Is there a freeze on asking Labour any council tax policy questions?


By G.A.Ponsonby

John Swinney delivered his budget for next year yesterday.  Any Scottish Finance Minister has limited scope in what he or she can do in terms of raising money, and this budget was no different. But it did contain a few areas that were novel, the biggest being of course the new tax raising powers.

Next year will see Westminster hand Scotland the power to vary income tax by up to 10 pence. Before doing this though, the Scottish budget will be cut by the amount of cash estimated to have been generated by the 10 pence tax. In order to make up the shortfall, the Scottish Government simply has to re-instate the tax cut, which is what John Swinney did.

No party in Scotland has proposed anything other than what Swinney proposed as far as income tax is concerned. Even Scottish Labour has said it would do the same. In short, the income tax levels across the bands will remain at the same level in Scotland as they are across the rest of the UK no matter who wins next year’s Holyrood election.

Despite initial headlines which centred on Swinney’s refusal to increase income tax level, the story petered out when it became apparent that no party was seriously proposing an alternative. Indeed the Scottish Parliament has had the power to vary income tax levels since 1999 and no party has ever used it.

The income tax aspect of Swinney’s budget was soon superseded by another issue – that of local authority funding.

Council Tax

Within hours of Swinney’s speech the Local Authority umbrella group COSLA issued a statement saying the cuts to its funding would be “catastrophic”. Vice President of COSLA, Michael Cooke, appeared on Radio Scotland and launched a ferocious attack on Swinney. Cooke singled out the policy of the council tax freeze for special criticism

That evening, Cooke’s superior, COSLA President Councillor David O’Neill, further attacked the council tax freeze, calling it “unacceptable”. He added: “To say that they have agreed a freeze for the ninth successive year is simply inaccurate.”

O’Neill tuned up on Scotland 2015 where he again homed in on the repercussions of Swinney’s budget and the council tax freeze.

Speaking on Radio Scotland on the same day, Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s public services spokeswoman said the cut to local authority budgets was “devastating”.  In a statement later that evening she added: “Local services like our schools, roads and care of the elderly will face massive cuts,”

It was clear that for Scottish Labour politicians, the key area of attack was local authority funding and the central issue was the council tax freeze.  Thus, it seemed reasonable to assume that this is the area they would find themselves questioned on?  But that’s not what happened.

Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on the budget was Jackie Baillie. As can be seen from her comments above, Baillie had highlighted local authority funding as the key area of attack.  She had already issued a prepared statement which contained the following:

“This is the most important budget since devolution, delivered by a party who promised to stand up for Scotland against Tory austerity. But it doesn’t deliver fairer taxes, a long term plan for Scotland or an anti-austerity alternative. Local services like our schools, roads and care of the elderly will face massive cuts.”

When Baillie appeared on BBC Scotland’s early evening radio programme Newsdrive on Wednesday she was quizzed by presenter Mhairi Stuart. The full interview can be heard below.

Amazingly, despite local funding and the council tax freeze already having been flagged up as a major issue, Baillie escaped the radio interview without being asked whether she backed the continuation of the freeze.

The Scottish Labour MSP appeared later that evening on Scotland 2015 where she was indeed asked once about the freeze, but as you can see below, she refused to say whether she backed its continuation.

By describing the council tax freeze as only “very marginal”, Baillie appeared to put herself at odds with the Scottish Labour leader of COSLA.  Baillie had already appeared on STV where she was pressed on her stance on the freeze.  Incredibly she dismissed the policy as “not an issue”.

There was little doubt that local authority funding was becoming the main issue of Swinney’s budget.  But the council tax freeze was an uncomfortable one for Scottish Labour.  If they backed the freeze then they stood shoulder to shoulder with the SNP.  If they came out against the freeze then they put themselves in a very difficult position in the run-up to next year’s Scottish election.

Before I continue, it’s worth noting just how important radio and TV interviews can be. Give the wrong answer when being pressed on an issue and your party can find itself on the backfoot. Think back to Andrew Neil’s infamous interview with Alex Salmond over whether legal advice had been obtained over the EU status of an independent Scotland. More recently Derek Mackay endured damaging headlines after being accused by Scottish Labour of misleading parliament following an interview on the Forth Road Bridge on Good Morning Scotland.

On an issue of critical importance such as the council tax freeze on which elections, local and national, have previously been won and lost, it is absolutely vital care is taken when being quizzed on your party’s stance.

