And Here Are The Votes From Scotland

We have so much democracy, it’s coming out of our ears. It seems every year brings another election, every spring we’re in the run-up to a vote and now we’re facing two at virtually the same time. And next year it’s the council elections…

Elections are like an occasional cull  when we get a chance to cut the numbers and clear out the weak, leaving a healthier breed at large. This summer we’ll be firing the guns into a prone carcass, already blasted to death by over-use.

Blam! Take that, EU referendum. Badoom! Have that one from me, Holyrood. It’s overkill.

I await invites to academic gatherings debating voter fatigue and ads on television asking: Have you been the victim of Post Election Traumatic Stress Disorder? Claim compensation through our UN-sanctioned electoral consultants…

The lack of respect for national elections in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland displayed by the government’s dash to endorse the EU is another telling example of how we are truly viewed when the British chips are down. Each Celtic nation is essentially a bolt-on accessory to the main driver of UK plc – Greater England, which itself increasingly looks like a cordoned-off encampment in the Thames Valley, one whose interests are paramount and whose enrichment is a national obsession. I can find no reference to these key devolved elections in the endless statements of Westminster spokesmen organising their toy soldiers for the In/Out referendum. They have been expunged from all thinking, making clear to those millions of voters outside England just how utterly irrelevant they are in the life of the metropolitan decision-makers. Wasn’t like that in 2014, was it? They courted us for as long as they needed us. Then they didn’t just drop us but within hours of the independence referendum, but David Cameron turned our vote into an affair of English votes.

Here we are again – deciding who should govern three of the four nations of the UK while the entire London machinery looks the other way. Worse…it hijacks the airwaves for its esoteric rammy over which of two right-wing attitudes we should strike on the EU. The overlap between the two campaigns ensures that the politics of the rest of the UK will be overwhelmed as the media hyenas rip into the feeding frenzy.

It is noticeable the alacrity with which the BBC in particular rushed at the smell of blood, all sense of its duty to reflect the United Kingdom abandoned in pursuit of Dave and Boris as if the future of the country was a showdown scene in Eastenders.

You’ll look far in the next four months for items informing the rest of Britain of political events in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast which is unfortunate because it would help London-based journalists better understand their own country – they clearly didn’t during the indyref – and the three-nation election is the ideal opportunity to educate those whose only understanding of devolution rests on the historical myth of English subsidy. But then we live in a strange country in which the interests of one corner forever dominate.

The Boris Johnson caper become farcical as the speculation swept away real news, as if a single MP held the keys to the EU. I realised with a jolt that in England people will actually decide their vote on the views of a bumbling self-publicist – or at least the media thinks so. It got so bad that I woke up the other morning to hear a BBC presenter interviewing his father. Later Channel 4, consistently superior in its coverage, sent a reporter to a Northern city in England to find that some there hadn’t even heard of Johnson, confirming the once-mighty BBC operating inside its metropolitan bubble. (Would it have been too much for a journalist to point out the operatic irony of Johnson saying that coming out of the EU was the democratic thing to do? His government has a majority with only 23 per cent of registered voters -10 per cent in Scotland – and has the second largest unelected legislative chamber in the world.)

The Boris brouhaha of course is based not on our EU membership but who will lead the Conservative Party afterwards which is presumably why he waited so long to make public his view. He waited to see how the ducks lined up before calculating which was the strongest position from which to launch his leadership bid. He is gambling the answer is Leave. I certainly think there’s a strong chance Cameron will have to Leave whichever way the vote goes because this is the final showdown for the Tories on the dividing issue of the decades. Whoever is on the losing side is unlikely to forgive what is said during the next few months, leaving a wounded and factionalised party led by a man who plans to stand down before 2020 regardless.

The rest of us will now be treated to the depths of neo con thinking as the right-wing exposes its xenophobia, its small-minded nationalism and contempt for civil rights.

If you want an insight into what kind of Britain the Tories plan once released from those pesky constraints of Brussels, the House of Commons Library has produced a briefing document on Brexit. In just one policy area it advises: Withdrawal from the EU would allow for change to the following areas of employment law, which stem largely from Europe: annual leave, agency worker rights, part-time worker rights, fixed-term worker rights, collective redundancy, paternity, maternity and parental leave, protection of employment upon the transfer of a business and anti-discrimination legislation. Now ask yourself what you imagine a Tory government would do with that lot if it were freed from ensuring workers’ rights.

