There is a slightly feverish atmosphere in the Scottish Parliament at the moment: it can be felt in the committee rooms, along the corridors and even in the bars. Partly it is because there is an election coming and quite a few MSPs fear they will not be returning after 5th May. But it is also partly because this year’s election is destined to be the most political and diverse – in policy terms at least – of any contest in Scotland since devolution.
Scotland is about to get new tax powers and it is this that has changed the dynamic. All the parties have been forced to make decisions on this most sensitive of political issues.
The tax powers Scotland will get in April are fairly inflexible. The income tax thresholds can only be raised together. So, if the Government wants to raise the top rate by 1p in the pound, it has to raise all the rates together by 1p in the pound at the same time. Yet, despite this restriction, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats feel the cuts to public services in general and education in particular are such that taxes have to go up. Both parties have promised the same 1p in the pound increase across the board, which would raise £475 million.
The Tories, perhaps unsurprisingly, have promised to lower the tax burden if at all possible.
However, they are hamstrung by the fact that only income tax can be adjusted, not corporation tax. This means that there will be no change for freelancers and others who have set up their own businesses, whoever gets into power.
The SNP, meanwhile, will go into the election promising to leave things as they are.
So Scottish voters are being presented with a clear political choice, with all the parties positioning themselves at different points on the Right–Left spectrum. But the irony is that, whatever position the parties adopt, it is unlikely to make much difference to the final result.
The SNP goes into May’s election having won 69 of Scotland’s 129 seats in 2011 – the first time any party had achieved the supposedly impossible feat of winning a majority. With the SNP now consistently scoring 50% or more in the opinion polls, the party is expected to do even better this year. That is because the 45% of Scots who voted to leave the UK have now transferred to the SNP, giving the party a cast-iron electoral base which is impossible for the divided unionist side to compete with. However, because of the proportional system used in Scotland, the SNP may only get another six or seven seats, taking it up to 75 or 76 in total.
Labour won 37 seats in 2011, 15 of these constituencies. The party is expected to lose most, if not all, of these constituency MSPs and, while it will pick up a few on the regional lists, Labour could end up with just 25 or so MSPs – leaving it in a scrap with the Tories for second place.
The Conservatives won 15 seats in 2011 but a good campaign led by the respected Ruth Davidson, the Scottish party leader, could see it get 20 or more.
The Liberal Democrats go into the campaign with just five MSPs but, such is the state of disarray in the party, it would do well to hold on to this number and could actually end up with just two.
The Greens are expected to do well this year. They won two seats in 2011 and hope to double, or even treble, that total this year.
It is indeed ironic that the one party which is defined by the constitution more than any other is set to win again – despite an election campaign which will see attention shift away from the constitution for the first time in years.
But then again, Scottish politics has never been straightforward and if the Scottish Parliament’s short history has taught us anything, it is surely that upheaval is often the only thing we can rely on – however much those fearful MSPs prowling the corridors and bars of Holyrood would like it to be otherwise.
Article by Hamish MacDonell