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by Jenni Davidson
14 April 2021
Comment: no one winner in the party leaders’ debate

STV leaders' debate - Image credit: Kirsty Anderson/STV

Comment: no one winner in the party leaders’ debate

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI for STV found that 49 per cent of Scots questioned were choosing who to vote for in May on constitutional grounds.

Not to say they don’t care about anything else – we know from other polls they do – but it suggests that at least half the population will probably not be swayed in its voting intention by a TV debate.

But for those who are still undecided, Tuesday’s STV leaders’ debate provided a taste of some policies that went beyond just yes/no, with a dash of consensus to leaven the usual conflict.

There were challenging points for the party leaders.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was put on the back foot by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross asking whether she had delivered on closing the attainment gap, treatment times, victims’ rights, ferries, broadband and income tax.

She was left maintaining that the SNP had “made progress” in many of those areas.

The SNP’s weak spot, after 14 years in government, is on its record in and on not delivering on previous promises – and the other parties know it.

Sturgeon was also challenged on the poverty-related attainment gap by Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who pointed out it would take 35 years to close it at the current rate of progress, on the lack of answers about patient deaths in the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, and on drugs deaths by Ross, where Sturgeon said they had “taken our eye off the ball”.

Ross himself was put in a difficult position as he faced questions from Sturgeon about why the UK Government was taking the Scottish Parliament to court to challenge its passing of a bill on incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, a bill that had been passed unanimously by all parties, including the Scottish Conservatives.

The UK Government has also said it agrees with the principles but is challenging the parliament’s competence to pass it nevertheless.

Not the best timing for such a move and it leaves the Scottish party again hampered by the UK Government’s clumsiness on devolution.

Willie Rennie was challenged on his route back into the EU without Scottish independence, and it exposed inconsistencies in his plan.

He claimed that they would persuade people of the benefits of membership, but given that means changing the minds of large numbers of English people who backed Brexit, we’re most likely talking decades rather than years.

It would also, presumably, require another referendum, which rather goes against the Lib Dems’ ‘we’ve had one, we don’t need another one’ stance on a second independence referendum.

Meanwhile, Sarwar refused to say whether he would respect the result if a majority of independence-supporting MSPs were elected in May, only commenting that he was not going to prejudge the results of the election.

While four of the five leaders said they were in favour of a universal basic income (UBI), there was disagreement as to whether it could be achieved under the current devolved settlement.

Sturgeon maintained that it was not possible to introduce UBI because that would require persuading the UK Government to let them do it, which wouldn’t be possible, even though she expects to persuade Boris Johnson to agree to another independence referendum.

Rennie on the other hand took a similar line as he did on the EU, that the way forward was to persuade Johnson, while Sarwar reckoned a minimum income level could be achieved under the Scottish Parliament’s current powers.

UBI wasn’t the only area of agreement. While the five leaders were grudgingly pushed to admit that economic recovery was the priority for all of them, it was clear they had very different ideas about what recovery involved.

But other areas of similar thinking were more enthusiastically bandied about between parties, including mental health, social care, early years education, the need to support recovery in education and action on climate change.

The format of the debate is perhaps not one that promotes a single winner and no one person clearly came out victorious, but Sarwar put in strong performance, as he did in the first debate.

He’s articulate and he’s got the ‘I’m a positive guy looking for consensus but I’ll challenge where I need to’ vibe.

Labour’s stance of ‘let’s stop talking about the constitution and come together’, which has caused the party problems in the past, now fits more with the mood of post-COVID recovery too.

Patrick Harvie also had a good night, putting forward the case for climate action and the results they had achieved in budget discussions with the minority SNP government.

It was Ross who struggled and ended up seeming isolated and ganged up on over his record on minority rights, climate change and fishing.

But if we’re talking winners and losers in the election itself, there was only one leader presenting herself as the next first minister and that was Nicola Sturgeon, with the others accepting opposition positions before a single vote has been cast.

Read the most recent article written by Jenni Davidson - Scottish Parliament’s deputy presiding officers elected after five-hour voting session

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