As I wrote a couple of blogs ago, employees already have no rights if they have less than two years qualifying experience. For unfair dismissal it costs £1200 for your day in court. We have an epidemic of zero hour contracts, low minimum wage, dismal unemployment benefits and un-livable pensions. How low could these people go with total control?

We now face the devil’s dilemma of apparently backing either Cameron’s niggardly and resentful ‘special relationship’ with Brussels or the Brexit No Deal. Each of these is so far from my view of the European Union that it feels like I’m intruding in an internal Tory Party event. I resent that deeply. My EU has always been based on social solidarity that brings together people of different cultures in a common enterprise. It established common rights that override the temporary impositions of national governments to set the European continent on a course of raising levels, guaranteeing the means of prosperity and development. It was about civilisation not commercialisation. The plan was to equalise standards across all countries allowing safety and security for people and goods. The EU was a way to float all boats.

Sadly, in recent years, we have corporatism open to TTIP, bankers crushing people, a rush to transform without caution on currency and enlargement and the emergence of corrupt figures like Barroso making up policy like some national dictator.

The answer to this is not partial withdrawal or penalising migrants and certainly not a windy promise not to engage in deeper union. It is accountability and democracy, both glaringly absent from the current institutions. We are being offered a false prospectus by the Tories, one we need to expose for the un-European sham it is. I look to the SNP to create a Scottish agenda based on the their vision of the EU not that of an anti-foreigner Dad’s Army of Britnat Bigots.

Yet such a move will inevitably distract from the job of presenting their case for the Holyrood election, a confusion we can do without. Some adroit crafting will be required to hone a winning message.

Or is it possible that a scunnered electorate will treat the Tories with the contempt they deserve and reaffirm their intention to put Scotland before all other considerations with resounding double votes for the SNP and a Scottish Yes to the referendum? Sometimes the issues seem so huge and complicated that a simple and clear answer that dispels nuance and doubt seems the right response. The Scots have learned to use the electoral system even if Westminster chooses not to hear. And in its way, this is an historic moment, one when we can put both Scottish national interest and European internationalism to the fore in one summer of politics. For Scotland and Europe, eh?

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They Haven’t The Heart

It was a grubby little vote in the Scottish Parliament that blocked progress of the organ donation bill this week. Put another way, it means MSPs voted to guarantee Scots will die (more than one a week) of renal failure while they look the other way. People will pay with their lives while our legislators go away to ‘ponder the details.’

You wonder what world of magic forests and silver unicorns our elected elite inhabits. It must be rarified air up there on Mount Olympus with a wee desk in the chamber, an office with a window thinking-space, a secretary and expenses. One that allows you to ignore the pleas of those dependent for their life on your decision – many of whom spend hours several days a week on dialysis.

Not that MSPs are actually opposed to the idea of inclusive organ donation with opt-out. Dearie me, no. They very much agree with that part – the bit that saves lives. It’s just the detail they’re not sure about. If you don’t get the detail right, some people might object and there’ll be a row and accusations will fly. Very untidy. Sure, lives might be saved and hope given but this legislating is tricky stuff and not to be treated lightly. You have to wear a very stern face when you consider the implications of the details. We can’t have voters turning up with ideas for new laws that didn’t come from the gilded cage of creation. In this case, it was actually dreamt up by…by…a journalist. And she was working hand in glove with a Labour MSP Anne McTaggart who would claim the credit!

Saving lives is all very well but when there are reputations at stake…

I was reminded of the fiasco over euthanasia when perfectly workable solutions to end distress never quite satisfied the nit-pickers. They too were desperately keen to end unnecessary suffering – they just couldn’t see any practical way of doing it. Holyrood is a parliament that hasn’t got the guts to save life and hasn’t the guts to end it either.

Bring us a doctors’ contract, a bypass or a fiscal framework and we hoist the gleaming sword of justice. Bring us a moral issue and we skulk away in silence.

