Monday, 25 April 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: the Conservatives

Annabel Goldie’s party have launched their manifesto, entitled Common Sense for Scotland. In it, Ms Goldie looks to credit the Conservatives with significant achievements over the course of the last parliament and argues that her “credible and costed” manifesto will “support families, create jobs, provide opportunity, keep our communities safe and promote a greener Scotland.”

The manifesto leads positively with a focus on growing Scotland’s economy and creating jobs. The Tories feel that the only way of moving forward is to have a pro-business government in Holyrood. I am uncomfortable with this; not because I feel developing business is unimportant but because the solution is unimaginative and is too similar to the failed Conservative policies of the past. The remedy for unemployment and economic stagnation is the usual mix of private sector devotion and pro-business policy.

The chief points on which I would express criticism are the Tories’ commitment to “legislating to ensure that the main Business Rate poundage can be no higher than in England”, the pledge to establish a business-led review of the planning system (with all the inevitable conflicts of interest), the establishment of a private sector group to “deliver a wholesale rationalisation” in relation to Scottish tourism and the insistence on “leveraging additional private investment” as the means by which to improve Scotland’s rail services. I’m not convinced that the Tories’ dogmatic position of opposing re-regulation of bus services is necessarily in passengers’ interests: it depends on the level and type of regulation being proposed. It also seems inconsistent that a party is so keen to “continue the Edinburgh-Glasgow Rail Improvement Programme” while refusing further investment in Edinburgh’s tram project on the basis that it is “delayed [and] over budget.”

There are some positives, though. The Tories are right to promote Scottish tourism and to be looking at ways of developing it. The proposed “Year Round Tourism Strategy” could well be a useful initiative and the consideration of a new Scottish Tourism Investment Bank, based on an Austrian concept, may have a positive impact in helping tourism-based businesses raise finance. Expanding the scope of rural business rate reliefs could make a huge difference to rural communities, while extending the Business Gateway should help support Scottish enterprise more generally. It’s clear the Conservatives are trying to advocate workable solutions, but their problem is they’re ideologically trapped and lack the imagination to propose anything but aggressive pro-market and pro-business policies. They’re unable to make even a basic recommendation such as improving enterprise education without progressing towards the ham-fisted approach of “making it compulsory to offer [such] training at all colleges and universities” and while they identify many real issues, too many of their other “solutions” depend on giving disproportionate power to the business community.

Onto their proposals on reforming public services, and the Tories are championing “local, accountable leadership” by “giving people the chance to have a powerful, elected provost by holding referenda in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.” Yes, that’s just what Scottish people are calling out for. Quite how that will empower communities living in Scotland’s major cities is a question the Tories don’t want to answer. They also have ideas for increasing the role of the voluntary sector in providing local services. I’m not necessarily opposed to this, especially as many charities have expert local knowledge and strong local connections. But I’m critical about the process being proposed, especially one so geared towards a payment by results system. I also have concerns about the quality of public services if any new “bidding system” simply gives contracts to the independent provider most able to offer services as cheaply as possible.

The pro-business agenda again comes to the fore with the Tories insisting that local authorities must subject road maintenance work to competitive tender. They also propose giving councils financial incentives to “share services” but don’t specify how this would work in practice.

Again there are some positives, such as allocating budgets to community councils, opening “council counters” at Post Offices and protecting the concessionary bus pass. However, there is too little creativity in the Tories’ thinking and on crucial issues they return to their Thatcherite philosophy.

