Monday, 9 May 2011

Scottish Election 2011 - Holyrood Magazine

Here is something I wrote for Holyrood Magazine on the 2011 Election:

I once met a fellow academic at a conference, who told me that he did not care about the study of public policy at all. It was something along the lines of, ‘as soon as the election is over, I lose interest’. I tend to say the opposite – ‘elections don’t matter; it is what happens between them that matters’ – and don’t get excited at all about elections. Yet, even I was blown away by the nature of the SNP victory in 2011. The SNP managed to do achieve three things that few us (perhaps with the exception of John Curtice and some very optimistic SNP supporters) thought possible. First, they achieved a majority of seats in a system designed to stop that happening (although, perhaps ironically given the rejection of AV, STV might be a better bet to achieve that aim). Second, they did it on the back of a major reversal of fortunes in the constituency vote, winning 53 (73%) of the constituency seats – the figure that Labour reached in 1999 when the SNP won 7 (10%). Third, they won the majority of constituency seats in key Labour strongholds such as Glasgow. They also helped reduce the Liberal Democrats to the status of a small party, keep the Greens down to two, and perhaps only Margo MacDonald’s victory spoiled the perfect night for them.
The effect on the parties may be dramatic. The Conservatives may go back to the peripheral role they enjoyed from 1999-2007. The Liberal Democrats may seek ways to disassociate themselves from their UK counterparts, albeit without Tavish Scott, who resigned as their leader. Labour will also elect a new leader, in the Autumn, following a review of the party initiated by Iain Gray before his departure.
But will the election effect be as dramatic on the Scottish Parliament itself? In a word, ‘no’. The Parliament has been a peripheral part of the Scottish policy process for the majority of its 12 year existence and majority government will only accelerate its declining importance. In the first eight years, the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition performed the role of a majority government, controlling the vote in plenary and committees and passing so much legislation that most committees devoted most of their activities to scrutiny (instead of agenda setting inquiries). There was little evidence of ‘power sharing’ or ‘new politics’ and much more evidence of a concentration of power in the government combined with an adversarial atmosphere that we associated so much with ‘old Westminster’. We might have expected a big difference in the latter four years, with the Scottish Government finally having to negotiate with opposition parties in the Parliament to secure its policy aims. Yet, with the exception of some high profile government retreats (on the independence referendum, local taxation reform and minimum alcohol pricing – all of which are set to return), there was a muted parliamentary effect. The Scottish Government produced and amended the vast majority of the legislation and found that they could pursue many of their their aims without recourse to Parliament – through public spending, the use of legislation already on the statute books and, most importantly, its new relationship with local government. Committees were no more effective. Indeed, at times, they seemed less effective either because the main opposition parties seemed disinterested in committee business, party politics got in the way of business-like cooperation (a development summed up in the attempts by Labour to make Alex Salmond pay for his association with Donald Trump), or simply because they did not have the resources to find out how local (and health) authorities were spending public money.
Iain Gray has promised to initiate a ‘root and branch’ review of Scottish Labour. Perhaps it is time to take the same long and hard look at the Scottish Parliament. It is time to forget about ‘new politics’ for two main reasons. First, what we have, and have had for some time, is good old fashioned government and opposition. Second, the term breeds complacency. It makes it look like Scotland cracked electoral and intuitional design before 1999 and that it is superior to its London counterpart. Yet, in a promising new development, the Conveners Group of the Scottish Parliament has recently had the courage to suggest that Westminster often does it better. It suggests that committees can be more assertive because they present an alternative career path for MPs (something that Holyrood has failed to provide). It also suggests that Westminster has not stood still, introducing reforms to reduce the influence of parties when committee chairs are selected. Such reforms may not shift the balance of power, but they at least show a willingness to change. I doubt there is much of an appetite for this sort of discussion in Scotland, because the reviews by opposition parties will focus more on how to win votes next time. Perhaps there is more hope for the SNP despite the fact that it needs the Parliament less than it ever has. The SNP Government has shown that it can govern well. Now it is time to show that an independent Scotland can have a Parliament worthy of its proposed (independent or further devolved) status.