I had a look at the attempts to bring organ opt-out into law. Evidence was first taken in 2012. The committee decided to await an imminent report on organ donation. Then they waited for a second report on donation. They heard from Welsh Assembly staff (where they’ve managed to implement it despite those troublesome details). They had another debate in 2014 and referred it to another committee. They heard a petition from the Evening Times in 2015 and last month closed that down in order to debate it this week. Stutter and obfuscation at every stage. There’s always a reason not to act, even the knowledge that every week another Scot paying for Holyrood dies for want of a kidney.

It isn’t just Wales that’s overcome the troublesome details Holyrood finds insurmountable. All over Europe the crashing logic of assuming all organs to be available to save the lives of others has been implemented to enormous success. Even here the public say most of them would allow their organs to be used but they just don’t get round to registering. What the Hell are our brave MSPs afraid of?

When Scotland last attacked this issue we wanted to get donor rates up by a half. The health minister said: ‘This will be achieved without changing existing law on organ donation. However, in addition to this, I think it’s really important that we consider seriously every potential way of increasing donation rates.’ What was Nicola Sturgeon thinking? If the evidence is that legislation is a way of increasing numbers, why not legislate?

Even the doctors back this one, unlike euthanasia. Maybe it’s that wimpish reluctance to play God that afflicts MSPs when they think the churches might go tsk tsk. But this is a straightforward case of political will. The precedent is set across Europe so there’s nothing to fear from awkward details. It requires leadership. Like booze pricing and smoking bans it needs the boldness that comes from belief and a democratic mandate. There is no down side.

The bill should have been voted through and later amendments made. It fell by three votes because enough SNP members voted against. Now MSPs will wait for yet another report on organ donation and conduct…wait for it…a consultation. This is a failure of parliament and a failure of the SNP government…one that dozens of Scots will pay for with their life.

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Things Can Only Get…

We may be witnessing one of the great myth-creation moments of modern politics as Labour hammers home its tax rise message. Actually, slogans aren’t always fanciful – they can be pretty truthful too. I suppose Things Can Only Get Better falls into this category because it was destined to be proved correct in the face of Major’s evaporating government. But it did nevertheless bear the hallmark of a newly-minted rhetorical currency because in one phrase…from a song!…it encapsulated all the policies, all the personalities and the possibilities of 1997.

Another more clearly misleading trope was the Tories’ effort in the election just passed which created the myth that Labour Spent All the Money. Before the Crash they were marginally spending more than income, but well within acceptable levels and less than Mrs Thatcher. It was the Crash itself that maxed out the national accounts because revenues declined rapidly and benefits spending escalated. Labour lost the presentation argument to Tory spin and, when allied to the image of gormless Ed, made a gift for Cameron.

Today we are repeatedly told that a 1p rise to income tax is an anti-austerity measure. Kezia chooses to use the powers coming to Scotland not just manage the Tory cuts. They money will save vital services. The SNP choses to do nothing.

This works at the key level of reaching a distrustful and confused electorate. The message appears to make sense by asking them if they really want to defend essential services. Do you want to support our children in their schools? Then, since ‘there is no money’ we have to raise more by putting our hand in our pocket. The SNP run the schools and set the budget, ergo this is a direct challenge to them. In addition, the tax itself is broadly progressive in that takes more tax from those with more money. What are you waiting for? Vote Labour, save out schools…

There are many side issues relating to previous Labour decisions which impact negatively on this policy idea, but leaving them aside for a moment and taking the 1p rise at face value, does it do what it claims? I argue it doesn’t. There is a small industry in defining what anyone means by austerity. In as few words as possible though it is Less Money in the Economy. It is a reduction in the circulation of money through economic activity, taxes and public spending. Money is the blood that pumps through the body and keeps it alive and healthy.

For that very reason there is definitely a case for increasing public spending at a time of recession because it provides employment and therefore money in circulation and usually, say, a new bridge or road which itself is an economic artery. But that’s money the government can borrow to be paid back in time through growing revenues.

But if you take money out of people’s pockets and leave them with less to spend, you do the opposite of combating austerity – you take money out of the economy. You add to austerity.

