By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
For all sorts of reasons, my stint in party politics seems like a very long time ago. One of those reasons, I suppose, is that it was! I’ve been out of partisan politics for well over a decade now, and life as a lobbyist / PR guy / commentator / analyst offers a purity and clarity of thought which is very difficult to achieve when you are ideologically encumbered by a ‘line to take’.
Hindsight offers insight, and looking back I find it interesting to reflect on the policy prioritisation parties allocate to different subjects. The general rule of thumb in Scottish and UK politics, largely because of the somewhat cultish obsession that the chattering classes have with the NHS, is that healthcare policy comes first. Second is education, followed by justice, and, increasingly as a result of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament, tax.
Other policies tended to be also-rans when it came to campaign grids and manifestos. Rural affairs. Housing. And transport. Little has changed since I left the game.
And yet the last of those - transport, the focus of this fortnight’s issue - is arguably the policy area which affects people in their day-to-day lives more than any other.
Transport policy affects most of us, in some way, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Walking safely to school - transport. Getting to work on time on the bus - transport. The train back from a meeting - transport. Taxi to a restaurant. Car to a hospital appointment. Bike ride at the weekend. You get the drift.
A huge policy area, which affects so many, so often, but (perhaps with the occasional exception of the rail franchise) has never been any kind of political battleground, at least not in my generation.
In my view, political parties are missing a trick by not bumping transport up the agenda. Out here in the real world, it really matters. A recent report by the Institution of Civil Engineers Scotland (disclosure - an occasional client of my company, Message Matters) revealed a £3bn deficit in spending on local road maintenance. Hello, pothole. Another, by Reform Scotland (disclosure - also a client), showed that rail journey times between Scotland’s towns and cities are, in many cases, longer now than they were a century ago.
When action is taken, political benefits accrue alongside the social and economic ones. The Queensferry Crossing, teething problems aside, is making for a more seamless north-south journey, and people do understand that the SNP was in power when it was built. Similarly, politicians of all colours flapped on about dualling the A9 for decades, with everyone wanting to see it happen, and that the SNP eventually did it will be to their benefit in elections to come.
Much more can be done, and done in a way which recognises the need for social and economic progress with a sustainable, environmental hat on. Future road expansions, such as the required dualling of the A75, could be implemented with a focus on electric infrastructure. City restrictions on highly-polluting vehicles could be combined with a significantly more ambitious network of bike routes.
Reutilising those suburban railways which still exist, such as the Edinburgh South Suburban, could take people and vehicles off the road in huge numbers, and for a relatively trivial cost.
Those are all easy steps - vote-winners which are relatively easy to do and, frankly, a lot cheaper than the current default of throwing money at unreformed public services which derive next-to-no benefit other than being able to boast about it in a manifesto.
As we run towards the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, no-doubt dominated by Brexit and Indyref2, politicians could do worse than create some easy, workable improvements to transport which will be relatively uncontroversial, catch they eye, and deliver votes by changing the everyday lives of the electorate.
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
GP CHOICE, CARE AND YOUNG PEOPLE, TRANSPORT POLICY, GDPR COMPLIANCE, CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE'S MENTAL HEALTH
General Practitioners are often a patient’s first and only contact with the NHS in Scotland. However, unlike hospitals which are owned and operated by the public sector, the vast majority of GP practices are actually private sector contractors to the NHS.
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