world : Five election takeaways from the BBC leader debate

world : Five election takeaways from the BBC leader debate
world : Five election takeaways from the BBC leader debate

Wednesday 12 June 2024 10:52 PM

Nafeza 2 world - Another accused Anas Sarwar of “giving us lie after lie”.

And yet another took the whole panel to task about the treatment of care-experienced people, saying “shame on the lot of you”.

One woman raised the striking story of her 93-year-old mother waiting hours for an ambulance.

This is the sort of thing John Swinney deals with at First Minister’s Questions every week - but there it comes from the other leaders, not while having to look the member of the public concerned in the eye.

And it allowed those perhaps further from government, like Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Lib Dems, to join in with the pox-on-all-your-houses theme by saying both administrations have been in power for “far too long”, and that “the people are not buying it”.

2. Independence

There hasn’t been a huge amount of discussion of independence during this campaign so far.

The SNP seems to have landed on a strategy of emphasising it when speaking to its own base - its conference-style campaign launch was thick with talk of the constitution.

But when facing the electorate at large, the topic has been buried. It was barely mentioned in either of the previous TV debates.

Here, things were different - thanks to the audience, who posed a direct question. And the answers were revealing.

Lorna Slater actually seemed more on the front foot - she was the one who raised independence first, and she was the one who was chasing the other party leaders on the topic.

John Swinney did come in to offer his own support for independence - no surprises there - but for the most part he physically stood back to let Ms Slater make the running.

This is fascinating when you consider the extent to which the Scottish Greens are targeting pro-independence parties who have been almost uniformly coralled by the SNP in the past.

Douglas Ross’s response was reasonably predictable, given the way his party has carved out a recovery in Scotland by cloaking itself in the Union flag.

The Lib Dems also stuck to a “can’t we talk about something else” position.

Anas Sarwar, meanwhile, is pivoting Scottish Labour’s standpoint from one of hard opposition to independence to a more agnostic position.

He says he doesn’t care how people feel about independence, as long as they will come with him “on this part of the journey” for this election.

How that might work in the Holyrood campaign in 2026 is a much more difficult question, but he seems happy to cross that bridge later.

3. Leadership

This was a debate between party leaders but the past few months have seen a bit of a crisis of leadership in Scottish politics.

Douglas Ross was the only one who is actually standing in this particular election. But his decision to stand has proved so controversial with his colleagues that he’s already announced his resignation as Scottish party leader.

He will be relieved that there was relatively little reference to that from his rivals, despite it seeming like a bit of an open goal.

Perhaps John Swinney demurred because it has only been six weeks since his SNP predecessor Humza Yousaf self-destructed in similarly spectacular fashion.

And Anas Sarwar was perhaps too busy going after Mr Swinney and the record of the Scottish government, given Labour’s target seats are all SNP defences.

Yes, there are key marginal seats which are contests between the SNP and the Conservatives and indeed the Lib Dems.

But increasingly Mr Swinney and Mr Sarwar only have eyes for each other in these debates. As he prepares to exit the stage, they may have judged that Mr Ross simply isn’t worth their time now.

4. Devolved matters

This is a UK election, but matters which are fully devolved to Holyrood are increasingly prominent in the campaign.

As noted, one question was directly about the state of the NHS; Douglas Ross acknowledged that “it is devolved, but it is the issue people are most passionate about on the doorsteps” during the election campaign.

It was notable in the seven-way UK debate last week that the SNP’s Stephen Flynn was able to launch attacks on other leaders without facing a tremendous amount of scrutiny of his party’s record in government in return.

Here, it was the exact opposite. John Swinney found himself far more of a target.

Early on, Anas Sarwar reeled off a list of topics from housing, education and local authority funding which he said had gone backwards under the SNP.

Mr Swinney tried to pivot back to his core argument; that - in the words of Wes Streeting - “all roads lead back to Westminster” when it comes to funding.

That is on-message for him in this election, and it’s a point he’ll be happy to have the chance to make - but having been in government since 2007, it’s hard for him to entirely leave the state of local services at someone else’s door.

5. Key dividing lines

The debate on the cost of living in this election has been fairly uniform - everyone thinks it’s too high, and wants to help voters out.

But the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are also in quite a similar place on tax; none want to increase personal taxation. Douglas Ross promoted a Tory manifesto which is pushing further tax cuts, “to let people keep more of their money”.

Meanwhile John Swinney mentioned in his very first answer the fact that the Scottish government has increased taxes, in order to fund measures like the Scottish Child Payment.

Mr Ross sees that as an opening to paint Scotland as “the highest taxed part of the UK”.

But the SNP are actually proud to stand apart from their rivals in saying they’d raise money from taxes to spend on services.

This is also a topic which showcased some of Labour’s strategy to allow Anas Sarwar to shape local messaging.

Sir Keir Starmer tends to cleave to the idea of fiscal responsibility above all else, shying away from big spending commitments.

This has become a key campaign point for the SNP, which repeatedly says Labour will stick to Tory spending constraints, and thus cuts.

But Mr Sarwar offered no Starmer-esque caveats around his proposals for the economy. He said “there will be no austerity” - and he even promised pay rises for thousands of Scots.

Hopefully there will be more of these sharp dividing lines between parties when we start to see more manifestos - because these are the exact kinds of things which help people make up their minds on how to vote.

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