That’s especially true if the extra money you save isn’t invested in a directly economic- generating enterprise, which is the case with money directed to a local authority for education services. (For school to be a motor of anti austerity activity requires the kids to grow up first and start earning.) Jackie Baillie told Holyrood teachers were ‘doing their own photocopying and buying jotters’ but so far as I can see no one is saying teachers will lose their jobs which would affect economic activity. Indeed the government is training 3500 teachers, a total that is up for the fifth year in a row. Simply putting money into a council budget does not in itself guarantee any particular advantage for services. There is, again so far as I can ascertain, no promise to ring-fence extra spending for education services, if that is Kezia’s objective. Without it, we are entitled to ask if the extra funds will simply ‘disappear’ (to use Jackie Baillie’s word) like the £1b in anti-poverty money the government disbursed to councils. The GMB is understandably agitating for the 1p tax policy as a means of protecting jobs for its members who include school support staff but in order to sell the Save Our Schools offensive it is first necessary to create the idea that without it schools will be lost. But there is no evidence any schools will be forced to close or that any pupils will not have a school place. If the tax rise was imposed – and we don’t know how much will be left after administration and ‘rebates’ – it can be used to support a school meals service, essential janitorial staff and road crossing personnel. It won’t ‘save any schools.’

Still brutal though, isn’t it? This is what we’re reduced to…counting playground staff and dinner ladies. These are dismal times under budget surgery Labour itself voted for in the Commons only a year ago and which are now passed down through the SNP government. Government, eh? Tough decisions, Johann used to say. Make the tough decisions….not what she’s saying today.

There is an actuarial equation at work here – do you benefit more from leaving the money in a voter’s pocket to spend or more from taking it out to put in a council budget? I’d go for leaving everybody better off so the economic benefit is spread across the whole of society. That’s the real anti-austerity gambit. Hitting even the low paid – and bizarrely giving rebates to a two-earner £40,000 household – isn’t anti austerity no matter how often you hear it repeated.

Nor, by the way, is placing the SNP beside the Tories factually correct. The Tory policy is to cut tax. The SNP policy is to retain tax levels. The Labour policy is to raise tax. Those look quite different to me.

And yet, there is a sense that the SNP is defensive and no doubt at all that this is a debate we need to have. So the myth that Kezia’s plan is anti austerity and the SNP does nothing looks like it will catch on as a campaign theme. Are Scots just perverse enough to vote for the party that pushed the cuts and now wants us to pay for them?

I think we already know the answer.

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The Russian Doll*

Unravelling the layers in search of the nugget of Labour’s income tax policy is like the Russian doll. It seems to be impenetrable and then the result is disappointingly insignificant.

Starting on the first layer, I suggest Labour has the biggest and most enduring obstacle of all. It’s called credibility. The question for Kezia isn’t: What are you saying? It’s: Who’s listening?

Labour has fallen so far in public esteem that they could offer free doughnuts at Greggs and nobody would listen (This may have been a Murphy idea. Can’t remember)

Before they start asking teachers, policemen, social workers and binmen to pay more in taxes from wages that have been stagnant for years and have fallen behind inflation, they must first find a method of communication. The truth? They have no one who convinces the voters they either know what they’re talking about or can be trusted.

Labour of old has left the stage. When Blair was strutting from Commons to studio, he left a vapour trail of invincibility. His lieutenants were often well-known, die-cast Scots. Sure, there were doubts but the party was so far ahead and had sewn up Scotland from top to bottom so much that they filled the landscape. You couldn’t see past them. And one thing you knew – they weren’t Tories. Nationalists tried to say so and so did Tommy but Labour voters had no doubt. A vote for Labour was a vote against the Tories. Voting Labour was like grabbing hold on a lifebelt with both hands.

