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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Supporting public services

It's often said, 'all politicians are the same', well in this UK General Election it simply isn't true, at least for public services and those who deliver them.

Today is the pre-election Scottish Labour Party special conference in Edinburgh. I was speaking at the NASUWT fringe meeting on supporting public services. For me, this is the number one issue in the coming election.

Unusually before an election, we have costed spending plans from both the parties challenging to make up the next UK government. We also have the benefit of them being analysed by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

While I would have some differences with the Ed Balls approach, these are minor in comparison to the difference in spending plans with the Tories. In the IFS analysis after the Autumn Statement they identified a gap of £43bn. The Barnett consequentials of that depends on where Tories decide to make their cuts. So, while estimates vary the numbers are huge - from £2.7bn at best, to £3.7bn at worst. Put another way, around 25,000 to 35,000 public service job losses.

We have just come through longest recession and slowest recovery, primarily because of the spending cuts Osborne implemented in 2010. Instead of learning from past mistakes, the Tories are planning to impose more of same failed medicine.

It was therefore very welcome to hear Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy talking about Labour's spending plans and what that would mean for Scotland. Labour does not talk enough about this, leaving the nonsense that Labour is voting for austerity unchallenged. The perceived need to talk up a particular interpretation of economic credibility, all too often drives out Labour's positive anti-austerity message.

Some will say, voting SNP will get us a coalition, keeping Ed Balls on an anti-austerity agenda. Actually the SNP 'plan', limited in detail though it is, isn't much different from Labour's. However, the key point is that you can't vote for a coalition - it's not on the ballot paper.

Even if you could what would be the price? Losing Trident would be fine - most of the Labour Party don't support replacement anyway. The big problem is, will a coalition depend on accepting the SNP demand for Devo-Max. If we had Devo Max now the Scottish Government would have to find a £6bn cut in public services due to the collapse in oil revenues. Coincidentally, that is exactly same amount as Tory austerity has cut from Scottish budget. That led to 50,000 jobs being cut and most of those in local services.

That's because the SNP has not dished out the misery equally. 4 out of 5 job losses have been in councils the only portfolio to suffer a cash cut to its budget. This has the perceived advantage of keeping bad news furthest away from Scottish ministers while they keep hold of little pots for sticking plaster announcements. Add to that the Council Tax freeze, underfunded at same level as 8 years ago. A regressive tax freeze that benefits wealthy households while the vulnerable face rising charges for services.

So, this election matters for public services and those who work in them and it matters big. The spending cut numbers are huge and they would have huge consequences for public services and those who deliver them. Even if there was some small positive from a possible coalition, the risk of another Tory government is just too big a risk. We cannot gamble with 30,000 members jobs and the services they deliver.

But Labour also needs to up its game. Talking up the differences on public spending, not hiding them. That's why I welcome Ed Miliband's speech today. More please comrade!

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