At long last Parliament has been dissolved and the campaigning has now begun in earnest. As the actual election is not until 5th May, there is a lot of campaigning to go. It has kicked off with another opinion poll and various policy announcements from the main parties. We have even had the first of three TV debates involving the party leaders. Well, at least four of the parties. For some reason the Greens, despite representation in each of the three previous Parliaments, have been excluded from these debates.
Early impressions. Policy wise there does not seem to be a great deal of difference between Labour and the SNP. Labour has after lots of dithering finally decided they too would freeze Council Tax for at least the next two years. Nobody really likes the Council Tax and how to change it was a big issue four years ago. With just about everyone in favour of a freeze it is unlikely to be such an important issue this time around. Which is a great pity as the whole future of the structure, functions and financing of local government is a major issue facing the country and ought to be a central issue for debate during the election. Obviously too controversial for the main parties.
What will be the main issues this time around? Too early to say, as yet. Everyone is in favour of growing the economy, increasing employment and protecting public services. Well, apart from the Tories, who are all for cutting swathes of public services. A couple of issues may emerge as significant - funding universities and nuclear energy. With the massive changes in university funding in England, especially the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year, the future funding of Scottish universities has suddenly become a bit of a hot potato. Again, apart from the Tories, all the other parties are against introducing tuition fees in Scotland. This though could prove difficult for the LibDems, as their colleagues in Westminster are part of the Coalition which has raised tuition fees down south. Who will trust them up here? Labour too have a bit of a problem as it was previous Labour governments which first introduced tuition fees. Can they really be trusted on this issue? If this does become a major issue then the SNP and to a lesser extent the Greens are the likely beneficiaries. The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan has brought nuclear energy back to the forefront of political debate. As the recent Land elections in Germany have shown nuclear power plants are even less popular than before. Once again the Tories are a bit out on their own here as firm advocates of nuclear energy. However, the LibDems and Labour have a bit of a murky past to overcome. Some senior members of both parties are still active supporters of nuclear power. While in government at Westminster Labour was committed to building more nuclear power stations, as are the LibDems as part of the Coalition deal with the Tories. So, as with tuition fees, if this does become one of the key issues, then the SNP and the Greens, who have both consistently opposed any new nuclear build, will be the clear beneficiaries.
The big elephant in the room is of course the money which will be available to the new Scottish government. As part of the Coalition’s programme to cut the UK deficit, the block grant which Westminster graciously sends up to Edinburgh will in real terms be reduced year on year for the lifetime of the next Parliament. While most parties, again with the exception of the Tories, will oppose these cuts, there is not much they can do about it, lacking any power at Westminster, which controls the purse strings. So it will be all about how to manage the cuts here in Scotland. In this, the SNP and the Greens have a possible important advantage in that they can and no doubt will argue that with independence there would be no need for any of these cuts. So they can try to deflect at least some of the criticism that will come their way by putting all the blame on the Tory/LibDem Coalition in London. Labour will try to do the same, but have two major handicaps with this approach. Firstly Labour was the UK government in charge when the financial crisis broke and at the last UK election Labour promised severe cuts, just not quite as severe or fast as the Tories. Secondly Labour as a Unionist party, cannot use the option of independence as a way out of the crisis. As for the Tories and the LibDems it would be very difficult for them to argue persuasively against the cuts while their colleagues are in power in London. Once again if the issue of who is best placed to protect Scotland from the worst excesses of the LidDem/Tory Coalition emerges as a significant factor in the campaign, the SNP and the Greens are likely to benefit most from this.
However as yet the campaign has not really caught on with the public at large. All the parties have still to publish their manifestoes. The TV debate was a pretty dull affair, most noticeable for Labour’s leader, Ian Gray’s snarling finger jabbing interventions. Alas he had little of substance to say. Annabel Goldie for the Tories, was as charming and irrelevant as usual. Alex Salmond was the clear winner for most observers, without ever having to do very much. The most recent opinion poll confirms that the SNP seems to be closing the gap with Labour - they are now virtually neck and neck. The LibDem vote continues to disappear. This could well be the crucial factor in the final outcome - where do the previous LibDem voters place their vote? For, unless there is a dramatic reversal of fortunes for them, the LibDems are on target for one of their worst electoral results since God knows when. We will need to wait for a few more opinion polls for some enlightenment on this one.
The polls also show that Alex Salmond is by far the most popular of the party leaders, with even Annabel Goldie pushing both Ian Gray and Tavish Scott into near oblivion. As this is not a presidential election and there are still lots of undecideds out there, we should not read too much into this. However it does show that if the election comes down to who do you most trust to lead the country as First Minister, then the SNP are likely to do well. As Labour have seemingly decided not to compete against the SNP on policies, then this may be a key issue after all.