With the weakest opposition in Holyrood since devolution and riding high in the polls, the SNP can probably look forward to another period in office next year. The focus of most attention, especially amongst its opponents, has been on what the SNP will say in its manifesto about a referendum. This has been discussed in an earlier bog. But senior members of the SNP are well aware that there are more pressing matters to be addressed. The challenge is to include popular public policy measures without creating headaches for the Scottish Government over the course of the next Parliament and beyond.
The inclusion of soundbite promises that are easily translated into headlines but which have limited, if any, impact on improving outcomes will be tempting. Promising policies that attract support but prove difficult to deliver or can only be delivered at the cost of other commitments is understandable in the period before an election but will be regretted later.
The headlines generated by manifestos tend to focus on inputs (the resources put into a policy – for example 1000 more nurses/police etc) and outputs (number of houses/hospitals etc. to be built) rather than outcomes (how lives have been improved as a consequence of policy).
Oppositions and parties not expecting to win have every incentive to indulge in a cornucopia of manifesto promises in the expectation that they will never have to deliver anything. While such manifestos can be dismissed as irrelevant, they can have an impact on a governing party or a party seriously expecting to win. Electoral competition encourages a bidding war that sits uncomfortably alongside governing and a level-headed focus on what matters in the real world to real people – the outcomes of policies promised and implemented.
The challenge for a party likely to win is not to be drawn into this game. That takes strong leadership. It may involve some short term costs and a smaller majority than might be possible if tempted into the fray but with long-term gains. Yielding to temptation during a short election campaign can cause lasting pain for the duration of a Parliament. Promise in haste – repent at leisure.
SNP Ministers know that promising 1000 more nurses, or to cut taxes, might help retain or win over support but also know that these ill-judged promises would create a headache on the other side of the election. Even a commitment to continue funding a service at current levels within an overall shrinking budget will only achievable if something else is cut.
How the SNP will handle the issue of Indyref2 in its manifesto may be attracting most attention right now but its programme for everyday public policy will be the main challenge for the next Scottish Government. Nicola Sturgeon understandably wants a bigger overall majority to establish her own mandate as First Minister. She suffers from far higher expectations against a more difficult fiscal backdrop than any of her predecessors. She is about to face her first real test as First Minister – how she tackles the long haul of government and her ability to resist tempting low-hanging electoral fruit.
James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK (Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @ProfJMitchell.