Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Tavish: Let's learn from Obama

I see both Caron and Stephen have begun to write up their pieces from the interview we did with Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott at the weekend, so I suppose I'd better get myself in gear and do likewise.

Although I didn't vote for Tavish as leader, I think he's made a confident start to the role. And that was apparent in our session on Saturday, where he coped very well with everything we threw at him.

One thing I was impressed by was when I asked him what we could learn from Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Tavish spoke of the ways in which Obama had built a real grassroots effort which had helped create a sense of excitement about the message he wanted to put across. He noted that Obama had used the internet very effectively, building on the foundations Howard Dean had laid during his presidential bid four years ago, not only as a fundraising tool but also to help inspire a whole new generation to get involved in politics. I must say, I hadn't really thought Tavish would be quite so clued up about American politics, so this was an unexpectedly thorough answer.

But it's on domestic issues that Tavish's reputation as a leader will be made and he was equally good on those. On local government, for instance, Tavish welcomed the fact that ring-fenced funding had been reduced, but was concerned that the SNP government's approach was too rigid and top-down. Similarly, on local taxes, Tavish indicated he was open to the idea that local authorities should be free to raise revenue from a range of taxes, rather than solely looking at local income tax as a replacement for the unfair council tax. He said that any tax system had to conform to certain principles such as fairness and collectability and added that the Calman Commission would be looking at public financing in Scotland as a whole - including both personal and corporate taxation.

On another tax issue, Tavish clarified that his idea to get the Scottish Parliament to use its tax varying powers to cut 2p from the basic rate of income tax in Scotland was independent of the UK-wide Lib Dem proposals to cut taxes. He pointed out that his plan was to find savings from the £30 billion Scottish block grant for an immediate tax cut in Scotland to help people who are struggling now, whereas any UK-wide tax cut would probably have to wait until at least after the next General Election in 2010.

He also said in response to a question from Caron about the feasibility of tax cuts in the current economic climate that he was certain that Vince Cable and his Treasury team would be able to find the savings required to reduce government spending overall, although he admitted that the financial crisis did make things tougher. However, he said there was no point in us putting forward detailed proposals just yet, as any good ideas would only be stolen by either the Tories or Labour.

It's clear that Tavish is settling in for the long haul and is relishing the political challenges ahead. When asked about the popularity of First Minister Alex Salmond, he pointed out that both Blair and Brown had also enjoyed honeymoon periods, but that the responsibility of having to take decisions in government usually means this doesn't last.

Tavish is also keen to ensure that the Scottish Lib Dems become a forceful grassroots campaigning party again, saying that he doesn't want to spend all his time playing political games in Holyrood, but instead getting out around the country spreading the Lib Dem message as much as possible. And he's also keen to make sure that the party does become far more representative of society as a whole, although he noted that the party had consistently opposed some measures such as all-women shortlists which other parties had adopted. However, he didn't really come up with any proposals as to how this could be addressed.

Finally, Tavish was asked who he would be supporting in the upcoming Lib Dem presidential election. As party leader in Scotland, I thought he might have been non-committal, but his answer was clear: "I hope Ros [Scott] wins. I don't think Lembit's the right person for the job." Remember folks, you heard it here first.

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