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

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The income tax aspect of Swinney’s budget was soon superseded by another issue – that of local authority funding.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

council_tax_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:

freeze_pledge_labour

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.