Only about 20 per cent still do so. The referendum showed over a sustained period that there is on key policy areas little between them but more than that, it demonstrated how emotionally close they were, how easily the same rhetoric came from their mouths, how casually they grinned for photos together. Ed Balls joining Osborne to threaten removal of access to our currency was for many the nadir. This could have changed with Corbyn’s elevation but his hesitancy and the froideur in Westminster has left doubt when there should have been revival. Scots still look to London for a sense of what Scottish Labour really is – perfectly natural for a British party with an HQ in England. A strong leader there might have helped assuage doubts over Kezia, but…

Kez remains a likeable and enterprising activist but Labour voters will ask themselves if she is capable of managing power. If she came into their house selling insurance, would they see beyond the chat and happy smile and imagine a hard-nosed operator safeguarding their money? Someone who will stand up to pressure and deliver for them? Doubt it…

Layer two is the basic premise of a policy to raise more money when the agenda is firmly set – one that says Scotland is having its budget cut by a London government that Scots overwhelmingly didn’t vote for. In fact, Scotland voted against this kind of government on an historic scale. Whatever doubts Scots have over the SNP, they are persuaded they mean what they say and will stand up for Scotland against a Tory Prime Minister. As the Unionists would say – Scots blame Westminster. We do. And we’re right to do so. The systematic cuts in our national budget are not the SNP’s work but the British government’s (the one Labour said they preferred under Better Together).

From there it’s short hop to understanding that Kezia’s promise is to get us to pay more to help make up for London cutting our budget. If they also realise that any additional money raised is likely to be removed via the block grant, the nail is driven home. The SNP, like all governments apart from the neo cons in London, doesn’t want to cut local government budgets. But it is already draining away Scottish resources on ameliorating the deleterious effect of austerity policies. A generalised sense that the SNP is putting a finger in the dyke mitigates against doing more of London’s dirty work by raising taxes. (The SNP may itself put some income tax up – in fact will – when the powers are fully devolved but will be cautious about undoing all its good work via council tax freezes by hitting moderate earners.)

Another layer is the contradiction of adopting a left-leaning posture on income tax while offering a giveaway to house buyers – surely an appeal to broadly different constituencies. It doesn’t mean they couldn’t work together as policies but it leaves voters with yet another doubt about what Labour really is. Surely pumping air into the housing bubble is a luxury for better economic weather when we might want to get first-timers into ownership. The social priority is affordable housing. If the national accounts are so in need of an injection that taxes must go up, why use it as a bribe to homeowners and give added profit to builders?

Layer four I think is already identified by the Tories and not unreasonably so. (Sorry, being even-handed for a minute). If Labour end the council tax freeze, it means bills go up. If they don’t implement the Air Passenger Duty reduction, it means that tax stays 50 per higher than otherwise. If they’re now telling us that income tax will go up…well, they’re party of tax rises. Not a happy story to tell on the doorstep.

I saw Neil Findlay’s maladroit tweet informing me that one out of four people wouldn’t pay more under Labour’s plan. As my nine-year-old would say: Dad. You’re hopeless. That means three out of four would pay more. This tactic of saying A Penny for Scotland backfired even for the Nats when they tried it. Labour can’t (any more) make that sort of emotional appeal to Scots and in any case, if the message is: Vote for us to tax you more to pay for local government….well, good luck. Most councils have failed, like the unions in the blog above, to connect with their voters and build up their support. I fear few voters have much love for the council, even if often it isn’t their fault.

Finally, we uncover the little beauty inside. It presumes Scots are ready to pay more tax. Well it’s true opinion polls register folk saying just that but will they vote that way? It’s a different question when it comes to an election and the bank account is blinking. I suspect voters are happy for high earners to pay more but starting at £20,000 is a hard sell. That covers a hell of a lot of Scots trying to make ends meet. Scots who think too much goes to benefit claimants already; Scots who see company profits floating off in their billions to tax havens and sneer as corporations negotiate chicken-feed tax bills. ‘I’ve been clobbered enough’, will be the reaction of most.

Interesting to see though how they would react if Nicola made the same offer…

The devil of course is hiding in here too – how do you claim your £100 rebate if you’re earning less than the £20,000? What earnings count towards your £20,000? Will the self-employed make sure they dip below the cut-off? One suspects they’ll need to use the extra money raised to hire more staff just to administer it.

Still I suppose we can say this is an idea which puts Better Together to bed though as the plan to make  Scotland pay more in tax than the rest of the UK was surely what the No side warned against during the indyref? And yet here is Labour doing just that. Proshchay, moy drug!

* For Labour chums – Hiya, Simon Pia – I should remind you that in January 2015 Labour MPs voted with the Tories to make whopping spending cuts, lobbing £30 billion from public budgets, taking the UK back to 1930 spending levels. It was 515 to 18. Five – yes five – of your brave Labour members voted against the Tory cuts that are now decimating Scottish budgets.




