As we enter the final week of the general election campaign we have been relentlessly bombarded from all sides with 'facts', statistics, conjecture and accusations about all manner of things, from tax bombs to the gutting of public services. Only a political nerd qualified to work as current affairs correspondent on Newsnight can truly cut through all the rhetoric and distorted statistics and make sense of half of the noise we have been hearing.
But one thing you can take for granted: anything that a politician says is spun and distorted. Anything that the political media reports the politicians said is equally spun and distorted. For example, according to the Telegraph, twice as many EU citizens claim benefits in the UK than UK citizens claim benefits in other EU countries. According to the Guardian, unemployed Britons in Europe are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in the wealthier EU countries than their nationals are claiming in the UK. Yes, that is the respective coverage of the same data concerning the same events - the Telegraph piece actually refers explicitly to the Guardian-produced data. If ever you were in doubt that statistics taken out of context are meaningless, and the context served to you by newspapers of all hues are bare-faced lies.
But all is not hopeless. I have worked on a number of political campaigns around the world, and I have learnt the key ingredient if you want to dissect all the nonsense: you simply ignore all the claims and counter-claims and instead examine the politicians' and parties' history and voting record. What you are looking for is not what parties 'plan' to do. They often plan very little beyond telling you exactly what they think you want to hear. What you are looking for is whose interests they represent and protect.
Now we know whose interests Labour and the Conservatives represent respectively. But what about the dark horse in this election, the SNP? The SNP claim to be a progressive party and the champions of the working class. They like to position themselves even to the left of Labour. But if one examines their record, the picture that emerges is quite different.
Consider the following examples of key flagship 'progressive' policies that have 'championed' the interests of the working classes or the vulnerable most in need of social protection:
- The Council Tax Freeze. Sounds like a good idea. And certainly welcomed by the semi-mythical 'hard-working families' of Westminster politi-speak. Except for the fact that care for the elderly and infirm is funded from council tax receipts and with Scotland's faster aging population, councils are now unable to provide the level of care needed as a result. So it is some of the most vulnerable in society paying the price for this policy. But at least the property-owning middle classes are happy.
- No prescription charges. Again, wonderful idea in principle, except for the part where it is a free fiscal giveaway not just to the poorest in society such as those out of work or on low incomes but to those who could actually afford it. Still, it polls well in the bungalows and the semi-detached.
- No tuition fees. Admirable in principle, sure, but how did the SNP Pay for this? By cutting over 136,000 college places which were used mostly by mature students and single parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Instead, wealthy parents send their kids to £25,000 a year private schools, and then pay nothing for university. To say nothing of the fact that those kids have disproportionate access to university education compared to poorer, state-school educated children. Talk about taking from the poor and gifting to the affluent. I cannot even decide if redistributing education and privilege is actually worse or not than straight-up redistributing money.
Time and time again, the same pattern emerges. The kinds of middle-class aimed policies that New Labour advocated out of electoral expediency under Tony Blair to "capture the middle ground" make up the core DNA of the supposedly left-wing, progressive SNP. Nor should any of this come as any surprise. The SNP have more private school educated politicians than any other party in the UK including the Bullington Club Tories who they so love to bash.
So promises and 'facts' aside, whose interests does the SNP have at heart, really?
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute