By a Newsnet reporter
An organisation, whose membership is mostly opposed to independence, has launched an attack on the SNP’s flagship council tax freeze policy, claiming that the vast majority of people in Scotland want it to end.
The so-called ‘Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy’ [CSLD] which was set up by local authority umbrella group Cosla, has released results from a poll it says shows most people would prefer to pay more council tax if the extra money was guaranteed to be spent on local services.
According to figures released by the group, the poll carried out by Mori showed two thirds of Scots would accept an increase in their council tax, with less than half saying that local authorities were adequately funded.
The survey has been seized on by pro-Union media outlets, including the Scotsman and the Times, with some headlines claiming that the poll undermines the key SNP pledge. The survey result has also led to massive coverage from BBC Scotland on TV and radio, with the broadcaster reporting that Scots ‘would pay more council tax’.
However the overwhelming pro-Union make-up of the organisation which commissioned the poll, and the apparent loaded nature of the question, has led to questions being asked over the credibility of its poll findings.
On yesterday evening’s Reporting Scotland, CSLD was referred to by reporter Jamie McIvor as a “cross party group”. However Newsnet Scotland can reveal that the group, far from being cross-party, is in fact dominated by pro-Union politicians, journalists and other figures who question independence.
Of the twenty members of the group, only two are from parties that support independence, one SNP councillor and one Scottish Green councillor. This contrasts with a total of six former or current pro-Union politicians, including Labour’s Glasgow Council leader Gordon Matheson and the former Labour leader of Edinburgh council, the Rev. Ewan Aitken.
Also on the group are pro-Union journalists Alf Young and Allan Rennie. Young is a former Labour party researcher whilst Rennie is now the Editor of the Daily Record, a newspaper which is openly pro-Labour and pro-Union.
Others on the group include Geoff Mawdsley, from the Reform Scotland think-tank which opposes independence and STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith who is a regular critic of the Scottish Government’s plans for independence.
Another member is Orkney councillor Steven Heddle, who last year told the Financial Times that Orkney leaving an independent Scotland could not be ruled out: “That would be the thermonuclear option. It would come with so much danger and difficulty,” … “[But] we shouldn’t rule anything out.”
Professor Richard Kerley, who advises the group once claimed that high profile supporters of independence, such as Jim McColl, Sean Connery and Brian Cox, did so only because they might pay less tax.
The media attacks on the council tax freeze follow a survey question posed by Mori on behalf of the group.
However some critics have suggested the question was designed to produce the result now being headlined. Commenting last night Scottish Government Local Authority Minister Derek Mackay said: “Opinion polls can sometimes give you the answer that you want”
Some callers to BBC Scotland phone in programme Call Kaye, which also asked a similar question, suggested that asking people if they are prepared to pay more if good causes can be guaranteed to benefit, usually results in a majority saying yes.
Despite the apparent leading nature of the survey, the details of which have yet to be published, BBC Scotland has afforded the poll considerable coverage on all of its news outlets with Labour politicians being allowed to attack the SNP.
On Reporting Scotland, Labour councillor Martin Rooney was shown attacking the council tax freeze, claiming his own council of West Dunbartonshire had been “hemmed in” by the Scottish Government policy.
In another clip, the chair of the group David O’Neill was heard backing the result of the survey insisting that people are “content” as long as money is spent on the “services that matter”.
In an earlier statement to BBC Scotland, Mr O’Neill said: “This work undertaken by Mori is about getting to the heart of what the people of Scotland think matters, not the things that politicians tell them that matter.
“It is one part of our bigger commitment to ask some new questions about why doing things locally matters, and what stronger local democracy in Scotland might look like.”
However it was not made clear to viewers that Mr O’Neill was himself a Labour party councillor and vice president of the body which created the ‘Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy’.
The manner in which the BBC has seized on the poll results will do little to quell the growing concern felt by many at what many now believe is an increasing tendency by the broadcaster to highlight anti-SNP stories emanating from so called independent commissions and think tanks.
Later this month the BBC Trust will officially publish its findings on BBC Scotland’s handling of a key issue of the independence referendum. The Trust has found the Scottish broadcaster guilty of breaking editorial guidelines on accuracy, after it misled viewers over the views of a foreign official on the EU status of an independent Scotland.
The SNP has responded to the attacks on the council tax freeze, which come only weeks before a crucial by-election, by highlighting the fact that local authorities currently enjoy a greater proportion of Scotland’s block grant than was the case when Labour were in power at Holyrood.
In the recent Dunfermline by-election, the Labour party claimed it still supported a council tax freeze. However it’s candidate for the forthcoming Cowdenbeath by election, Alex Rowley, is on record criticising the freeze claiming it undermines local democracy and suggesting that councils should be allowed to increase council tax.