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Clocking Off

Workers’ rights, eh? Sounds historic, like boilersuits and clocking-on, mass meetings and sit-ins. When researchers investigated Labour’s election failure they found people associated them with that same past. Even the TUC sounds like a committee of boilermakers and wheel-tappers, all white bread sandwiches and bottled beer.

The latest round of anti-union legislation will curtail further the rights of organised labour to strike and fund the Labour Party. Are the people marching yet? All police overtime cancelled? Troops at the ready?

Hardly. Britain may have been the anvil on which workers’ rights were hammered into a social tool, starting as far back as the 18th century, but around the arrival of Thatcher’s Tories the power was blunted and workers’ strongest weapon was cast aside. It became unfashionable to be identified with standing up to bosses as it meant standing in the way of progress itself. An unspoken social compact was broken and Britain went about its business thinking public ownership was passé and market forces corrected all misalignments.

We didn’t learn from advanced states where there was less of an embedded social order topped by the Entitled Class. While Germans and Scandinavians moulded unions into the structure of work and valued their worth, Britain’s leaders and doting media demonised and discredited them. The painful inability to reform itself and present a modern face for a new age was, to many, proof of the TUC’s rear-facing fetish.

Thatcher’s aim was the creation of a large and mobile disposable workforce operating like a reservoir to meet the needs of business when it needed extra bodies and to which it could consign them painlessly when budgets tightened. Stability and security were sacrificed to business needs and market movement.

I suppose it’s called moving with the times. Someone I know is moving too. She’s a woman who was called into work early last week to be told she was sacked. She’d get a week’s pay (minimum wage) and holiday entitlement. Don’t come back. The reason, she was told, was a letter of complaint (unseen) from a parent (unknown) at the nursery workplace which claimed witness to an incident (unconfirmed). No one had been interviewed. No staff questioned. No admission of guilt was sought. No evidence led. Just a letter received. You’re oot. (I should say this is in what we like to term the Caring Sector.)

The claim was she’d mishandled a child, an act she categorically denies. She did, though see one of the two bosses who fired her mishandling a child. Coincidence?

It is unfair dismissal and badly handled at that. She was even denied union representation at the ‘hearing’. It won’t come to justice though. To qualify for taking a case to a tribunal you must have two years qualifying service. She hasn’t – so no rights. In many industries today this leads to the turnover of staff guaranteeing demoralised workers with no loyalty and no desire to do other than pick up a cheque. That’s how it works in Britain. Second rate treatment of people begets second rate service and we all suffer. Thatcher’s pool of disposable workers without rights who can be plucked when needed and dropped at will is now reality.

Those of you with the foresight gene will be thinking: Doesn’t that just add to the welfare bill if people aren’t working? Yes, and what are the Tories doing to welfare? Cutting it, of course because we can’t afford it.

You can imagine how this woman feels about Cameron bragging about ditching European Human Rights…and doing sweetheart deals with corporations over their tax dodging…stifling union activities further…and how pleased she is to see Labour grandees like Brown and Darling managing not to be unemployed. To be fair, Labour did take the qualifying period for unfair dismissal down to one year – it started at six months in the seventies. But it may be the real damage was distancing themselves from what should be a source of popular social change by perpetuating the idea that unions were irrelevant and an obstacle to progress. Labour retained Thatcher’s ‘trade union reforms.’ It was a conscious decision to hold the unions at arm’s length. Blair even struck a deal with a businessman to plug a £1m gap if Unite funds didn’t materialise for last year’s election. I’ve been in my union since 1968 and have life membership. The thing to realise is that nobody bothers with membership or meetings until they’re threatened. Then the rush is on. And it’s only popular demand that will stay the hand of an uncaring government that is the puppet of business. Yet we’ve fallen out of love with the unions.

I like the increasingly co-operative relationship forged between the STUC and Scottish Government. But I wonder if a wider dialogue about the role of unions in society wouldn’t yield lasting benefits and return them to a central role in national life. We have to do better than kangaroo courts and on-the-spot dismissal in the modern age.

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