MP reflects on Scottish Parliament election results

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A YEAR has been a very long time in politics for Borders MP Michael Moore, whose introduction to being a cabinet minister has been something of a baptism of fire.

When he and his fellow Liberal Democrats took the decision to work in Government with the Conservatives they were aware of the severe economic problems facing the country and the difficult decisions that were going to have to be made, but perhaps what wasn’t so obvious back in May 2010 was just how much the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives would be held responsible for the unpopular measures they have introduced in the early days of the coalition.

However, there was no doubt when voters went to the polls a fortnight ago that they were intent on hitting the party hard.

“The results last week were very difficult and clearly we understand that the coalition has been a big issue for the Scottish Parliament elections,” said Mr Moore, who was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland last year.

“We have got to reflect why that is. I have spent a lot of time with colleagues reflecting on the results and it will take a lot more time as we re-group and get back out campaigning in next year’s local government elections.

“The important point is that we recognised from the moment we signed up to the coalition we were going to be involved in some of the toughest decisions in peace-time government.

“The country was in two minds but whatever we thought of why we got into the mess - the biggest financial crisis for Government spending in decades, and the worst economic slump - these two massive issues were going to take time to address and over the past year the coalition has had to take big, big decisions that weren’t popular and won’t be popular for some time to come but it’s the only way to see the economy on the right track.

“We knew the elections were going to be difficult and so it proved.”

Making difficult economic decisions is one thing but having to vote for something that you have actively campaigned against during the election process is something the electorate doesn’t find easy to forgive, and for the Liberal Democrats tuition fees has been their bete noir.

The decision to raise student fees to a maximum £9000 a year, after pledging not the raise the fees, is a sensitive issue and split the party when it came to voting.

As a cabinet minister, Mr Moore was hampered by the parliamentary convention of collective responsibility of the cabinet whereby Government ministers do not publicly oppose Government policy, but his party paid a heavy price at the ballot box for what some see as a betrayal.

Trying to get the matter into perspective Mr Moore said: “We are fewer than 10 per cent of MPs and less than 20 per cent of the coalition. We weren’t going to get our way on everything. The choice was to either reduce the money being put into the education system or putting fees up. Both parts of the argument need to be remembered.

“What we have introduced is more progressive and fairer than what went before.

“Students need to be earning over £21,000 rather than £15,000 before they start paying it back and part time students are now being treated the same instead of having to pay up front as they’ve been having to do.

“But I appreciate some people won’t accept it.”

As the minority party in the coalition, there was an expectation that part of the Liberal Democrats’ role would be to moderate the more right-wing Conservative policies and Mr Moore believes that they have done that and that their influence is there for all to see.

But he accepts that perhaps they haven’t spelled it out clearly enough, and in that respect they need to do better.

“What we now have to do is make sure that all these difficult aspects are better understood and especially the difference between these and how things would have been if the Conservatives were governing on their own.”

Among the Government changes he insists bear the hallmarks of Liberal Democrat influence are:

Linking pensions to earnings growth; increasing the personal allowance people can earn before paying tax, which has gone up £1000 this year and will continue to rise next year; ending child detention; reforming the Post Office to put it on a sustainable basis to avoid further post office closures; and tightening up capital gains and the rules for companies.

On Capital Gains Tax Mr Moore said: “It had been reduced to a level where people in the city were paying less tax than the people cleaning their offices.

“The Conservatives also made huge promises to reduce inheritance tax - but that hasn’t been in any budget.”

The Scottish Government election two weeks ago may have been a bad day for the Liberal Democrats but for First Minister, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Nationalist Party it was a triumph, as they became the first party to achieve an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.

So much so that it has given the SNP Government at Holyrood renewed impetus to push even further for greater financial responsibility to be handed over by Westminster than is included in the Scottish Bill currently going through Parliament.

Having met Mr Salmond last week, Mr Moore said: “It was an important meeting because we have got two governments coming from very different perspectives.

“The Scotland Bill: the First Minister now brings his new thoughts to that. We need an opportunity to consider that and work things out. I asked him a number of questions and he’s getting back to us with the answers.

“The Scotland Bill got a mandate last year and if we are to consider changes we need to understand the basis for these changes and the implications for the rest of the UK. It’s a complex area.”

He may be a player on the national stage of politics but for Michael Moore his constituents, as well as his family, keep him grounded and most Fridays are spent catching up with people who have come to their local MP for his assistance in a wide range of issues.

“Constituency work remains very important for me, and Fridays are set aside for constituency work. Some people have written on their views of the coalition but the majority of things are everything that affects people’s lives - benefits, allowances, anti-social behaviour etc.

“One issue I had recently was intervening on behalf of a farmer wanting a new connection to the national grid who was being charged a fortune.

“The system we have means you are kept grounded.”

And that’s probably just as well because the national stage can sometimes turn into a pantomime, at other times it’s more like a tragedy - while back in the Borders life goes on.