difference did not paying this money really make to the overall timescale of when the powers could be used?

IG & TS: [examining shoes] Erm… now you come to mention it, not a lot.

HH: And why’s that?

IG & TS: Er, our parties mothballed the power back in 2000 when we were running the first Scottish Executive.

HH: I don't remember hearing about that at the time. Did nobody think to tell Parliament?

IG & TS: No, but that was different.

HH: Why, exactly?

IG & TS: Look! It just was, alright? You are a raving Nat...

HH: So let me get this straight. You want me to get irate about John Swinney not spending £7m on maintaining a facility to raise a tax that none of you ever intended to use...

PH: [Irate] Except me!

HH: OK, which none of you - except him - ever intended to use; which had been mothballed a decade previously; which was about to be replaced anyway; for him not telling Parliament what was going on even though Parliament wasn't told a decade ago that the mechanism had been mothballed; and for not confirming to Parliament something that the last Lib Dem and Labour finance ministers should have known anyway at the time they left office?

All: Yes!!!

HH: Goodbye. [Slams door, whilst shaking head]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Green Climate Spin - Unravelled

When it comes to 'Green' politics, I'm pretty much like the Burd, just as I am when it comes to the Scottish Greens themselves. Those feelings came to the fore again yesterday, when a Google alert popped into my inbox highlighting a Green press release. 'SNP CLIMATE SPIN REVEALED', screamed the headline. Thinking it had to be at least worth a read, I followed the link.

The gist of their argument is that the Scottish Government claims to have reduced CO2 emissions by 21.2%. Yet, with their magnifying glasses and floppy-eared deerstalkers on, the Greens have noticed that this excludes 'unallocated' emissions from offshore North Sea oil and gas platforms, which if included, would allegedly reduce that figure to 16.7%. Quite outrageous, I'm certain you won't agree, although to be fair, they do make one reasonable point: namely, that some offshore emissions, for all that they are 'unallocated', do take place in Scotland.

To arrive at this figure, they allocate 90% of offshore emissions to Scotland, on the basis that this is the 'SNP's own figures' for allocating the revenues. Now, this may be a minor point, but it's not the SNP's figure.

This figure came originally from Professor Alex Kemp of Aberdeen University, and it varies in line with the price of oil and gas. His last estimate was that 84% was the correct estimate for revenues. However, that's just nitpicking, since the main flaw with this attempt at allocation is that revenues are not the same as emissions. The fact is that no real attempt has been made to allocate emissions based on location. While that data may not be readily available, although emissions are likely to be significant, there's no way of telling whether 90% is a fair estimate or not. For the record, I'd suspect it's not.

Another blooper comes in the claim that 'Even these [unallocated] emissions do not count the climate consequences of burning the oil and gas extracted, merely those associated with extraction and production.' That's probably because they're included in the 'allocated' emissions in the report being referenced.

However, the real howler is a constitutional one. While emissions do take place in Scotland's waters and would indeed be the responsibility of an independent Scotland, unless I've been asleep since the passing of the Scotland Act, oil and gas remains reserved to Westminster. There is therefore next to nothing that the Scottish Government can do within its powers – even it it was a government comprised entirely of Greens – which would have any effect whatsoever on offshore emissions. As such, it is just plain wrong to try and allocate these emissions when assessing the effectiveness of Scottish Government measures to reduce greenhouse gases.

Think about it. If you're being appraised at work, in order for the process to be fair, you can only be assessed on those aspects of your performance which are within your control. To do otherwise, like the Greens are trying to do here, is like assessing whether Mark McGhee is making a good job as Aberdeen manager based on the league position of Aston Villa.

Of course, the doubtful methodology and conceptual errors are incidental to the wider point that the Greens want to try and make, which is that the SNP is somehow 'addicted' to oil – as daft a charge as you're ever likely to hear made on the stump. Presently, oil and gas meet 75% of the UK's energy needs, and provide nearly half a million jobs. Even if all our electricity were to come from renewable sources starting tomorrow, there would still be a huge reliance on oil and gas for heating, transport and industry. If there's an addiction to oil, it's one which we all share, unless we wish to see the industry shut down overnight.

The irony is, if we are to meet our renewable energy targets, it's going to need the manufacturing base, the engineering expertise and the infrastructure which is only found right now in the oil and gas industry. If Scotland stands ready to lead in the emerging renewables sector, it's because of this indigenous advantage as much as it is to geographical location.

Anyway, I'm delighted to have the Greens set this out as a dividing line. Whatever constitutional status eventually becomes Scotland, or however close we really are to that most nebulous concept of 'peak oil', the North Sea is going to be a major source of employment and energy needs for the forseeable future. It would be fascinating to learn how the Greens would like to see us reduce our oil dependency within a timescale that wouldn't render them hypocrites on the issue of how successful the Scottish Government has been on reducing emissions.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful - 1, 2, 3, 4....

You can call me cynical if you like, but I think there's a big dollop of the herd mentality and perhaps a more than a little wishful thinking in the current received wisdom that Labour is somehow coasting to victory in next May's Scottish elections.

Jeff gives some interesting reasons from Sweden over at Better Nation as to why Labour's current position may not turn out to be the winning one that its own people and some allegedly disinterested commentators so clearly hope. However, there's more than a few reasons closer to home to suggest why this might also be the case. Never being one to miss a chance to stick my head above the parapet, here's just a few of them.

