HOLYROOD is failing to engage the public as it was expected to do post-Indyref, says Lesley Riddoch
Will Scottish voters get interested in domestic Scottish politics again any time soon?
Of course, some say it’s o’er early to be concerned about the Holyrood dimension because its elections are still nine months away. We are, indeed, in the middle of the Scottish summer holidays – even if someone forgot to order the weather – and the Scottish Parliament is in recess. There are two weeks before we even discover if Kezia Dugdale or Ken Macintosh has won the poisoned chalice of the Scottish Labour leadership. So, on the face of it, there should be no surprise that politics north of the Border is currently quiet, real quiet. But too quiet?
Surely the whole point of the referendum campaign, in full swing this time last year, was to put Holyrood, not Westminster, at the centre of Scotland’s political firmament. And the great achievement of the narrowly beaten Yes side was a huge leap in grassroots political activism; a realisation that politics is not just about candidates and elections but how power is wielded and distributed between elections – by governments north and south of the Border. So some would have expected the indyref dividend to be greater engagement on all matters Scottish – like land reform, community empowerment, education standards, doctors’ recruitment, the performance of the new single police force and other issues over which Holyrood has near complete control.
But while a tragic mistake has brought Police Scotland into the public eye, and opposition politicians have tried to portray “falling” school standards and “shrinking” further education places as the SNP’s Achilles’ heel, very little has stuck to the Teflon Nicola Sturgeon.
Indeed, it would have taken a very focused electorate to find any goings-on at Holyrood more interesting than the average antic at Westminster. Since the May election, the hyperactive Tories have relentlessly pressed home their Commons advantage to deliver swingeing welfare cuts that will see three million working people lose an average £1,350 in tax credits next year and 300,000 more children condemned to poverty while most Labour MPs abstained from the critical vote.
The Tories have also been preparing to establish an ad hoc English parliament inside Westminster without debate via Evel and have just announced catastrophically short-sighted plans to cancel almost every subsidy for renewable energy projects in the UK – 70 per cent of which would have been installed in Scotland. Prominent Better Together supporters who argued independence would jeopardise Scotland’s important new offshore wind and marine energy developments should have some explaining to do. But of course, they won’t.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has been tearing itself apart. Forty-eight MPs defied the party’s interim leadership to vote against welfare cuts. At the weekend, Labour backbencher Graham Stringer supported John Mann MP, who has called for the Labour party leadership contest to be suspended after reports that the “hard left” have been joining the party in droves to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever the outcome, the unseemly scramble to discredit and undermine the left-wing candidate – whose anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform chimes with general public opinion – may taint UK Labour in the same way that the “do as your telt” approach in the independence referendum last year fatally weakened the Scottish wing of the party. And Lord John Sewel has capped a terrible week for Labour by resigning as Deputy Speaker of the Lords after a tabloid newspaper published a video apparently showing him snorting cocaine with two prostitutes. He was a Labour peer for 16 years before resigning party membership in 2012 to become chairman of the Lords’ Privileges and Conduct Committee – the body charged with upholding standards of behaviour among peers. One of his proudest achievements was the introduction of new powers allowing peers to suspend or expel a member who has misbehaved. Yip – you could not make it up. Lord Sewel was paid an £84,525 salary for this role, and is formally a “non-affiliated member” – which allowed a Labour spokeswoman to disown the party’s latest embarrassment with the words: “He is not a Labour peer so we are not commenting.”
Unfortunately, that’s not how the bulk of onlookers see it, unless they are more anxious to discover the identity of the “senior Labour MP” being investigated by police over allegations of sexual abuse and corruption. If this MP is named and charged, he or she will act as a lightning rod for all the public disgust that could not be vented against recently deceased child abusers like the late Cyril Smith. And there will be no ducking responsibility then.
The collapse of respect for Westminster – its inhabitants, practices and institutions – certainly makes compelling viewing. Since Mhairi Black MP described the officially sanctioned grunting of honourable members as “MPs braying like donkeys,” few SNP voters will view Commons’ procedures as harmless but quaint.
But meltdown at Westminster doesn’t resolve a few inconvenient truths for Holyrood and the Scottish Government. Scotland’s system of local government is more centralised and less accessible than England or anywhere else in Europe. That home-grown democratic deficit wasn’t tackled in the recent Community Empowerment Act, nor will it feature in the forthcoming review of council funding. Yet the power to decentralise power in Scotland, recreate town councils and empower every community (not just the well organised ones) lies in the hands of the Scottish not the UK Government. Equally, every single political party except the Conservatives backs land reform. And yet the government Bill recently introduced to Holyrood will neither lower exorbitantly high land prices nor quickly tackle urgent problems of urban dereliction, rural stagnation and a dearth of affordable housing.
This is politics too. And yet without vigorous debate prompted by imaginative new policy stances by opposition parties, Scottish policy challenges don’t cut muster against the theatricality of the Other Place. The ultimate irony could be that at this rate, the Holyrood vote next year might get a lower turnout than the Westminster elections this year, since everyone thinks an SNP victory is a slam dunk. It’s not the SNP’s fault that “local” opposition is deemed irrelevant by the non-Tory voting majority or hopelessly lacklustre and non-credible. But this SNP government needs a vital, non axe-grinding opposition to restore interest in Holyrood politics. Will they get one by next May?