Don’t you know there is an election on? [Part One]

by Ken Gibb

In less than three months the UK general election will come round. It may or may not produce a definitive outcome. Like 1974, we may have to do it all again within just a few months.

And it is odd constitutionally, too. In a devolved political system, not only is there a bit of distance and insulation from the election viewed from a Scottish perspective – much of the manifestos are about domestic policies in only parts of the nation. On the other hand, if the post 2010 period has told us anything about contemporary Britain it has been the centrality of economic policy, macroeconomics and the public finance dependence on the UK fiscal framework. Austerity, welfare reform and their manifestations such as food banks have become touchstones for both the independence debate and the grounds for highlighting inequality as a live issue. And, of course, there is the possibility that nationalist parties may have a role to play in the post-election negotiations over government forming.

I read Nate Silver’s excellent book (The Signal and the Noise) a year or two ago and I am now exploring a book on the history of Bayes’ Theorem (as you do). Of all the countless pieces written on the referendum and its voting outcomes, the most compelling material (and essentially right in the end) was the analysis of political betting by the bookies (i.e. those with money or skin in the game) as investigated in a series of papers and blogs by David Bell at the University of Stirling (see the Centre on Constitutional Change and The Future of the UK and Scotland websites). I imagine that, whilst I will likely remain a non-gambler, I will nonetheless be returning regularly to the bookies sites to see how the political betting is shaping up between now and early May.

The Scottish dimension remains of interest also because the polls, really since the referendum, anticipate a huge vote for the SNP and if so the defenestration of the Scottish labour party at Westminster. And, apart from the implications for the UK balance of seats in Westminster, this will also impact hugely on the parties’ planning for the 2016 Scottish elections. As someone said today in a meeting I was at, the next Scottish Parliament will be especially challenging. It will have an agenda that includes coping with the (transitional) impact of the 2012 Act (partial income tax powers, Land Building Transactions Tax, some borrowing powers, etc.) and then negotiating the Smith proposals through legislation with Westminster. Meanwhile, there will be the further unwindng, to different degree depending on May’s UK result, of further waves of austerity and welfare reform.

Devolution does not stop with the four nations. City Deals and the Core Cities now stretch well beyond England. I was at the DevoSummit on Monday in Glasgow that featured the launch of the ResPublica report: Restoring Britain’s City States. I must admit that, while welcoming the overdue focus on city-regions and also the opportunity to share knowledge and collaborate across urban Britain, I do still hanker for something a bit less ad hoc than the city deals. I also think there is a bit of statistical flummery that goes on with city boosters that is not challenged enough – we are heavily urbanized in Britain; it should really not be surprising that most GVA comes from our core cities – demonstrating the underlying causality and how it operates over the economic development process are much more difficult but interesting questions. I also worry about the marginalized in all this – 2nd tier standalone cities or towns and larger settlements that do not benefit sufficiently if at all from these initiatives. About a third of people in Scotland live in these smaller settlements and there is an obvious danger that resource and initiative bypass them compounding inequality and disadvantage.

While the UK General Election is underway, Scotland will also have a Council Tax Review scheduled to report in the Autumn, with the outcomes expected to feature in the Scottish election. This will seek to consider alternatives to the council tax based on the usual reasonable criteria: feasibility, fairness (in terms of ability to pay), accountability to local people and mindful of wider consequences such as the housing market’s performance and overall tax burdens. The SNP have a history of supporting an income tax solution (maybe local, maybe not); while as you will have guessed, I would want to see a more efficient form of property tax. The Review also will apparently consider (as logically it should) the continuation of the so-called freeze that through the concordat fiscal arrangements with local government has operated for eight years. As I have argued before, as did the recent Strengthening Local Democracy report, this has to end and the genuinely local element of local government finances has to increase. How will the rest of the UK look to the work of this commission, underway during a UK General Election, perhaps sending signals about possible local tax reform elsewhere in rUK?

So, the UK general election has implications that stretch across the different parts of our devolved nation including our city-regions and beyond. The Scottish question directly or indirectly is going to play an important part in the outcome and the post-election party negotiations. In the paragraphs above I have stuck to questions of multi-level governance and politics. In part 2, somewhere in the near future, I will turn to housing and the election.

This is my 100th post on Brick by Brick. It has been an interesting and educational experience. It has been almost completely positive. Thanks to readers and those who have provided feedback in various different ways. I find my working life changed by blogging and continue to enjoy it immensely. I hope the next 100 will continue to be fun but remain a good discipline. I would also hope to get to 200 a little quicker.