Saturday, 23 April 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: The Lib Dems

Now that the Scottish parties have published their respective manifestos, I’ve decided to read through them and take a look at what each of them is actually promising – and how they plan to do it.

Let’s kick off with our own. The Scottish Liberal Democrats manifesto, originally entitled Scottish Liberal Democrats Manifesto 2011, places a welcome emphasis on jobs and economic growth, excellent in education and keeping services local. In his introduction, Tavish Scott states he wants to “cut red tape, invest in apprenticeships for young people, colleges and universities, and find new ways to get money to small businesses starved of finance.” He also wants to find ways in which teachers can be given “space and freedom to innovate, inspire and encourage Scotland's next generation.” He also speaks out against the proposed national police force, maintaining that “the Scottish Liberal Democrats will stop the centralising power grab that the other parties want”.

So far, so good. The focus on facilitating solutions is welcome, particularly in regards education. Some of the solutions being put forward are genuinely innovative, such as the Early Intervention Revolution aimed at ensuring the best start in education for every child. Similarly the Science Nation Action Plan has the potential to inspire our young people to pursue careers in science and equip them with the skills required in a competitive international jobs market. I am naturally pleased that the Scottish Lib Dems have committed themselves to “fair access [to Higher Education] with no tuition fees and no graduate contribution”. But even more pleasing is that the debate has moved on from the narrow emphasis on tuition fees and onto facilitating outstanding educational opportunities for all: the Lib Dems realise that “university is not the right route for everyone” and want investment in Further Education and apprenticeships. The Higher and Further Education Action Plan looks at ways to actually reform the system and create a fit for purpose education system while increasing “the number of poorer students who have access to higher education”. There is little I can disagree with in the plan, but there should be more initiatives to help people retrain, reskill and change careers – something that isn’t mentioned in the manifesto.

Onto the plans for job creation and the Lib Dems “have ambitious plans to bring new jobs and a new prosperity to Scotland, focusing every strand of government on boosting economic growth.” All very good and something I’d wholeheartedly agree with. But how do we do that? The manifesto outlines the jobs that could be created in renewable energy, with the scope for “over 28,000 jobs in offshore wind power, 5,000 in wave and tidal power and 10,000 from carbon capture and storage technology. Super-fast broadband can produce 20,000 jobs...” All in all the Lib Dems believe that 100,000 new jobs can be created in renewables and conservation, regional development banks, the creative and science industries and transport. The problem is, as the manifesto itself admits, that commercial banks are not offering sufficient support to business and so the party is promoting an ambitious Jobs and Growth Strategy.

The Lib Dems promise Regional Development Banks to replace the admittedly complicated existing enterprise networks. They advocate a Digital Economy Action Plan to ensure that Scotland’s technological industries move at the same rate as those from overseas. The Lib Dems seem to like their Action Plans, and also have formulated similar plans to stimulate investment in arts and culture (the Most Creative Country Action Plan) and one aimed at championing innovation in business and supporting local industry (the Better Procurement Action Plan). As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also promoting the self-explanatory Cutting Regulation Action Plan and the much more exciting-sounding Preventing a Lost Generation Action Plan, which aims to “make sure that young people are not left behind by the economic recovery simply because they finished school, college or university in the depths of economic recession”. I’m personally supportive of my party’s determination to declare war on unemployment and the short-term objectives are sensible and practical, but a little more detail about a longer-term approach would have been useful.

More Action Plans...have you got the general feel of this yet?... The Climate Change Action Plan correctly focuses on the urgency of the challenge facing Scotland. The manifesto states that the “first priority is to take substantial action on energy efficiency”, promising £250 million from the Investing in Scotland’s Future Fund to accelerate massively the insulation of homes and buildings in Scotland while “working with the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust to provide a single streamlined model for the delivery of energy efficiency in Scotland.” The Lib Dems predictably support an increase in the use of renewable energy, promise low-carbon investment and oppose the construction of new nuclear power plants. They also promise to reduce car dependency and argue this can be achieved though a Transport Action Plan to support public transport and improve social inclusion. Oh, and they’ll keep the Scottish Bus Pass as well.

The Lib Dems’ Crime Reduction Action Plan concentrates on keeping communities safe, keeping policing local and ensuring reforming prisons to prevent re-offending. In line with their commitment to creating a liberal society, they also have a rather fascinating Liberalism Action Plan. I like the emphasis on fairness. I dislike the prospect of payment-by-results in public services, which was tried in the NHS in England and has simply created competition between the NHS and the private sector – and in some cases between different NHS trusts. That's not the kind of approach we want in Scotland's publci services.

Finally, I’ll finish with the Lib Dems’ position on health improvement– which is formulated into, you’ve guessed it, the Better Health Action Plan. It pledges earlier detection for stroke, cancer and heart disease. It advocates preventative rather than reactive treatment. There is also a very welcome commitment to tackling mental ill-health with a pledge to “improve the provision of mental health services, increase access to psychological and emotional support and reduce waiting times for psychological treatments and talking therapies.” That would make a huge difference - and I'm talking as someone who works in mental health. The Lib Dems also plan to improve support to carers and have an ambitious and sound Drugs and Alcohol Action Plan, but I see that the party’s position in the General Election towards minimum pricing for alcohol has been softened - something I note with some regret.

On the whole, I like our party’s manifesto. It is distinctively Scottish, promotes polices diametrically opposed to some of what the Westminster coalition is doing, and emphasises the need to create jobs. Its mood is positive but realistic, is solutions-driven and promotes pragmatic alternatives to the other parties, especially on policing and crime prevention – key issues in any voter’s mind. I was speaking yesterday to a voter who claimed that Tavish Scott is “irrelevant”; I’m not sure they only party leader who is supporting Scotland’s police officers’ call to retain regional forces can be dismissed so flippantly.

There are some small points on which I would disagree and there is, unfortunately, a lack of detail on key issues – most obviously on the number of new jobs. For example, will the Regional Development Banks create 10,000 new jobs or simply redeploy many of the people already working in Scotland’s various enterprise agencies? The manifesto doesn’t say explicitly, but it’s an important distinction. It doesn’t in my view go far enough on “green” issues, but I will accept the plans to combat climate change as a positive starting point for a future strategy of sustainability and welcome the stated aim of working collaboratively with groups possessing expertise in this field.

All in all though, it’s a positive declaration of intent from a party committed to finding realistic solutions to the challenges facing Scotland. Of course I would say that, I already hear you say. In that case, read it yourself and make your own mind up – and feel free to post your comments, criticisms and observations!

Over the next few days I will be examining the manifestos of the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives, the SSP, Solidarity, the Scottish Greens and the best of the rest. There is a lot in many of them that I agree with, a bit that I don’t and some that I find simply fascinating!

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