On schools reform, the Tories actually begin to talk the “common sense” they are so keen to profess. They support the recommendations of the Donaldson Report which argued for career-long teacher education, and want fewer barriers to teacher recruitment. The Conservatives commit to supporting the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence while they also want to “encourage greater cooperation between different schools so that there is more opportunity for pupils to gain access to the Higher and the Advanced Higher courses.” They propose a flexible curriculum structure that allows for young people to gain an education appropriate to their particular skills and abilities. All this is positive and welcome. What is less so is the Tories’ blinkered view that Scottish pupils should decide at the age of 14 whether they want “an academically-focussed path from S2 onwards or a more vocationally-focused path”. Firstly, I found it moderately amusing that the genius suggesting that basic literacy sills are being lost doesn't know how to spell the past participle of the verb focus. More importantly, the proposal to allow 14-years olds to leave school to follow a vocational route might appear to have some merit, but it is short-sighted and will result in a two-tier education system along the lines of the discredited grammar school/secondary modern model. Any future education policy must accept that individuals learn in different styles at different paces and cannot simply be categorised into being either “academic” or “vocational”. I don’t want to see our young people placed into such arbitrary “boxes” or for those as young as 14 making such enormous decisions about their future professional development. Why the Tories are unable see the merits of simply increasing the provision of vocational education in schools I’m not sure – there are social as well as educational benefits to remaining in school beyond the age of 14.

As for their plans for Universities and Colleges, the Conservatives are committed to a graduate tax and “support greater private sector cooperation and investment in the university sector.” No surprises there. Unfortunately, they have absolutely nothing specific to say on the future of Further Education and the only part of their strategy on education I could agree with is the suggestion for increased co-operation between universities.

What do the Scottish Conservatives have to say about the NHS? They don’t have much to say on the matter of mental health, other than the observation that “mental health services have also been given insufficient attention by policymakers”. However, they don’t tell us what they would do to improve NHS mental health services. They pledge to protect health spending, reintroduce prescription charges and introduce a new Cancer Drugs Fund of up to £10million. There is the predictable emphasis on increased use of the private sector and the need to review the NHS structure, essentially promoting a more centralised NHS.

Most concerning is the assumption that “The ultimate responsibility for an individual’s good health rests with them personally. It is up to the individual to take an interest in their own healthcare and make appropriate lifestyle choices for their own wellbeing.” That is great in theory; in reality not everyone has either the understanding or the economic freedom to make good lifestyle choices. The choices available to some are far more limited than they are for others. Unfortunately the Tories express few ideas in respect to empowering people to make better health choices.

The Tories feel that the best way to improve faith in Scotland’s justice system is to re-introduce prison sentences of less than 3 months so that "custody can be used instead of community service where appropriate” They’re also supporting tougher community sentences and insist that offenders carrying out community roles should wear a high-visibility jacket at all times; a socially irresponsible sop to populism that can be interpreted as a sign of disgrace or a badge of honour depending on your perspective. Quite how this would lead to effective rehabilitation is anyone’s guess. Like Labour, the Tories also peddle the myth that the SNP have been inactive on knife crime, but this is completely untrue and the No Knives, Better Lives scheme is actually achieving results.

The Tories pledge to “end automatic early release so that more offenders are actually spending more of their sentence behind bars being rehabilitated and punished.” Of course, offenders can only be rehabilitated in our antiquated prisons where drugs are easily available...

Interestingly, the Conservatives promise to reform legal aid. I would like to comment further on this, but they don’t outline any of the detail of their plan.

Returning to the politics of the Thatcher era, Ms Goldie’s party aim to “help families get homes” by reinstating a modernised “right to buy”. Home ownership clearly remains the be-all-and-end-all for the Tories who still refuse to accept that the right to buy has been a disaster for some communities. At least they are advocating using right-to-buy receipts to built more social housing, but will sales of local authority houses in more rural communities be reinvested in that locality?

The Tories have some positive things to say about improving local environment and their idea for a Town Centre Regeneration Fund certainly has merit. The manifesto has some equally welcome sections on reducing energy consumption and a greener energy policy, but it is let down by being too nuclear-friendly.

All in all, this was an uninspiring, uninventive and entirely predictable contribution from the Scottish Conservatives. It was also a wasted opportunity for them to move on from the destructive Tory policies of the past. To give them credit where it is due, there is some effort to deal with the difficulties in which Scotland finds itself and the attempts to facilitate economic growth and improve secondary education show they recognise the key priorities of any incoming government. However, it is one thing to understand the question, quite another to have the answers. On the basis of Common Sense for Scotland, the Scottish Tories have fewer of the right answers than QI’s Alan Davies.

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