Welcome to my Blog

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.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Looking forward, well sort of, to 2016

Happy New Year! Lets hope 2016 will be a better one for everyone, but that may be the triumph of hope over reality. 

Despite much hype from the Chancellor, the real economy is still struggling to recover from the slowest economic recovery from recession since records began. That is particularly true for wages. As today’s TUC analysis shows, the average weekly wage is still £40 a week below its pre-crisis level – the equivalent of over £2,000 a year. It will take until 2018 for average earnings just to get back to the real value they held before the crash - a lost decade.

As Frances O’Grady puts it:
”Decent wages and security for your family shouldn’t just be the preserve of those at the top of the tree, but should be on offer for everyone. That’s the recovery I want to see – a recovery that’s fairly shared.”

The latest ONS wealth data shows that the recovery is not fairly shared – putting Cameron’s absurd Christmas and New Year messages in context. The rich are getting richer, with the top 10% now owning 45% of total UK household wealth. While the poorest face social security cuts and low wages.

A particular concern of mine for 2016 is the growing reliance on household debt to sustain the economic recovery. In my analysis of the July Budget, I drew attention to a scary chart buried away in the OBR report.

Before Xmas the latest OBR forecasts showed that households have moved from a surplus of £67bn in 2010, the year the coalition took power, to a £40bn deficit this year. This level of borrowing is on course to near the levels reached in the run-up to the 2008 financial crash. Not only has Osborne failed to rebalance the economy, but also he has clearly learned nothing from recent economic history.

In Scotland, 2016 is an election year. That is an opportunity to grasp some new thinking, but also a risk that the key issues, particularly taxation, will be fudged a little longer.

The key issue for me is local government. In the short term we simply cannot go on pushing Tory austerity down to councils. In the medium term we have to find a solution to local taxation – the Council Tax freeze is unsustainable and with the cuts are doing enormous damage to local services. It is our roads, schools, libraries and care of older people that are suffering.

The tragic impact of flooding on communities across the UK should remind us that climate change is real and cutting public services like flood defences can have disastrous consequences. As Owen Jones put it:
“here is “false economy” at its starkest: cutting back on services ostensibly to save money, then having to spend far more on the consequences.”

There are at least some positive signs that local government is beginning to find its collective voice. For far too long managerialism has dominated the leadership of councils – I hope that in 2016 they will regain their political voice.

While there is a lot of sound and fury over the NHS in Scotland, it is all too often over the wrong issues. Again, we should be focusing on preventative spending, tackling health inequalities, rather than squabbling over waiting times. For those looking for radical solutions I would point to the report of the Commission on Health Inequalities.

The real immediate health crisis is over social care. Leaving older people in hospital at five times the cost makes no economic or care sense. Providers are struggling to recruit and retain care staff and corners are being cut in the quality of care. Paying the Scottish Living Wage and delivering the other elements of UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter should be a priority for 2016.

2016 will see new leadership at the troubled PoliceScotland. This is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to abandon its cosmetic police officer target and allow the force to adopt a balanced staffing policy. The financial challenges are big enough, without having to backfill civilian posts with police officers at twice the cost.

Finally, the number one campaign for unions will be the Trade Union Bill. While we deal with the detail of the Bill as it goes to the House of Lords, let’s not lose sight of the political intent behind the Bill. It’s not just about neutering trade unions – it’s about creating a different workplace culture in the UK. Elsewhere, I have described this as the Amazon Bill, an attempt to make workers a disposable commodity.

We need to work together to address these threats, building alliances whenever possible, together with strong industrial and political campaigns. In particular, I would urge the 'Blairite Tendency' to get over Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and expend more effort fighting the Tories.

For public services in particular, 2016 looks like another tough year with pay restraint and big cuts in local services. The Trade Union Bill is of course an attempt to weaken the industrial and political opposition to the downsizing of public provision. The Labour Movement will need to be at its very best to face up to the challenges this year will bring – we can do it!

P.S. At least Fulham has a new manager at last in Slavisa Jokanovic, and from the Balkans, my favourite part of Europe as well! Come on Ye Whites!