Yes, you may not have noticed, with all the party conferences, tennis match headlines and speculation on government formations and ‘deals’ – but the general election campaign actually only officially starts today – Monday March 30th. I admit that this does feel slightly wrong, given that Lord Ashcroft’s polls (see next post) told us the result a month ago, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in actually going out to vote if it is a foregone conclusion…but all this intense number-crunching amidst the faux outrage of ‘who-is-letting-who-in-by-the-back-door’ has actually barely been preliminary saber rattling before the main event kicks off.
And you thought that the Referendum was a long time coming…
Anyway, the weekend rounded off the saber-rattling nicely with the SNP’s conference in the ‘Yes’ City of Glasgow, with a hall crammed with 3,000 people. It was a sharp contrast to other recent conferences, in Scotland, or the UK – when Andrew Marr raised Paddy Ashdown’s rather scathing review of his latest book with him, Alex Salmond casually noted that there had been more people at his book signing in Union Street, Aberdeen, than at the entire LibDem conference the previous week.
It was odd seeing the new Deputy Leader, Stewart Hosie, as the warm-up act for the leader’s speech on Saturday, having seen Nicola do that job for Alex for so many years. Stewart complained somewhat of the difficulty of his job…that simply saying ‘First Minister’ was not big enough…that ‘party leader’ was not enough, so instead he introduced her (in the wake of recent emphatic trust and leadership polls) as “the only party leader in the whole of the UK that people actually like!”
And there certainly seems to be some truth in that, given her high positive ratings compared to the deep negatives shared by all other leaders – including (after a ‘relative’ honeymoon period – sorry Angus Robertson! – where he was only low negative figures) Jim Murphy.
There are other signs of her popularity, too – the attacks from the establishment have been primarily around her appearance (hairstyle in particular – ‘BarnettGate’) and – horror of horrors – an expensive coffee machine (‘CoffeeGate’) seen in her kitchen during a breakfast interview…which would have either been a present or bought with her own money…but is the closest thing that can be found to declare her a betrayer of ‘class war’. As my sister used to tell me, as with Socrates, they attack the appearance, because they cannot fault your arguments.
But what are her policies or arguments? Well, it has been a busy old month for Nicola – at the start of March, she unveiled ‘Scotland’s Economic Strategy’ – when the SNP launched the first one in 2007, Scotland’s productivity was 6% below that of the rest of the UK, but that gap has contracted significantly, with Scotland’s GDP above pre-recession levels, and continuous growth for two years. However her benchmarks are Scotland is still 13% below Sweden and 20% below Germany – aiming high indeed. She is now proposing to replace Air Passenger Duty with a new system of taxing aviation. Many people hailed her move away from the 3 point drop in Corporation Tax, but that was only ever in the White Paper, so would only have taken place with independence, and as Corporation Tax is not devolved, she has to approach her problems in a different way. Her proposal is to build an economic framework based on raising living standards and competitiveness as ‘mutually supportive’, to boost competitiveness and tackle inequality. Even the International Monetary Fund – hardly the most ‘touchy feely’ of organizations – correlates lower inequality with faster and more durable growth of an economy.
And some of the research done into the impacts of inequality on society and its productivity are quite startling: Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2010 book ‘The Spirit Level’ used 30 years worth of data to show that everyone (not just the poor) has a less fulfilled and healthy life in unequal societies, with five times more mental illness and likelihood of imprisonment, six times more likely to be clinically obese, and many times more likely to be murdered than in equal societies (such as Scandinavia, Japan, Netherlands). The cost for unequal societies is high: unemployment, underachievement, low productivity, lack of innovation, vandalism, bad health, premature mortality, petty crime, drug and alcohol misuse, and depression all cost the economy massively. Indeed, in the UK, the ‘inequality gap’ as calculated by the Equality Trust thinktank in 2014, equals the total of the UK’s grossly-inflated defence budget.
And talk of reducing inequality in society does not seem so pie-in-the-sky as it did before the Referendum campaign. Grahame Smith, the General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, applauded Nicola placing the reduction of inequality at the heart of the programme of her government, contrasting it with Scottish Labour’s silence: ”[of significance is] how little of substance Labour has had to say about the role of unions and about the need for a positive approach to union rights.” So, at a time when 63.5% of 18-21 year olds in Scotland are earning less than the living wage, it is good that she has secured the 150th accredited employer in Scotland to agree to pay the living wage – and wants to raise the minimum wage to £8.70 by 2020.
Gender equality is also central to her government: “I despair that today in 2015 there are only 3 gender-balanced cabinets in the whole of the developed world – but I’m really, REALLY proud that mine is one of them.”
Clearly, something that Sturgeon is doing is right, given that SNP membership has just hit 102,143 – more than four times the party membership on the day of the Referendum. Maybe it is her way of words? I certainly smiled when (as I advised in a recent blog) she called on Miliband to pledge that he would not go into an agreement with the Conservatives, and let them back into Downing Street.
[She had some killer lines about why SNP with Labour was better than Labour on its own, which I will leave you with at the end, to finish.]
It was a solid throwing down of the gauntlet before proper hostilities began. However May goes – victory or defeat in MPs or in negotiations, I think she is solid enough to deal with it well – and deal with it well for the supporters of ‘Yes’, as well…which brings me back to when she was my constituency representative in Govan. We needed to get the roof of our flat (top-floor tenement – yeah, I know…) fixed, and the commercial properties refused to pay their share of the repairs. The main sticking point was the ground floor pub – owned by a group based somewhere near Bolton. We went along to Nicola’s surgery, explained the case, she rattled off a letter straight away. Within a week, we had a reply, and took it along to show her. In a near-stammering nervous rush of prose, the group (Punch Taverns) were apologizing to her as First Minister and that they would send a cheque forthwith. I laughed at their mistake, more as a sign of their ignorance, but she was very quick to be clear that that was not her position in the Scottish Government.
Well, it is noo, hen. Gaun yersel.
“We know from long experience that a Labour Government left to its own devices simply can’t be trusted to deliver the change that Scotland needs and wants and that is a fact. The last Labour Government was elected on a wave of hope and optimism, but it ended up imposing tuition fees, privatizing the NHS, presiding over a growing gap between rich and poor, and taking us into an illegal war in Iraq. So the message couldn’t be clearer. If you want a Labour Government to have backbone and guts, you need to elect SNP MPs to provide it for them. If you want ‘The Vow’ of more power for our Parliament to be delivered in full, then you need SNP MPs to go to Westminster to redeem that promise. And if you want a Labour Government that won’t just be a carbon-copy of the Tories, but will instead deliver the real change that Scotland needs, then you must elect SNP MPs to force Labour’s hands and keep them honest.” (Nicola Sturgeon, Address to Conference, 28/3/2015)