As Holyrood returned this week after the summer recess, we were straight back into the swing of things with a new Programme for Government, another Scottish Labour Leadership contest, and arguments over the ongoing Brexit negotiations – it’s almost as if MSPs have never been away!
At the end of what had been a fairly quiet summer in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale surprised both colleagues and opposition MSPs alike when she announced her resignation as Scottish Labour Leader.
The party is now left searching for its fourth new leader in less than three years, with the average tenure of the last five leaders since Labour’s last First Minister, Jack McConnell, less than 20 months. It would therefore take a brave soul to put their head above the parapet for the job – step forward Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar.
In a contest which is largely being billed as an ideological battle between the left and centre of the party, former MP and Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar has pledged to lead Labour back into government on the back of his centrist agenda, and has already secured significant support from parliamentary colleagues. Meanwhile, ex-trade union official Richard Leonard is very much seen as the Corbyn candidate, and is being backed by Campaign for Socialism and key Corbyn ally, Neil Findlay MSP.
Sarwar is a slight favourite with bookmakers, but much depends on whether Leonard can galvanise the Corbyn vote which helped Scottish Labour secure a better than expected General Election result in June. Whatever happens, most observers expect a tight contest that will likely define the direction of the party for the coming years.
Meanwhile, the SNP has spent the summer regrouping after their relatively disappointing result in June’s General Election. Unionist commentators have even accused the independence movement of starting to ‘splinter’, after maintaining impressive discipline and a fairly united front for so long.
Opposition parties regularly describe the ongoing independence debate as a distraction that prevents the First Minister getting on with her ‘day job’. With IndyRef2 on the backburner, at least for now, Nicola Sturgeon took the opportunity to put forward an impressive legislative agenda in her Programme for Government.
The First Minister’s speech on Tuesday outlined 16 new Bills in addition to the 11 already being considered by Parliament - if all are to progress then it could be the busiest parliamentary session since devolution.
Education is once again top of the SNP’s list of priorities, with plans to give more powers and responsibilities to head teachers and increase parent engagement high on the agenda. Other key pledges include promises to increase the provision of free personal care to under-65s, phase out diesel and petrol road vehicles by 2032, and investigate the feasibility of a ‘citizen’s income’ for all Scots.
While many of the promises were welcomed by charities and pressure groups, the Scottish Conservatives were somewhat less supportive, with Ruth Davidson describing the SNP Government as ‘on probation’ following June’s election result and criticising plans to ‘raise taxes’ and ‘reduce prison sentences’.
Brexit negotiations also continue to cast a shadow over Scottish politics, with both Labour and the SNP accusing the UK Government of a ‘power grab’ over agricultural and environmental powers returning from Brussels which could undermine the entire devolution settlement.
With the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill just beginning, Scottish Labour’s leadership contest likely to carry on deep into the autumn, and real examination of the Programme for Government yet to commence, it looks like we’ll be in for another hectic parliamentary term in Scotland.