IF elections were decided on the style, tone and presentation of the political parties' manifestoes, the SNP would be a shoo-in for a second term at Holyrood.
Its slick magazine-style document boasting the party’s achievements, lauding its ministerial team and unveiling 10 key policy objectives, was finally delivered yesterday to the party faithful in the appropriately theatrical setting of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Moses delivering his tablets of stone cannot have been better received than Alex Salmond.
It was an impressive performance. Like a super salesman, he reeled off sheaths of figures to lure the would-be buyer. Mr Salmond, a natural showman, has an unerring sense of timing. By holding back until after most of the other parties had laid out their political wares, he sought to divert voters’ attention away from Westminster, where anti-Tory sentiment is more likely to boost Labour. It also gave him the opportunity to trump some of his opponents’ policies, especially those that seem to be gaining traction. So, in place of Labour’s two-year council tax freeze, the SNP promise to hold present levels for five years. And in place of the reduction in hospital waiting times for cancer tests, he offered money for earlier cancer diagnosis. By 2020 all of Scotland’s electricity will be generated by green energy, he claims. Whether any of this is deliverable in the current climate is for the voter to judge.
The SNP bases its pitch on its track record, its team of ministers and the power of its vision. Yesterday the party’s publicity video reeled off achievements ranging from the abolition of bridge tolls to free prescriptions, though many items from its 2007 manifesto were significant by their absence: dumping student debt, the £2000 hand-out to first-time buyers, local income tax and the independence referendum to name a few. Others, such as 1000 extra police officers, owe more to the Conservatives.
The claim to have helped all of Scotland’s citizens, including the poorest, seems to rest largely on the council tax. “Freezing a regressive tax is by definition progressive,” claims Mr Salmond but the poorest 10% do not pay it. Arguably, the biggest beneficiaries are the better off, especially as it is also the poorest who rely most on council services. Mr Salmond also claims credit for Scotland’s improving unemployment figures, though there are 90,000 more Scots out of work today than when he became First Minister in 2007, and very many new jobs are part-time.
As regards the SNP team, the party invites voters to make direct comparisons between Alex Salmond and Iain Gray, Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Baillie, John Swinney and Andy Kerr and draw their own conclusions. Even if one discounts the SNP’s natural advantage of being most recently in the driving seat, Labour has some convincing to do here.
Regarding the vision, there is little to separate Labour and SNP on either higher education or NHS spending, two central issues in the campaign. Both parties must convince voters that Scotland can continue to support world-class universities without some form of graduate contribution, given the number of English universities that will soon be pocketing £9000 a year for each student.
The council tax freeze was initially a stop-gap measure until its replacement by local income tax, a policy which appears to be a big vote loser. LIT is now off the agenda during the next parliament but that leaves the government an ever larger hole to fill or council services will atrophy further.
Scottish independence, the SNP’s reason for existence, is relegated to a vague promise to reintroduce a referendum sometime before 2016. The party appears to accept implicitly that this is a subject more likely to deter voters than attract them.
The pledge on 100% green energy by 2020, is a bold ambition, but Labour is right to point out that even the current 80% target is challenging and to go further is fantasy economics. The same applies to the £250m give-away predicated on a hoped-for spending shortfall on the new Forth road bridge, a project yet to be even begun. The SNP should have learned the hard way to stick to what is achievable. That is the natue of minority government. It has to be grounded in reality. The same cannot be said of some of the SNP’s headline manifesto pledges. There is also the matter of how they are to be funded in these straitened times.
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