New leaders for Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats

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New leaders for Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats

Both the Labour and Liberal Democrats parties have new leaders, albeit under very different circumstances, following the summer recess of the Scottish Parliament. Both the Labour and Liberal Democrats parties have new leaders, albeit under very different circumstances, following the summer recess of the Scottish Parliament.

Labour Leader Resigns

Wendy Alexander, the embattled Labour leader, announced her resignation on June 28th June; the decision followed a recommendation by The Standards Committee that she should be suspended from parliament for one day. The suspension was punishment for breaching parliamentary rules over approximately £10,000 in illegal donations made to her leadership campaign during 2007.

Speaking on the day of her resignation, Alexander attacked the Standards Committee ruling as being politically motivated, but claimed that she had to resign to avoid causing further damage to the Labour party. Labour lost their first Holyrood election in May 2007 and their popularity was at an all time low in the opinion polls in Scotland. She said: "It is clear that vexatious complaints will continue to dominate the headlines as long as I remain Labour's Scottish Parliamentary Leader…I cannot ask Labour supporters in Scotland for further forbearance.”

Alexander Escapes Ban

The Standard Committee’s decision was voted on by Parliament on September 4th; they voted against the ban by 70 to 49.

Following the vote, Alexander claimed "I said in June that my pursuers had sought political victory with little thought to the standing of the parliament and that I'd hope wiser heads would prevail…they have done so today. Today is a victory for the law, for natural justice and for common sense and I welcome that."

The crux of Alexander’s argument was that she hadn’t declared the donations as she had been advised by parliamentary clerks that she didn’t need to declare them. Whilst it is true that Alexander did receive this advice, it should be borne in mind that the advice was given after the 30 day limit on declaring donations had passed. More importantly, the convener of the Standards Committee was under no obligation to agree with the advice given to Wendy Alexander.

The convener of the Standards Committee, Keith Brown, expanded on the Committee’s recommendation stating that the Scottish Parliament Act of 2006 clearly states that all donations above £520 must be declared. He stated: "No entry was made by the member in relation to the relevant donations under gifts in the register of members' interests within 30 days of their receipt."

The committee voted for the ban by 4 votes to 3, with the SNP and Liberal Democrats voting for and the Conservatives and Labour voting against. Whilst Labour and Conservative leaders have called the Committee’s integrity into question, it could also be argued that the vote shows that MSPs voted along party lines and that the ruling of the Committee was not properly considered. Indeed, Tory MSP Jamie McGrigor, spoke of a "partisan alignment" on the Standards Committee.
Perhaps most concerning, is that the decision not to vote in favour of the ban is more damaging to the integrity of the parliament than the recommendation made by committee. MSPs have voted against a ban even though the law has been broken. If MSPs cannot govern themselves, how can they be trusted to govern those who elected them?

Liberal Democrat leader resigns

Nicol Stephen announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats on July 3rd, only four days after Wendy Alexander’s resignation, ending his three year tenure. He cited the stress that the job was placing him and his young family under and decided that the only solution was to take a step back from front-line politics.

Speaking on the day of his resignation, he stated: "You have to be available every day, every week. There is rarely a weekend, a birthday or a family holiday when the demands of the job do not intrude. That is not to complain - long hours and long absences from home go with the job. But it can all have an impact. And when that impact becomes too great, it is time to put my family first."

During his period as leader, he was part of the Labour-Liberal administration from 2005 until they were ousted by the SNP in 2007. He served first as Deputy First Minister and then Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning.

In the immediate aftermath of the election defeat it was mooted that the Liberals could form a coalition with the SNP and Green Party, however it quickly became apparent that they would not countenance sharing power with any party that intended to hold a referendum where independence was an option. Both the SNP and Green Party are committed to holding such a referendum during the period of this parliament, so the Liberals found themselves out of government for the first time since the Scottish parliament was reconvened after an absence of almost 300 years.

New leader elected

Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland, was elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats on August 26th. He secured a commanding victory with 59% of votes cast; Ross Finnie was the nearest challenger on only 21.3% of the vote.

In his victory speech, he made it clear that it was his intention to hold the SNP government to account. He claimed that the government were "arrogant, misguided, and politically dishonest.” Mr Scott also claimed that his election was a mandate for change: "Change that locks in Liberal values. That's why we'll continue to make the case for protecting our environment, improving our public services and taking back our civil liberties."

Many were surprised by Mr Scott’s allegations of political dishonesty, given the way that he has financially benefited from a controversial allowance scheme. He bought his first house under this scheme, from his sister, for £112,000 and sold it for £148,000; making a profit of £36,000 in the process. During this period he claimed £500 per month in mortgage interest payments. The profit made from this house sale was then used to buy a new house for £380,000. He has been claiming almost £1000 per month in mortgage payments and £1920 for council tax.

Challenge to the SNP

Despite not having a majority in parliament, the SNP have managed to come through the first year and a bit of government relatively unscathed. With the main opposition parties electing new leaders, both with clear mandates, it is clear that they will face a sterner test in the coming months. Votes on the proposed Local Income Tax and Independence Referendum, both manifesto commitments, will be presented to parliament before the next election and the outcome of these votes will be crucial to the continuance of the government.


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