Sunday, 14 September 2008

A decent debut from Tavish

The new Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott made his first speech since getting elected to the federal party's conference in Bournemouth just now. It was a fairly impresive speech and certainly seemed to go down well in the conference hall.

He started off with tributes to Ray Michie and Russell Johnston, two stalwarts of the Scottish Liberal Party and Lib Dems.

And then he moved on to a good attack on the cosying up between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives, noting how they'd attacked each other before the Scottish elections last year but had been working quite closely together since then. He compared them to beams fired from a particle accelerator which collide with each other, but rather than producing a real energetic spectacle, he said they were lumped together more like chewing gum than than a nuclear particle.

And he also reminded conference of Alex Salmond's recent comments, in which he said that while Scotland had been averse to Margaret Thatcher's social policies, he felt that the economic policies were less of a problem. Tavish rightly reminded us that Mrs Thatcher's policies had caused great hardship in places such as Glenrothes and pledged that we would not forgive or forget the damage done.

And he also had harsh words to say about Labour, saying that under Gordon Brown they had elevated dithering to an art form, if that didn't give a misleading sense of urgency.

Much of the speech was devoted to trying to express that the Lib Dems understand the concerns of people at the moment, and the struggles they face. To this end, the most headline-grabbing part of the speech was his pledge to use the Scottish Parliament's tax-varying powers to offer a 2p cut in income tax in Scotland.

Now, I don't have any problem with this idea in principle, but Tavish does need to spell out what areas of Scottish Government spending he would actually cut back on in order to fulfil such a pledge. He also needs to explain why such a tax cut is more important economically than, for instance, investing that sum in improving transport in Scotland.

There were also some things Tavish didn't touch on. I'm slightly surprised that he didn't mention Iain Gray's election as Scottish Labour leader yesterday, maybe offering congratulations but at the same time warning that his election changed very little for Labour. There was also nothing in the speech about the Calman Commission or the party's stance on an independence referendum.

More surprising, perhaps, was that Tavish didn't say anything about the biggest issue in Scottish politics at the moment, local income tax. Not only did he not say how his stance on cutting tax nationally squared with this, but he also didn't give any indication how the party in Scotland intends to ensure that the SNP's plans for a nationally-set income tax can be converted into a genuinely local tax. From conversations I've had at conference with people south of the border who take an interest in Scottish politics, there's a widespread feeling that the Scottish party must not compromise on the key issue of local accountability in setting tax. As one representative said to me the other day, the Scottish party has to prove it has the cojones to take on Salmond on this issue.

Overall, then, an encouraging start from Tavish. But he does need to do more to spell out his vision of where he wants to take Scotland, as well as fleshing out the details of his tax-cutting pledge. And as part of this, I hope he engages with the party in Scotland and really tries to persuade us of the merits of his tax cut plans. He should remember that ultimately we are responsible for making party policy. Making new policies is something that shouldn't really be done in leader's speeches, but by debate and discussion within the party.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ok so the point about policy and conference is technically correct - but what the party in Scotland needs is a strong leader, not afraid to take risks and not afraid to lead from the front and set the direction. Yes he must now engage with the party and bring people with him but in this media age - you can't do that quietly or behind the scenes. As to the details - no doubt they will come but I for one don't think that it should be too hard to cut £800m from a £30,000m annual budget - it's only a little over 2%. For now I say well done Tavish for taking the fight to the other parties!

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