Orcadian 29.09.2016

The attributes needed to be an effective politician are many and varied. Until last week, however, I hadn’t realised the importance of being able to push a button, at least for those of us who are not burdened by having access to the nuclear codes. That perspective changed with events at Holyrood last Thursday.  

After a tetchy debate on local government taxation, where MSPs often struggled to keep their language on the right side of ‘parliamentary’, there followed the first genuinely nail-biting vote in over five years. Between 2011 and 2016, while the SNP enjoyed a parliamentary majority and rigid loyalty from their backbenchers, government victories were a formality.

Since May, however, the parliamentary arithmetic has changed. Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues got a first taste of the new reality when an amendment to a government motion on proposed changes to the council tax was passed, albeit by the narrowest of margins, 64-63.

Yet when it came to the final vote on the amended motion, the scores were tied at 63-63, whereupon the Presiding Officer cast his vote with the government. SNP members, understandably, breathed a sigh of relief.

That relief soon turned to unbridled glee as it transpired that Kezia Dugdale, leader of Scottish Labour, was the one who had failed to press the button on her voting console. All Nicola Sturgeon’s Christmases appeared to have arrived simultaneously.

It is worth recalling, of course, that the SNP do not have an unblemished record in this area. Not so long ago one of their own MPs famously wandered into the wrong voting lobby in the House of Commons. On realising his mistake, the disorientated interloper hurriedly took refuge in a toilet and refused to come out. Kezia may wish to take heart from knowing that said SNP MP now chairs an influential Westminster select committee.

More significantly, however, ‘Buttongate’ masked the extent to which the First Minister has her work cut out if she wants to gain parliamentary approval for her tax plans in the forthcoming budget.

Despite having spent years denouncing the Council Tax as ‘hated’ and ‘unfair’, Nicola Sturgeon has abandoned her plans to abolish it. Instead, she has come forward, amid much fanfare, with proposals for minor tweaking of a couple of tax bands and property valuations that remain untouched.

After a nine year council tax freeze, which has emasculated local authorities and concentrated ever more power with central government, this is the dampest of squibs. The timidity of the reforms prompted the body representing Scotland’s local councils, COSLA, to condemn them as ‘an offence against local democracy’, pointing to the cap on future rises, continued control from the centre and use of valuations that were last accurate in 1991.

More generally on taxation, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has shown itself to be resolutely conservative in its ambition. For all the rhetoric about being anti-austerity and needing more powers, the current Scottish government has stubbornly chosen not to use the powers we already have to raise additional revenue for investment in public services. A penny on income tax, for example, could deliver an extra £500m to support our education system. It is legitimate for SNP ministers to opt not to make that investment, but impossible for them to argue that somehow it is someone else’s fault.

So looking ahead, Nicola Sturgeon faces a conundrum as the arrival of new powers over tax and welfare spending coincides with the loss of the SNP’s parliamentary majority. The First Minister can no longer simply rely on the loyalty of her backbenchers to get budgets passed and council tax freezes agreed.

As last week underlined, unless substantive concessions are made, and agreement reached with other parties, the First Minister risks losing her tax proposals if not her budget. Kezia’s well-publicised slip up has also ensured that every MSP will have their finger firmly on their button next time round.

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