Tuesday, 23 March 2010

SNP campaign conference review - Saturday

Campaign conference was a bit different for me this year - I usually enjoy the socialising part of conference as much as the debates, but having to keep off the booze made me wonder whether I'd have much fun! I needn't have worried - it was great to catch up with friends from around the country, and the karaoke in the evening provided a good deal of entertainment. I had been hoping to blog from conference itself, but the lack of signal in the hall stymied that effort. I did manage a wee bit of Tweeting!

The debates were mainly focused around Westminster issues as you might expect from such an event, and an assertion that only the SNP can guarantee that they will put Scotland first. The reality is that all the UK parties, as much as they might spin, have competing interests from all the constituencies, all the nations and regions; we can put Scotland at the heart of what we do.

The resolution kicked off with an inspiring speech from the YSI's Ben Macpherson (which may be on the iPlayer), saying why he believed in independence and explaining that the purpose behind our belief as a party was for the betterment of our people. Richard Laird of the FSN backed that up, saying that the "union dividend" that people believed was of benefit to Scotland could not be found in "the deprivation and the destitution, the alienation and the apathy, the poverty pockets and the poverty of ambition". Alyn Smith MEP told conference that our job was to inspire, community by community and sector by sector, to talk about the better Scotland we will be with Independence.

This debate was followed by a cast iron example of what we could take action on if independent - pensioner poverty. John Mason MP called on the SNP to

"condemn proposals by the Labour Party to scrap Disability Living Allowance for the over 65s and Attendance Allowance across the UK to pay for a new care service in England. Conference warns that the Labour Government proposal could see 58,000 vulnerable Scots plunged into poverty, that 145,000 elderly people in Scotland will be affected by the removal of Attendance Allowance and notes independent assessments suggest 40% of those receiving Attendance Allowance will be pushed into poverty by its removal."

The impact on carers and their families was also raised in the debate, and the sense of frustration over the lack of control over this scenario was clear. With more SNP MPs committed to putting the well being of Scotland's vulnerable at the centre of the debate, concessions could be made. With independence, we could make the benefits system work more effectively.

Further frustrations were vented by Mike Weir MP on renewable energy and access to the grid for remote power generation. At present, OFGEM have a locational charging regime, where those generating power closest to the population centres of the UK receive a subsidy for producing, but those in remote areas (primarily in the renewables sector) are charged to connect to the grid. Mike pointed out that the national grid is not fit for the renewables age, and is still beholden to a centralised, power station driven regime. Rob Gibson MSP pointed out that system of charging, coupled with Crown Estate fees for use of the sea bed, combine as a disincentive to developing the renewable technologies which could drive our economy for years to come. John Mowat, our candidate in Orkney and Shetland, gave the perfect illustration of the power of renewables by relating his ferry trip over to conference - he could confirm that the big waves, strong winds and tides are there: we just need to harness them!

During the debate on kinship carers, Adam Ingram MSP spoke about how Labour's actions belied their rhetoric of fairness: the Scottish Government's move to provide kinship carers with a much-deserved allowance had resulted in the DWP reducing carers' benefit entitlement. Despite the best efforts of our Government to iron out this issue, UK ministers continue to stall and obfuscate.

During the course of the weekend, there were presentations by our Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers, updating conference on their work. Michael Russell spoke about what he believed were the guiding principles for Scottish education - access and excellence. He noted that education was a long game: our actions now may not bear fruit for a generation or more. He had found also on his recent visit to Finland that the party political is put aside to build a political consensus on education. I gathered that Mike hoped Labour and the others might see the value of such an approach, and he reflected that Curriculum for Excellence had that cross-party backing through the life of the Scottish Parliament. One area where there was difference was PFI/PPP contracts, which the SNP opposed back in 2000. Mike relayed the shocking figures that PFI/PPP payments increased by £62m in the last 12 twelve months, to £244m per year. Some local authorities are now shelling out around 10% of their education budgets on repayments.

Richard Lochhead spoke about what devolution and the SNP in Government had done from the rural sector, but warned of the implications of CAP and CFP reform for Scotland. Richard described how fishing has never been a priority for Labour, and how it had been one of the first sacrifices made by the Tories on joining the EC. It's another example of how our industries can be seen as 'expendable' when viewed from London, but essential from Edinburgh.

I attended the Victim Support Scotland fringe event, which heard from Kenny MacAskill about policing, violence reduction, Barrowfield, minimum pricing (backed also by Victim Support!) and the criminal justice system. Fringe events are a really good opportunity to ask questions of our ministers, and give feedback on experiences across the country. I shared a bit about CIRV and the work done by the community police in my ward, and learnt about what was going on elsewhere.

Saturday afternoon saw a debate on the Calman Commission (or, as
Patrick Grady put it, the Calman Omission), a typically energetic and amusing financial appeal by Alex Neil (if Alex Salmond was allowed to participate in the Leaders Debate, we might win in England too!), topical resolutions on Fuel Duty, the Renfrew Ferry and the Leaders Debates.

On the subject of Leaders Debates, Angus Robertson railed against the BBC for the lack of inclusion, participation and fairness for Scotland - ninety minutes of prime time coverage with nothing to restore the balance. Such was the attack, I began to get a fear that the BBC would take the hump, pull the plug and the OB van would be making swift tracks down the A9, but thankfully the coverage is still on the iPlayer! I particularly liked Angus' play on the BBC motto: Let Nation Speak Unto Nation - not Let One Nation Dominate...

Alex Salmond's keynote address to conference followed. The text of the speech is available >here<, as well as being on the iPlayer for the next few days. There was a fair on the people being at the centre of what we do, about championing Scotland and our communities, and about the wastefulness and wantonness of Westminster priorities. The closing lines are pretty powerful, so here they are:

"...after 18 dismal years of the Tories, and 13 dismal years of Labour – Thatcher or Major, Major or Blair it’s always been a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

"Friends, we remember Labour’s feeble fifty who stood by while the Tories imposed the Poll tax on Scotland.

"We remember Labour’s lobby fodder who voted shamefully for war in Iraq.

"Labour MPs who went to London to settle down.

"Who remained silent as the gap grew between rich and poor. As inequality in this nation reached levels not seen since the end of the Second World War.

"13 years to make a difference – an unlucky 13 for too many Scots.

"Let down by the Westminster machine.

"And yes, people are raging.

"But friends, it doesn't have to be like this.

"With MPs who are champions for the people of Scotland

"SNP MPs who will be at Westminster, to stand up for Scotland, not stand up for the system.

"To protect the people, not the perks.

"Not to settle down in London but to settle up for Scotland.

"Scottish MPs who will put our nation first.

"National champions, local champions.

"MPs worthy of the peoples trust."

I'll post up my thoughts on Sunday later on - think this post is quite long enough!


subrosa said...

Super summary. Thanks.

Patrick Grady said...

Just to give credit where it is due - I was quoting Rab McNeil, who coined the very apt 'Calman Omission' line.

Great conference all round though.