The Race For Holyrood Begins

SNP Party annual conference 2014

As May comes closer and closer, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have begun to prepare for their elections. Most recently, Scotland held their first debate with the BBC, with representatives from several parties present. Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish National Party, Kezia Dugdale from Scottish Labour, Ruth Davidson from the Scottish Conservatives, Willie Rennie from the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Patrick Harvie from the Scottish Green Party and David Coburn from UKIP. Unlike my post on the 2015 election debate, I’m gonna go topic by topic, give a brief summary and name the best performer.

Topic 1: Taxes

The UK Parliament has recently announced they will devolve taxes to the Scottish Parliament, giving much stronger power over the regional economy. Of course, with austerity being targeted by the left, it was a major part of arguments from the SNP and Labour. Nicola promised that she planned no increase in basic income tax, an increase in personal allowance (non-taxable income) to £12,750, with plans to ensure that the wealthiest would bear the brunt of the forced austerity. Kezia Dugdale also promised that Labour would fight austerity, reintroducing a 50p rate for top earners, which Nicola formerly supported and a 1p increase in the basic rate, to earn more money to stop the cuts, equating to only paying £1.80 more a week in tax. She also promised no tax increases for those earning less than £20,000 a year, which she’d achieve through local authorities. Nicola, when questioned by the moderator, stated that she isn’t opposed to raising it but is worried about tax avoidance. Ruth Davidson will not raise taxes at all, but was attacked by both Nicola and Willie Rennie for wanting to bring in prescription charges, tuition fees and tax cuts for the rich. Rennie started talking about how he want to reinvest £475 million into education, he said he would put up taxes but no extra for those who earn less than £19,000. Patrick Harvie would scrap the council tax, calling it 25 years out of date, but did not give a figure on top tax rates, though promising they’d rise and he would work to close the wealth gap. David Coburn said he would not support tax increases either, believing it would discourage Scottish business investment. Kezia called the increases necessary, despite protests from Davidson, saying public sector job were at risk if nothing was done to stop the spending cuts from Westminster. Harvie, upon a question regarding Google and Amazon avoiding tax, condemned companies for tax evasion before attacking the capitalist system.

Winner: Tie between Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale
Both leaders spoke well when discussing policy, there was some excellent points made against each other and it made for some good discussion on how austerity should be fought in Scotland. It also made me see there was still some fight in Scottish Labour and that what I thought was a Blairite faction was much more left wing than before. The other four leaders didn’t do spectacularly, but their performances weren’t disastrous either. Yes, even the UKIP spokesman did OK here.

Topic 2: Welfare

Welfare is also being devolved to Scotland in the coming months and cuts are being threatened on the disabled and other beneficiaries. Ruth Davidson said she would put carer’s allowance up to be more than jobseeker’s allowance and would look at devolving personal independence payments for disabled beneficiaries to a local level. Willie Rennie congratulated the SNP for their work on welfare in government, but said he’d increase carer’s benefit and would completely scrap the controversial bedroom tax, introduced by his own party in coalition, a late realisation but one I am glad that was realised. David Coburn began rabbiting on about the NHS and the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and European version of TPPA) but did not give any policy for welfare. Ruth claimed she tried to speak out against the cuts to PIP in the recent budget which Nicola called a lie. Sturgeon promised to establish an independent social security agency to replace the Work and Pensions department, attacking their benefit sanctions, to abolish the bedroom tax and will maintain disabled support, going on to attack Ruth Davidson for the cuts. Kezia identified similar policies with the SNP including raising carer’s allowance, abolishing the bedroom tax and using a maternity grant for struggling mothers. She also promised a new employment agency, which would aid people into work and provide assistance to those in work as well. Harvie attacked the transformation of the welfare state and said he would bring in a universal basic income for Scotland.

Winner: Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola’s policy suggestions were very good, handling herself well and managing to attack the disgusting idea of a deficit being cleared on the backs of disabled people and her mention of a new social security agency reminded me of a story Mhairi Black made in her maiden speech about a food bank user who starved himself to afford to go to a job centre. While I like the sound of Kezia’s employment agency and the universal basic income from Patrick, the strongest points came from Sturgeon. Coburn did himself absolutely no favours and was indisputably the loser of the second round.

