Forget the Egyptian revolution, all hail the heroes of Holyrood who have saved the nation from the iniquitous SNP Tesco Tax. Thousands of grateful Scots lined the boulevards of the capital yesterday cheering Labour's Iain Gray as he rode to the Scottish parliament on a Morrisons shopping trolley. Tearful checkout ladies strew club-cards in his way. Grateful trades unionists doffed their flat caps as Lord Sainsbury drove past in his limousine.
No - I don’t get it either. Why were Labour, the party of the people, so concerned about protecting the 225 richest retailers from a superstore levy of only £30m. Tesco loses that in the margin for error in its monthly accounts. It beggars belief that, faced with a £1.3bn cut next year, MSPs have been devoting so much energy and effort to this measure. What about the remaining £1.27bn.?
In defeating the government yesterday on the Non Domestic Rates Levy Labour have alienated many small businesses, who have to pay 8% business rates while the superstores get away with an effective 2%. Memo to Gray: there are a lot more pub landlords and shopkeepers than there are supermarket bosses. Ok, they don’t give as much in political donations as Lord Sainsbury (£11m to Labour in the last decade), but they do have votes and they do have a strong local following. 99% of enterprises are small and medium sized ones. Which is precisely why the SNP proposed this levy in the first place. Labour opposes anything that the SNP proposes on principle, so it didn’t see the electoral trap.
But the Liberal Democrats are another matter. Why were they going to the barricades for Sainsbury’s and Waitrose when they have vociferously opposed out-of-town superstores? John Swinney, in fine form yesterday, lambasted the hypocrisy of the LibDem finance spokesman, Jeremy Purvis, for joining anti-supermarket street demonstrations and then voting against the levy. Perhaps the LibDems are trying to align their policies with Labour in order to facilitate some kind of coalition with them after the May election. If so, they are likely to be disappointed. Labour remain deeply unenthusiastic about the prospect of going into government with political pariahs.
Mind you, the Tesco tax, like the minimum pricing of alcohol, does demonstrated the difficulty of running a minority administration for the full four years. Everyone fell in love with minority government after 2007 when Alex Salmond promised to govern by consent and co-operation - “by force of argument rather than force of numbers”. However, as elections draw near there is nothing to stop opposition parties from using force of numbers to demonstrate the FM’s legislative impotence. Labour have been doing this very effectively for the last eighteen months with the passive help of the LibDems. Alex Salmond has lost on local income tax, the referendum bill, minimum pricing and the supermarket levy. He lost a transport minister in the snows and might have lost a finance minister, had there been a vote of no confidence in John Swinney over his failure to inform parliament that the tartan tax computers weren’t fit for purpose. The impression has been conveyed of an administration that lost the capacity to govern.
The SNP of course have still won the really important votes: on the annual budgets. Alex Salmond has simply challenged the opposition parties to back him or sack him, and force an election on an unsuspecting public. The threat of an election has been enough to force the other parties into line - though not without an element of farce two years ago, when the two Green MSPs upset the arithmetic by voting against the SNP budget at the last minute. They were incensed at the contemptuous treatment they had received from the SNP over insulation grants. Labour didn’t want an election and had to bang on Alex Salmond’s door to strike deal so that they could vote for the budget they had been opposing so vigorously only days before.
Next week history might repeat itself because the Green MSPs Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper have made clear that they intend to vote against the government on the budget unless John Swinney promises to use the parliament's revenue raising powers - which he won’t. Since Labour has made clear it will vote against the SNP government’s “job destroying” budget this makes the defeat a real possibility. Without the Greens, the SNP can only expect to get a maximum of 65 votes, with the Tories and Margo Macdonald making up the numbers. But this is not enough to win against the others, and the presiding officer has to vote with the status quo, meaning the SNP’s last budget would fall.
This is an intriguing scenario, because the SNP might not be too concerned about losing this last vote. There might even be some electoral benefit to an early parliamentary election now that we know the AV referendum is to be held on the same day as the Holyrood ballot in May. That referendum campaign will be driven by the three main parties in Westminster and the TV coverage will reflect that, meaning the SNP has a real struggle to get sufficient air time for its Holyrood campaign.
It would be a risky play, but if the SNP could force Labour into bringing it down over the budget next week, and any revisions offered by the government, Alex Salmond might decide to resign and force an election in March. At least he would go out with a bang. This would only work, of course, if it was clear to the voters that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had unreasonably refused to come to a deal over the budget. It ups the stakes in the budget horse trading which will dominate the corridors of Holyrood for the next seven days.
I can’t see any way Labour can vote for this final SNP budget which they regard as, essentially, a Tory budget by another name. Otherwise they risk being bound by it if and when they win the parliamentary elections in May, which would be a poison pill for Iain Gray. Labour won’t want an early election though, unless they can pin the blame on Salmond. It would be highly amusing if Labour were to get concessions and then have to abstain on their own amendments. Suddenly, Holyrood is looking interesting again.