Scottish Election 2011 - SPICe Briefing

Here is something I wrote for the Scottish Parliament Information Centre's 2011 election briefing. It has been edited a bit by SPICe so, if you have a lot of time on your hands, feel free to try to spot the differences:

The Scottish Election of 2011 has to go down as the most exciting in its short history (and probably for decades to come). The size of the SNP win was staggering for at least three reasons. First, it achieved a majority of seats (69, 53% of 129) under a system designed to make it unlikely that one party achieves a majority without a majority of the vote (it secured 45.4% of the constituency and 44% of the regional vote). Second, it was built on a reversal-of-fortunes, with the SNP now dominating the constituency vote at the expense of Labour when, in the past, it received most of its seats from the regional lists. Third, it won in key Labour strongholds such as Glasgow.
But what are the wider or longer term consequences? Are they, or will they be, as dramatic?
Public Policy. The most immediate and significant effect is that there is now a clear mandate for SNP policies. It will almost certainly introduce a bill to hold a referendum on independence and pursue policies for which it had insufficient parliamentary support in 2007 – including a minimum price on a unit of alcohol and a replacement for the council tax (it has already promised to maintain a freeze on council tax). However, there are three main qualifications to consider. First, its ability to pursue policy innovation is limited by the financial climate and many of its decisions will relate to which aims to prioritise or drop, rather than which new policies to fund. Second, the SNP Government has built a reputation for governing competence, which is often about the management of people and existing resources rather than constant innovation. Third, its plans for the delivery of policies is perhaps less certain. In particular, a key part of its governing strategy in 2007 was to devolve more responsibility to local government. While it agreed ‘single outcome agreements’ with (and set some national priorities for) local authorities, the emphasis was on reducing ‘ring fenced’ budgets and giving local authorities the space to make their own decisions. This caused a degree of tension at a national level, with many organisations (including the Scottish Parliament) often expressing frustration at their ability to be involved in policy at only one stage of the process, and the Scottish Government under a degree of pressure to deliver on its commitments. We may detect a partial shift back to national direction from 2011. For example, the high profile issue of class sizes will return, with the Scottish Government still only recommending a limit of 18 in P1-3 but now willing to set a legal maximum of 25.
The MSPs. The proportion of new MSPs has risen to 37% (48) from 33% in 2007 and 20% in 2003. Despite some concerns about the departure of key Labour women, and a huge reduction in the parliamentary Labour party (traditionally the source of more than half of the Scottish Parliament’s female members), the gender balance improved slightly at 65% men and 35% women because very similar numbers of women and men left and returned (it is now only the second-worst gender imbalance since Scottish devolution!). The Parliament is now not exclusively white (note that Bashir Ahmad served from 2007 until his death in 2009), with two new Scottish–Asian MSPs representing 1.6% of MSPs (black and ethnic minorities represent 2% of the Scottish population). Yet, more work is required to tell if the occupational background of MSPs has changed. Political parties in many countries have an increasing reputation for recruiting candidates from ‘politics facilitating’ occupations (such as party, interest group and think tank workers) and the Scottish Parliament is no exception.
From Coalition to Minority to Majority Government. The first eight years of devolution showed us that the Scottish Parliament was not the powerful body that it was cracked up to be. The Scottish Executive coalition held a majority of MSPs in plenary and all committees, allowing it to introduce the vast majority of legislation and ensure control over its amendment during parliamentary scrutiny. Four years of minority government showed that, while the Scottish Government passed fewer bills in four years (42, compared to 50 from 2003 and 53 from 1999) and required the support of other parties to pass annual budgets, the balance of power did not change dramatically. The Scottish Parliament’s role is limited largely to departmental and legislative scrutiny. It does not have the resources to present an alternative legislative agenda. For example, committee bills are generally limited to parliamentary reform and standards. Members’ bills either take a long time to produce (the fox hunting ban took two years) or relate to issues in which non-complex legislation can be used (in areas such as dog fouling and the ability of shops to open at Christmas). The committees’ ability to undertake agenda-setting inquires is limited. The election of a majority party may further tip the balance of power to government, with a single party now able to command a majority in plenary and committees.
The Scottish Government and UK Government relationship. From 1999-2007 the Scottish-UK government relationship was low key; discussions were conducted informally and almost entirely through political parties, ministers and civil servants. Formal mechanisms for negotiation and dispute were used rarely and the Scottish Executive played a minimal role in EU policy making. These relationships did not change remarkably following the election of the SNP in 2007 and the coalition government in the UK and 2010. Although there were more instances of high profile disagreements from 2007, there was a still tendency for this charged atmosphere to give way to a more humdrum, day-to-day relationship as different civil servants worked through the details. David Cameron also seemed determined to ‘govern Scots with respect’ from 2010. This process may continue, because both governments recognise the value of a smooth working relationship, or it may not – partly because their relationship will form the backdrop to the agenda on independence from 2013. A UK Conservative government in office during a period of economic retrenchment probably provides the best chance for the SNP Government to demonstrate that it would be better making all of its own decisions, and it would be a surprise if it did not exploit that opportunity.
The Parties. Scottish Labour will elect a new leader in the Autumn, following a ‘root and branch’ review initiated by Iain Gray before his departure. The Liberal Democrats will surely have to do more work to distance themselves from their electorally-toxic UK counterparts (although it is already a federal party and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to be in government from 2015). The Conservatives may look back on their position in 2007 with a degree of nostalgia since they may return to the peripheral role in the Scottish Parliament that they enjoyed from 1999-2007. From 2007-11 they often propped up the SNP, securing small policy concessions for support on key votes (most notably on the budget, but note that they voted in agreement with the SNP over 70% of the time). Now, Annabelle Goldie is reduced to ‘keeping an eye’ on Alex Salmond rather than holding his hand. Perhaps the immediate future of the SNP will become the most interesting. Minority government, combined with opposition party opposition to an independence referendum, may have produced a strong them-and-us mentality and the coherence of the SNP within both Government and Parliament was remarkable. However, if we remove both constraints (and add the notion that majorities sometimes produce divisions within parties) we may find that the party becomes more difficult to manage.

