Public services are Scottish voters highest priority in the May elections. Good news for UNISON Scotland as we publish our manifesto for the elections, ‘Public Services and the Good Society’.
The manifesto does have the traditional shopping list of actions we would like the next Scottish Government to take – ten of them in fact. However, it does much more than that. It seeks to tell the story of why public services matter – to everyone in Scotland and our economy.
We know public services are voters’ highest priority because we commissioned the pollsters Survation to undertake a public opinion poll on the key issues for UNISON members.
72% said public services were in their top three most important election issues followed by the economy (61%) and job security/wages (50%). Scottish Labour and SNP voters’ priorities were almost identical. Conservative voters had the economy over public services and topically, the EU as their third top three issue. It appears the warring referendum factions in the Tory party understand their internal audience at least!
UNISON also has a view on who should generally deliver public services, and the public agrees. 47% responded that the public sector delivers the best quality public services compared to the private sector (19%) and charities/social enterprises (12%). That was a particularly low score for the Third Sector and may reflect recent bad publicity. The public sector is also seen as the most accountable to the public (71%), compared to charities (56%) and the private sector (42%).
There was an overwhelming recognition (74%) that the £500m cut in the Scottish Government budget allocation to councils will mean that local services will get worse. This was just about the only thing Scottish Labour and Conservative voters agreed on (80%), but so did two-thirds (68%) of SNP voters.
This election has been the first since devolution when taxation has been as big an issue as spending. The new devolved powers have at least started a debate on an issue politicians in Scotland have usually avoided. Unsurprisingly, given low wages and a weak economy there was not a dash to pay more tax. However, 43% of voters indicated they would be willing to pay an extra 1p in income tax in order to protect some public services from cuts. A further 25% might be willing and only 23% would not be willing. I would argue that is at least a base for an understanding that we cannot have quality public services unless we recognise that most taxpayers will have to contribute to the pot.
Interestingly, given their party’s different policy positions on this issue; Scottish Labour and SNP voters had almost identical views on the 1p tax increase; while only 22% of Conservatives indicated a willingness to pay extra tax.
Support for progressive taxation is much stronger when it comes to the highest paid. There was much greater support for a 50% tax rate for those earning over £150k per annum. 70% of respondents supported this, rising to 78% among Scottish Labour voters and 79% among SNP voters. Ruth Davidson might like to note that even a majority of Conservative voters were in favour (47% v 35%).
There was strong cross party support (76%) for government taking tax avoidance into account when awarding public contracts. This is something UNISON and others in the ‘Ten Asks’ civil society coalition have been pressing the Scottish Government to do, with only limited success. Scottish Ministers might like to note that 80% of SNP voters agree with us.
It has been widely reported that the new individual registration system has resulted in a fall in the numbers registered to vote. The nature of polling means that respondents are less likely to be in this group, therefore the fact that 90% believed they were registered to vote, still leaves some questions over the impact of the new system.
Respondents were fairly evenly divided on sources of local revenue, but recognised that if a greater proportion was raised locally, services would be more accountable to the needs of residents.
Finally, we usually ask a question on trusted sources of information in relation to public services. Unsurprisingly, those interviewed trusted friends and family (72%) the most, followed by academics (54%) then public sector trade unions (35%). The media (18%) was slightly more trusted than Westminster politicians (14%), although less than Holyrood politicians (28%). It would appear that the change of the guard at Westminster hasn’t changed public perceptions at all!