‘They are all the same!’ is perhaps the most common response of the politically uncommitted at election time. I’ve been involved in elections since I was twelve years of age and if I’m honest there were times when that statement might have had an element of truth in it. However, this election isn’t one of them.
This election offers a stark choice between two very different governments. So it matters and it matters a lot. Over the next few weeks I am going to set out the reasons why I think it matters and I am going to start with the most important for me – public services.
In Scotland, most of our public services are devolved. Every time I visit the Scottish parliament, to give evidence or meet MSPs, I remember what a huge achievement devolution was for the last Labour Government. It enabled a different approach to the delivery of services - most importantly in the NHS thanks to the NHS Reform Act 2004 that swept away marketisation.
That doesn’t mean that this election is irrelevant to Scotland’s public services. It matters because the size of the Scottish budget depends on the UK government’s overall spending plans. We know from those published plans that the Tories are planning to cut UK spending by a further £30bn.
The Scottish Government reckons that’s about £3bn a year for Scotland. In fairness, I think that is over egging the impact, as not all those cuts will count for Barnett formula consequentials. A more realistic figure is around £2bn a year. However, that is still a huge cut on top of the devastation already wrought on Scotland’s public services in the name of austerity. It will result in around a further 30,000 public sector job cuts, or put another way, it would pay for around 50,000 staff nurses.
And before anyone shouts moronic slogans like ‘Red Tories’ – Labour did not vote for the same level of cuts at Westminster. Yes, they will balance the budget as every party is committed to, but no further and in a very different way. In fact, the positive consequentials of Labour’s tax plans will add £800m to Scotland’s budget. It may not be a return to the early 2000’s, but it’s a lot different to the savage ideological cuts the Tories are planning.
I am not a tribal political animal who shouts the equivalent ‘Tartan Tories’ jibe at the SNP. I am happy to acknowledge many of the positive polices they continued with after 2007 and they understand the role public services play in civilised society. However, yes you knew there would be a but, there is one policy they are pursuing at this election that would be a disaster for Scotland’s public services – Full Fiscal Autonomy or Devo-Max as it is commonly known.
I have set out why elsewhere and will do so in detail in a forthcoming Red Paper publication. The bottom line, even allowing for optimistic assumptions about borrowing at the equivalent UK levels, is a further £3.8 billion cut from public services. This amounts to half the education & training budget and one third of the health budget – or between 50,000 and 60,000 public sector job losses.
My worst nightmare is of course another Tory government, but there is second. An incoming Tory government faced with a big number of SNP MPs, saying, OK, if that’s what Scotland voted for, let’s give them Full Fiscal Autonomy. The Treasury would be able to dump £7.5bn of the deficit on the Scottish Government and just walk away. Win-Win for the Tories and applauded by UKIP, who are of course their most likely coalition partners.
The good news for those who believe public services are the most important issue in this election, is that Scottish voters agree. UNISON Scotland commissioned an opinion poll in which voters confirmed that public services, welfare, jobs and pay were the most important issues for them in the coming general election.
So, this election really does matter for public services, despite devolution. Vital services and thousands of jobs depend on the outcome. Please remember that on May 7.