Scottish Election 2011 - The Monitor

Here is something I wrote on the election for the UCL's Constitution Unit Monitor:
"The Scottish Election of 2011 has to go down as the most exciting in its short history (and probably for decades to come). The size of the SNP win was staggering. The size of its majority (it has 69, 53% of 129 seats) is not the notable part. The most staggering part is that it gained a majority at all – given that the system was designed to stop one party winning in this way. Indeed, ironically, the talk before devolution was that proportional representation was chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda. Put more positively, the system is designed to make it unlikely that one party achieves a majority unless it gains a majority of the vote. PR is supposed to produce a different kind of party system in which the largest party forms a coalition government with at least one other party (as Labour did with the Liberal Democrats in 1999 and 2003) or a minority government (as the SNP did in 2007, performing the unlikely task of fulfilling a full 4-year term with 36% of the seats). However, the Mixed Member Proportional (or ‘additional member’) system clearly does not make it impossible to gain a majority of seats without a majority of the vote because it is not entirely proportional. The explanation for the SNP’ s win comes from the role of first-past-the-post to elect 73 of its 129 MSPs. The SNP secured 73% (53) of those seats from 45.4% of the vote. While it received only 16, or 30%, of regional seats from 44% of the regional votes, this was not enough to offset its constituency majority.
The second surprise is how well the SNP did in the constituency vote. In the three previous elections it came behind Labour: in 1999 Labour won 53 constituency seats to the SNP’s 7; in 2003 the split was 46 and 9; and, even in 2007, the split was 37 to 27, with the SNP becoming the largest party on the back of its 26 regional seats (to Labour’s 9). Now, 53 SNP compares to 15 Labour. The third is that the SNP did well in areas that, in the past, were Labour strongholds. One of the most notable areas is Glasgow, where Labour won 10 of 10 constituencies in 1999 and 2003, then 9 in 2007. Nicola Sturgeon was the SNP’s exception and, at the time, this seemed like a symbolic blow to Labour’s dominance. In 2011, the SNP took the majority (5 of 9) of the constituency seats in Glasgow – a result that must seem like a crushing blow to Labour. The result for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is more predictable. It suffered from its association with the UK coalition government, securing only 5 seats (17, 17, 16 in 1999, 2003, 2007). The Scottish Conservatives did comparatively better, securing 15 (18, 18, 17). The small parties were, again, marginalised – the Greens secured 2, only one more than independent Margo MacDonald.
The short term future seems clear: the SNP goes on with a clear mandate for a referendum on independence and to continue its wider policy agenda (for example, by returning to its aim to set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol); Scottish Labour will elect a new leader in the Autumn, following a ‘root and branch’ review initiated by Iain Gray before his departure; the Liberal Democrats work to distance themselves from their electorally-toxic UK counterparts; and the Conservatives may return to a peripheral role in the Scottish Parliament. From 2007-11 they often propped up the SNP, securing small policy concessions for support on key votes (most notably on the budget). Now, Annabelle Goldie is reduced to ‘keeping an eye’ on the SNP".