Good Morning Scotland

On late Wednesday evening I posted the following tweet:


Jackie Baillie did indeed appear on Good Morning Scotland.  Her interview lasted six minutes during which time she was not asked once whether she or her party backed the continuation of the council tax freeze.  You can listen to the full interview below.

The interview was conducted by Gary Robertson, who is known for being absolutely meticulous and forensic when interviewing political guests. Yet he failed to even attempt to ask the Labour MSP whether she supported the continuation of the council tax freeze. Given we already knew the Scottish Labour position on raising income tax, then the council tax question was surely the only issue of real interest?

Contrast Baillie’s six minutes at the hands of Robertson with the twelve minute grilling endured by John Swinney.

It is the issue of the council tax freeze that stands out. On two BBC radio programmes over two days a Labour MSP was not even asked her party’s view on the issue. On a late night TV programme she is allowed to evade the one question.

Holyrood 2016

Earlier this year the BBC reported that Scottish Labour was preparing to use the council tax freeze as a key issue in next year’s Scottish election.  This isn’t surprising given the issue has appeared in every election since the SNP introduced the freeze eight years ago.

The council tax freeze has seen several blatant U-turns from Scottish Labour, none more so than in the largest local authority in Scotland. In February 2012 the Glasgow Labour Party enjoyed massive coverage on BBC Scotland when Gordon Matheson attacked the freeze.


By April 2012 the same Glasgow Labour Party was boasting in its manifesto that it froze the council tax first and would freeze council tax for a further five years. Here is the first pledge within that manifesto:


So Labour-run Glasgow council – then led by a man who wants to top the list to be a Labour MSP for Glasgow next May – pledged it wouldn’t be increasing council tax until… 2017.

By not pressing Labour spokespeople over the council tax freeze and thus not highlighting Scottish Labour duplicity over the policy,  interviewers allow people like Jackie Baillie to say one thing in the Scottish Parliament and another when talking to her constituents.


Readers of Newsnet Scotland may be interested to know that I plan to release my book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’ in a free form, so that as many people as possible can read it.  The book will be released in PDF format, each chapter separately to allow quick download. I have already tweeted the PDF to Chapter One.  The remaining chapters will be released over the next two weeks.


  1. My book – London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum – can be read for free by clicking the link between the asterisks.


  2. I can’t believe the bbc is so stupid as to think people don’t realise how prejudiced its reporting is. Then again…

  3. I remember a poster saying he had studied Russian propaganda at university. He described Russian propaganda, thus.

    The public know they are being lied to.
    They don’t like it.
    It works.

    Seems an apt description of what we Scots experience from the BBC.

    One crucial difference we have means to discredit the lies.

  4. As you and Prof have demonstrated time and again the BBC is neither impartial nor non-partisan and when challenged they deny everything and simply assert their impartiality without any evidence. Makes me angry.

    There’s an interesting item on Wings from a reader on how the BBC has responded to FOI requests.

    • I know all about the BBC and FOI Requests. Newsnet has highlighted this on many occasions. The link below tells you all you need to know about BBC Scotland and accountability.

  5. Amusing article, tries to make out the that the big story is the fact that none of the other parties have proposed anything different. Well that’s hardly the point is it, none of the other parties are in power at Holyrood and aren’t likely to be any time soon so the big question is only how are the SNP going to make use of their new tax powers given they’ve been slagging off Tory ‘austerity’ and how bad it is for us. The fact that the other parties are bereft of inspiration is neither here nor their, it’s the SNP that keep trumpeting their new way of doing things and how they are looking out for Scotland, so what will they do……..
    Well the answer is they are going to do nothing, turns out devoid of any new ideas of how to make use of their new tax powers, that’s the SNP’s answer: to keep taxes the same as the Westminster government, the very Westminster government they claim has got it all so wrong. Surely all those SNP voters so keen to see an “end to Westminster austerity ™” will happily pay some extra tax? Well the SNP doesn’t have too much faith that Scots will happily dig in their pockets to fund it…… funny that.

    And apparently it’s ok because other parties are just as bad?

    • Part of the answer is below from Blair. The other part is that it’s all negative criticism, never anything constructive. The electorate need to know what other parties would do. So would Slab unfreeze CT and raise Income Tax?

