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26 April 1999

The NS guide to the Scottish election campaign (for well-intentioned late arrivals)

By Kirsty Milne

You should bring: stout walking shoes, thick sweaters (for April snow). Petrol money (the “top-up” PR element of the new voting system means canvassing entire regions). Willingness to shuttle between Glasgow – home of the People’s Party – and Edinburgh, where the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Tories have their headquarters. Capacious holdall to contain the vast, picture-book Labour manifesto.

You may see: Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor’s former press aide, masquerading as a journalist offering friendly tips to the SNP. Ed Miliband, the Chancellor’s special adviser, who has temporarily “resigned” to take part in the campaign and whose appearance has been treated with grave suspicion by the Scottish press. Assorted staff from London think-tanks, “lent” to assist the Labour campaign.

You should know: about a few policy issues that are attracting interest and could lead to cross-party alliances in the new Holyrood parliament. They include:

Drugs The SNP proposes special “drugs courts”, while the Lib Dems want more money for counselling and community treatment. The Tories promise fast-track prosecution and minimum sentences for dealers. Labour would set up a Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency and confiscate dealers’ assets, recycling the money raised to help those communities damaged by drugs; there is a dispute about whether this is possible, since control over drugs is a power “reserved” to Westminster.

Private Finance Initiative One of the few incendiary issues in the campaign, fuelled by high-profile projects such as the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary hospital. Awkwardly for Labour, the public sector union Unison, a big donor to the party’s election campaign, is strongly opposed. A Unison official has just resigned his Labour membership in protest. The SNP has an alternative plan for “Public Service Trusts”, a way of raising commercial cash without transferring risk or responsibility to the private sector.

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Land reform “Not a legislative priority”, say the Tories – but a bill to reform the land laws could be one of the first to make its way through the Scottish Parliament. Labour and the SNP will find common ground here. After the long-running sagas of absentee landlords on Eigg and Knoydart, both parties want communities to have right of first refusal when land comes up for sale. Labour is setting up a Scottish Land Fund, while the SNP would require absentee landlords to appoint local agents.

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Local government reform The Lib Dems and the SNP support PR for local elections. Labour looks as if it might be leaning in that direction. An independent commission set up by Labour to look at the relationship between councillors and the parliament is due to report in May. It’s not looking at finance, so expect yet another review to be set up on council funding. As in England and Wales, Labour wants to replace the old committee system with council “cabinets”, but has gone noticeably quiet on elected mayors. It’s the Scottish Tories who are now keen on elected “provosts”.

Tuition fees The SNP, Lib Dems and Tories all want them scrapped. Labour says “tough decisions” on student support have enabled them to deliver 42,000 new student places in Scotland over three years.

Tax Labour is promising no increase in income tax during the lifetime of the first Scottish Parliament, and will not be using the “tartan tax”. The SNP has opted to “freeze” tax by reversing the 1p basic rate cut promised by Gordon Brown for 2000, and to spend the money on health, education and housing. The Lib Dems may use 1p of the “tartan tax” for education and health – but only if they feel the government is not spending enough at a UK level.

Independence The SNP wants a referendum within the first four-year term of the parliament. This is opposed by all the other main parties, including the Lib Dems, whose leader, Jim Wallace, steadfastly refuses to soften his stance as the price of a deal with the SNP.

And the campaign awards so far . . .

Most unusual election broadcast: The Tories, for a sequence in which – for a few embarrassing seconds – their Scottish leader, David McLetchie, was shown nodding his head in silence. This turned out to be the televisual equivalent of the party’s election poster: “Tory election sensation. You talked. We listened.”

Best election breakfast: Tories again, for serving pains au chocolat.

Special award for glasnost: Labour, for publishing a candidates’ directory without any phone numbers. A cunning wheeze to try and ensure that any journalists wanting to speak to a candidate will phone Labour’s HQ – where they can be suitably vetted.

Worst example of Millbank malaise: George McGregor, candidate in the Borders, defending the Private Finance Initiative – having previously described it, in his capacity as a Unison official, as “getting a mortgage with a loan shark”.

Star spouse: Rosie Wallace, Jim Wallace’s wife, who works as a speech therapist in Orkney but has insisted on accompanying him on the Lib Dems’ campaign bus. She said: “It beats going to Safeway’s and going to work.”

Star owl: Kyoto the tawny owl, photographed with Donald Dewar in the Highlands.