Eddie Barnes: By-election battle takes centre stage

Ed Balls and Cara Hilton on the by-election campaign in Dunfermline. Picture: Neil Hanna
Ed Balls and Cara Hilton on the by-election campaign in Dunfermline. Picture: Neil Hanna
Share this article
Have your say

THE Dunfermline by-election is going down to the wire. Voters will be out in polling booths tomorrow and both the SNP and Labour are whipping their respective nags with all their might to get a nose in front. Plenty is at stake.

For the SNP to cling on to the seat – following the jailing of the deposed wife-beating former SNP MSP Bill Walker – would be a heady achievement, offering further proof of the party’s Teflon coat. And, given the circumstances, an SNP win would pose some serious questions over Labour’s ability to cut through.

So it is Labour – despite being the challenger – which is under pressure to perform. Now, claim the Nats, their opponents are “panicking”. The claim revolves around a Labour campaign leaflet, sent to homes this week, which says the party wants to maintain the council tax freeze and keep prescription charges free. And yet, the SNP continues, this is the party that is currently planning to run the rule over all the SNP’s array of generous freebies. “Desperate and misleading,” exclaimed Bruce Crawford, the SNP’s campaign chief yesterday.

By-elections are perhaps not the best time to witness blunt honesty from politicians on the affordability of Scotland’s finances. The SNP’s attack on Labour this week shows why it’s difficult to raise at any time. Yet, to quote Alex Salmond, in his tub-thumping speech to the SNP party conference at the weekend, if not now – then when?

It is, after all, over three years now since the Independent Budget Review (commissioned by the SNP government) concluded that universal services “may be commendable but simply may no longer be affordable”. A debate needs to be had, it added, “on whether those who can afford to pay might be invited to do so, thus allowing better targeting of those in most need”.

And while there is evidence that some universal services – such as free personal care – are not just popular, but also cost-effective, the challenges identified in the IBR report are now even more pressing. The country’s laggardly recovery from recession has ensured that a second wave of spending cuts or tax rises is now heading over the horizon; according to the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University, the Scottish Government’s £25 billion budget will go down by £1bn in both 2016 and 2017.

While the country might be independent by then, even the SNP government-commissioned Fiscal Commission has made it clear that the government of the fledgling nation will have to impose strict limits on spending as it attempts to convince the markets of its solvency. In his own private document to colleagues, leaked last year, John Swinney declared that the cost of debt and the extra expenses of setting up anew in Scotland “could reduce the resources available to provide additional public services”.

All massively important issues to debate – but not as the people of Dunfermline head to the polls.