  6. They must think we are stupid anything we would raise in upping the tax would be removed from the block grant by the same amount so we would gain nothing but a bad name from the voters for doing so and that was the whole purpose of the unionists offer a poisoned chalice

    • we would gain nothing but a bad name from the voters for doing so
      Yeah, don’t want to get a bad name for making hard decisions, better to kick them into the long grass and let Westminster take the rap for any impacts the voters don’t like…..
      Given that so many voters seem to want Holyrood to be in full control of raising taxes surely they’d be right behind the SNP all the way if the money was coming from Scots and not the rest of UK?

  7. At end of the day, The Scottish Government has been given a turd by uk government and you can not polish a turd, no matter how hard you try!

    Raising races on hard working men or women earning circa £18000 and already suffering is not a solution to austerity!

    Scots need the flexibility and ability to make the rich pay their fair share whilst ensuring vulnerable and poor are taken care of, i.e. basic decency we should all be able to agree upon!

    Ask a studio audience of 500 Scots, does westminster place Scotland high on its agenda, what would the answer be? No!!! Next question is why vote to put unionist MPs and parties who support that position in power?

    Is Scotland the only country in the world where people vote for parties where some politicians of those parties do not place the country (Scotland) at the absolute top of their priorities?

    Maybe it’s me, but I do not understand the unionist philosophy of putting wealthy others before your own poor!?

  8. Raising races on hard working men or women earning circa £18000 and already suffering is not a solution to austerity!

    Austerity isn’t something that a solution needs to be found for, austerity is the uncomfortable solution to the problem of spending too much, which is what both the UK, and Scotland as a whole has and is doing. Maybe hard working people earning £18000 a year should realise that the current economic position is unsustainable and should be a bit more ready to dip in their pockets just a little to get themselves out of it. No it isn’t easy, yes it is tough, but that’s life, Westminster has had to make those decisions, Scottish Government has been happy to let Westminster take the rap.
    In a few months time the personal tax allowance goes up to £11000, if Swinney had the guts to raise an extra 1% of Scottish tax that would cost your £18k worker £1.35 a week. But for someone on a decent wage of £32000 it would cost £4.04, three times as much, and for someone on £50k it would be an extra £7.50, over five and a half times as much. Seems to me that far from protecting ‘the vulnerable and poor’ by shying away from using the tax powers he has Swinney is making sure he doesn’t hack off the middle classes, and anyone who looks behind the headlines to see who is truly benefiting from other ‘popular’ SNP policies such as the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and free university tuition will not be a bit surprised at that. Swinney has failed to put any money where his party’s mouth is but is landing it smack on target to where its heart is. No you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter and the SNP faithful will coo in delight at the sparkly shining thing……. tartan glitter of course!

    • Er, but if a tax rise doesn’t cost people much then it doesn’t raise much either, so what’s the point?

      Ah, but if the SNP did go down that route, the unionist media would paint Scotland in a negative light: the European Socialist basket case etc. That’s the point, isn’t it?

      So, what precisely is Labour’s position? Perfectly reasonable question that’s not getting asked by the “democratic” media!

      • Er, but if a tax rise doesn’t cost people much then it doesn’t raise much either, so what’s the point?
        That depends on what you define as “much” really, as Tesco are fond of telling us “every little helps”!, Surely the SNP faithful are willing to spend an extra £1.50 a week to ‘save the NHS’ or whatever the current cause is? Well maybe not, certainly John Swinney seems pretty unconvinced.

        Those of you with long memories will remember Swinney allowed the HMRC facility to vary income tax in Scotland to lapse not long after the SNP came to power. Even nearly 8 years ago he was too scared to actually try raising more money to pay for what his party claims Scots want.

        Those of you with even longer memories will find these two failures of the SNP to raise tax just a wee bit ironic . But don’t take my word for it let’s remind ourselves of what the SNP said about a penny of income tax back at the first Holyrood election:
        Page two of their manifesto>
        The average tax payer on £17,000 will forgo only 30p a day to
        this programme. A low paid worker would turn down as little as 4
        pence a day and an MP on high earnings 75 pence. But taken together,
        all those pennies add up to a major boost to the services we all

        Of course in this case they were promising not to enact a cut in income tax, which was a slight of hand for allowing Westminster to cut your taxes before the SNP put them back up, but it’s all the same, the SNP quickly learned that generally people are only keen on tax rises if they are fairly confident that it’s someone else’s taxes going up and John Swinney has borne that in mind ever since.


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