The first reason is the polls themselves. While Labour enjoys a lead right now over the SNP, there's good reason to doubt the weighting of some of the polls suggesting that this is so. However, even taking polls at face value, the SNP, astonishingly for a party in government, is still consistently polling higher than it was at this stage four years ago.

Admittedly, the SNP was still ahead of Labour at that stage. However, the fact remains that Labour's lead has not come at the expense of the SNP. In the aftermath of the Con Dem tie-up at Westminster and the nose-diving of the Lib Dems fortunes in the polls, it's pretty clear that Labour's present advantage has been built on taking support from those who no longer agree with Nick.

Given the First-Past-The-Post boundary changes and the volatility of the list system, it's tough to go on anything more than gut instinct unless you're prepared to don your anorak and make a forecast based on the individual ballot box results from the 2007 elections. However, if you assume a significant shift from Lib Dem to Labour, you have to imagine that seats held presently by the Lib Dems like Dunfermline West and Edinburgh South look likely to fall to Labour.

All other things being equal, that would put Labour one ahead of the SNP, assuming that Labour didn't go on to lose list seats in Mid Scotland and Lothian in consequence. However, with the changes in Aberdeen South to take in parts of Kincardineshire, you'd have to assume that the SNP would also fancy its chances here. Which would make it even-stevens, providing that a slightly increased SNP vote can make sure that any shift from Lib Dem to Labour doesn't trouble SNP constituency members in the central belt who are sitting on slim majorities from last time.

The real unknown is in the regional lists. With there being no apparent coalescence of the hard left vote around either Solidarity or the SSP and seemingly little shift in the Green vote, any fall in the Lib Dem list vote could put some of those lower list positions in play. However, given Labour's constituency dominance in Glasgow, Central Scotland and the West, even if constituency seats do fall, it's hard to see the SNP slipping back if the list vote remains solid. Similarly, there is room for the SNP, which topped the list vote in the Lothians last time, to pick up another list seat with Margo MacDonald standing down if Margo MacDonald stands down.

So, if it's hard to see an SNP advance, it's also hard to see where any significant fall would come from. That's where other political factors come into play... can the Lib Dems claw back some of the support that they appear to be losing to Labour between now and May? Can the SNP make a successful pitch for those Lib Dem voters scunnered with their party's role at Westminster? And how will personality play when voters make up their minds about who they want to lead Scotland for the next four years?

I expect we'll be hearing quite a bit about the respective merits of Alex Salmond versus Iain Gray over the next few months. However, the interesting bit for me is how the rest of ministerial team shapes up against their opposite numbers. Nicola Sturgeon against Jackie Baillie at health is no contest, while John Swinney's command of his finance brief regularly reduces Andy Kerr to shouty incoherence. Mike Russell easily swats away all-comers, and stands head and shoulders above (I had to look this up) Des McNulty. It's seldom difficult to distinguish between Johann Lamont and a ray of sunshine, but sheer ability places Alex Neil a country mile ahead of her. Finally, the idea of shoogly bandwagon jumper extrordinaire Richard Baker replacing the robust Kenny Macaskill as Justice Minister ought to be enough to bring any thinking adult out into a cold sweat.

Then there's the matter of policies and general approach. Labour has done itself no favours with its opportunistic approach to minimum pricing. Their approach to knife crime is a joke, and their opposition to increased police numbers puts them dead against a policy which has seen a marked reduction in crime. Having spent four years decrying first local income tax and then a freeze in council tax, their apparent determination not just to persevere with this most unfair of taxes but to see council tax increase during the present downturn, alone deserves to see them given short shrift.

Westminster will also play a factor. With impending budget cuts, it's simply not credible for Labour to announce billions in spending increases without saying what they will cut to pay for it all. Nor is it credible for the party which led us to the brink of economic catastrophe to decry the spending reductions being made by others, which they made necessary and would have had to see through themselves if in Government. Given their cack-handed approach to each and every budget under the SNP to date, it's hard to imagine Labour adopting a position that is any more honest or intelligent this time around.

Finally, at least for this post, there's the matter of the tone of voice which the party projects. Iain Gray, whatever his other qualities, strikes a consistently carping and negative tone, which goes down badly. All too often, whether under Wendy Alexander or Gray, their policy stance has been a binary calculation that if the SNP is for something, then they have to be against it.

The overall tone over the past four years has been one of gripe, groan and moan, alongside a refusal to accept their responsibility for the mess of our military entanglements and the fiscal devastation created by Gordon Brown. The voters know it too, and in the absence of anything positive to say, it's by no means a foregone conclusion that with a Con Dem coalition in London, that Scottish voters will when it comes down to it return to a Labour Party that has given plenty of good reasons not to vote for it.

So Labour's lead is weak, while the SNP core support remains strong. The SNP has governed well and has a team of credible and experienced ministers who can readily see off their opponents. Labour, unforgivably for a party seeking a return to government, remains dangerously weak on policy and on answers on how to deal with the downturn. With the scrutiny which the next few months will bring to their overwhelmingly negative prospectus, that, above all else, is why there's all to play for between now and May.