Topic 3: Education

Willie has said his tax plan would be directly used for education, specifically nursery education, stating he was appalled at how Scottish education, some of the world’s finest, was beginning to slip. He also promised disadvantaged kids would get a pupil payment to aid them through to high school and invest £108 million into universities. Kezia would keep Scotland’s universities free from tuition fees but wanted to bring in more bursaries for poorer students which were cut, with high dropout rates in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. But this number has dropped from 9% to 6% according to Nicola, but she acknowledged it is still too high. Nicola would continue to expand childcare and set out plans to set out £750 million into education to close the attainment gap. Ruth would unfreeze council tax for education spending and would work to empower teachers. David Coburn wanted to see more grammar schools and bring in tech schools, like those in Germany, for those not academically inclined. Patrick started with a snide remark at UKIP before promising more investment in schools, though he gave no figures.

Winner: Three way tie between Nicola, Willie and Kezia

All three leaders made good commitments to education spending and investment, which was exceptionally promising. Education has been quite a prominent topic for the Liberal Democrats and in this case, Willie Rennie proved they were still quite strong on it. Kezia did call out Nicola but it was good to see her talk about how she would ensure poorer students would get better opportunities. Nicola too did well, but not enough to have her stand out above the rest. I would have to say Patrick would be the loser here, with the lack of figures putting him at a disadvantage. David Coburn, much as I hate his party, did speak strongly, despite only speaking briefly.

Topic 4: Fracking

Fracking has been extremely controversial worldwide, with reports of water supply poisoning in America hitting our screens a few years back. Ruth Davidson supports fracking, but would want the decision to be left at a local level. Willie Rennie does not, saying the UK needs to meet its climate change targets, which it has continuously failed to reach for four years. David Coburn supports using fossil fuels, saying renewable energy is too expensive and would harm pensioners. He would use high tech equipment to reduce pollution, before failing to launch a hit on Patrick Harvie. After an applause of welcome, Harvie himself declared the age of fossil fuels was ending and said he would work on more renewable source of energy, stating he wanted to provide work in renewable energy to those who were losing jobs in industries like North Sea Oil. The Greens resolutely oppose fracking. Kezia firmly too said Scottish Labour would not allow fracking at all. Nicola Sturgeon has put a moratorium on the activity and said if no evidence was found to prove that it would not harm the environment or the people, fracking would not be allowed under the SNP.
Winner: Patrick Harvie

This was a golden opportunity for the Greens to shine and shine they did. He was greeted to applause and resolutely said that Scotland MUST begin to move away from fossil fuels and that jobs at risk from fossil fuel industry layoffs should be kept in renewable energy. It was a strong and convincing argument. All other parties in opposition to fracking were brief but firm on their position, though Nicola seemed the weakest link, saying she would need evidence before making her ultimate call.

Topic 5: Donald Trump

The last question was a good opportunity for a laugh, asking how each leader, as First Minister, would respond to a phone call from President Donald Trump. Willie Rennie “Get off my phone!” David Coburn compared a Trump presidency to the film Dr Strangelove but said he’d invite him to golf. Sounds like something else another leader said, hmmm…..

Patrick Harvie said Trump wouldn’t call him, having been reported by Trump for comments he made about him in the Scottish Parliament. Ruth Davidson said she’d likely say “Could I have fries with that?” because she considered him unlikely to win the presidency. Kezia Dugdale, three words, “Stop preaching hate,” a simple message but would be quite weak in my honest opinion. Nicola said she would pretend to be occupied on another phone line, which I’d rank as my second favourite. If it were me, personally, I’d employ two of Frankie Boyle’s favourite words: fuck off!

Winner: Everyone except UKIP

It was an interesting and informative debate, although it wasn’t as long as I’d hoped. While Nicola is a clear frontrunner, we did get some good performances from other party leaders and I think we may not have seen the end of the Liberal Democrats yet. However, nothing is certain until the ballots are counted.


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