Singing from the same hymn sheet

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Stephen Maxwell
Third Force News

MANY of the champions of Scottish devolution looked to the Scottish Parliament to usher in a new era of consensus politics to replace the entrenched party rivalry of Westminster. While some may have been disappointed that MSPs in Holyrood have followed the pattern of party and personal competition and point scoring of older democracies, most of Holyrood’s legislative initiatives have enjoyed cross party support.

Certainly few of the issues clearly within the competence of the Parliament have generated deep ideological division. Free personal care, housing stock transfer, free school meals, and section 28 are among a select group of issues which have stirred passions, sometimes as much within parties as between them. But many of the issues which generated most heat have been out-with the competence of the Parliament – the Iraq War, Trident, asylum seekers.

Perhaps the only issue which has carried implications of a deeper ideological division has been PPP/PFI where the executive’s endorsement has faced persistent criticism from opposition parties, but again this is an issue on which Holyrood has been constrained by the Treasury.

The parties’ manifestos for the Parliament elections suggest that the Scottish consensus is set to endure. Across wide swathes of policy – education and training, social care, health, economic development, poverty, the environment – all the main parties, including the Conservatives, are committed to broadly similar policies. They might be called social democratic though Scottish political opinion shares the British distaste for ideological labels.

Of course there is the big disagreement over local taxation. If the election has generated a substantial debate over domestic policy it is over the rival ‘in principle’ merits and defects and the funding complexities of Council Tax and Local Income Tax. But again the biggest differences of principle are over independence and Trident, which the election itself cannot resolve.

Champions of the voluntary sector will be encouraged that all the established parties contesting this election – and with the number of contesting parties at around forty, the Greens and the two socialist parties must now be accorded that dubious title – make generous reference to the role and claims of the voluntary sector.

Labour acknowledges the sector’s interest in reducing unnecessary regulation, endorses the sector as a provider of public services and promises to streamline and stabilise funding arrangements.

The Scottish Green Party will introduce a Sustainable Communities Bill with a revised best value framework to encourage the public sector to spend at least 10 percent of its service budget from the social enterprise sector by 2012. The Scottish Conservatives pronounces that charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations should have a bigger role and promises to lighten the regulatory burden and defend the sector’s independence from encroaching state control.

The SNP will work in partnership with the sector to support new ways of developing public services including the extension of direct payments, and in the provision of sports and play facilities. It commits to working towards the achievement of Full Cost Recovery and proposes new spending powers for Community Councils and a pilot of ’empowered community’ status for disadvantaged communities wishing to exercise more control over public spending in their areas.

The Liberal Democrats want to see a revitalised Compact between local government and the voluntary sector embracing stable funding, new powers of community management, and a new Common Good Act to strengthen the framework for local ownership of community assets.

If manifestos were a reliable guide to action in government then the sector could be confident that whatever the outcome of the election its prospects would be transformed.

Where do the significant policy differences on domestic issues lie? The Greens’ opposition to major investment in road and airport development marks them out. SNP opposes Labour and Lib Dem support for road charging in favour of prior improvement of public transport.

While all the main parties recommend a stronger community focus the two leading contestants take strikingly divergent views. While Labour’s main interest is in neighbourhood security with calls for community prosecutors operating through community courts, naming and shaming, a power for Ministers to direct local bodies to use ASBOS and a big expansion of community surveillance (as well as taking DNA samples from all crime suspects) SNP lays out a wider programme of community empowerment embracing Community Energy Plans, enhanced budgets for Community Councils and a role for communities as ‘co-producers’ of public services. Even without the Big Issues ‘off-stage’, the parties’ manifestos reveal more differences of approach within a broad Scottish consensus than the media coverage suggests.