Welcome to my Blog

It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Care integration - lessons from Wales

Delivering better health and care integration is a challenge in all parts of the U.K. and internationally. We should try and learn from experiences elsewhere, and I was in Cardiff today contributing to the Cymru/Wales UNISON seminar on the issue.

Wales faces similar challenges to Scotland - austerity and Brexit. The Welsh health minister told the conference that reform should be about better ways of delivering services, not just about saving money. They have had a parliamentary review of care integration that has made recommendations for going forward and a new government plan will be published soon.

The minister was not convinced that big structural change was the way forward, but he was in favour of better partnership working between health and local government. There are good examples of integrated system change locally that can be scaled up nationally. He was strong on the need to engage staff in finding solutions - making it a formal part of the system. As he put it; "Motivated staff are much more likely to do a better job."

Wales has similar problems to Scotland with fragmented domiciliary and residential care, many of which are struggling. The minister said better commissioning and standards had to be part of the solution. He recognised the need to increase funding and they are looking a levy to specifically fund the increasing cost. Something that hasn't really been part of the debate in Scotland.

The research report launched at today's conference highlights a very complex picture of care integration in Wales. Words like 'partnership', 'integration' and 'seamless' service are used, and abused, with means often confused with ends. As in Scotland, the driver is collaboration not competition, but that has its challenges around trust and power. Previous reports have been critical of progress and they have similar problems with short term funding initiatives rather than increasing core funding. 

The core of the report is three case studies on integration. 

The Bridgend approach shows real improvements in outcomes like unscheduled care and long term placements. Anticipatory care is key to preventing inappropriate admissions and building trusted relationships between staff.

Monnow Vale in Monmouthshire is a good example of how locality based health and social care hubs can work. Staff are co-located, they talk to each other and staff are empowered to find solutions that work locally. This is an approach that we should do much more of in Scotland as recommended by the Social Care Commission. It resulted in a more welcoming approach for users and greater continuity of care - creating a relationship with the carers. Trade union involvement in designing services and getting pay and conditions right was important in building trust in working together and redesigning home care.

Ynys Mon (Anglesey) case study is an example of enhanced dementia service using a residential home as a base to integrate services with community health staff. It was obvious that staff had a real sense of ownership, being engaged in service design from the outset.

The parliamentary review, independent of government with a cross-party reference group, pulls some of this together. They recognised the case for change is compelling, but it hasn't always compelled action. Amongst ten key recommendations, it makes the case for co-location of staff, a focus on outcomes (what they call the Quadruple Aim) and a recognition that staff are a key element in service delivery. It is not about restructuring, it's about effective implementation of a seamless service across all services.

In my presentation I set out the lessons from Scotland's experience in health and care integration. Many different models have been tried, but it is still work in progress. Demographic change places additional costs on an already underfunded service, particularly in the local government half of the process. In social care we have a hugely fragmented service that makes workforce planning very difficult. And of course there is always Brexit! We do have decent procurement frameworks, including the living wage, but councils put insufficient weighting on workforce matters and do very little monitoring of the quality of service delivery. 

My colleague from London, outlined developments in England. There is very little action on a national basis in England and just a few local initiatives. In essence it's a mess.

Finally, workforce regulation in Wales is following the Scottish model, with the phased regulation of domiciliary care staff. They have similar challenges in terms of recruitment and retention of social care staff.

Scotland is probably a bit ahead of Wales in terms of legislation and structure. However, the challenges are very similar and they do have some impressive examples of best practice, highlighted in the report. On that basis the research report published today is well worth a read. No one has got integration right yet, so we can all learn from experience elsewhere.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Defending devolution in the Brexit Bill

The Tories and SNP may well be playing with the EU Withdrawal Bill for political reasons, but there are important reasons why those who support devolution should be concerned.

The EU Withdrawal Bill heads back to the House of Commons after some serious mauling in the House of Lords. UK headlines focus on the EEA and customs union amendments, but the Clause 11 issues, relating to devolved powers, remain unresolved. This means that Holyrood is likely to withhold consent for the Bill, leaving the UK Supreme Court to rule on the competency of the Scottish Parliament's Continuity Bill.

The dispute revolves around consent for UK frameworks on powers that come back to the UK from the EU in areas of competence that are devolved. The UK government wants to retain control over 24 areas to create UK frameworks that they claim are necessary to maintain a single UK internal market. The Scottish Government doesn't dispute the need for frameworks, but argues that these must be agreed by consent because a UK veto would undermine the principles of devolution.

The original Clause 11 was opposed by almost everyone, including the Scottish Conservatives. However, they, and others, now argue that the new clause is a reasonable compromise creating a set of procedural hoops the UK government must jump through before it gets the powers it needs to make frameworks. This also means that repatriated powers in devolved areas will go to Holyrood automatically, unless Westminster specifically reserves some for a few years through regulations.

The Welsh government has signed up to this compromise and Lord Hope, who tabled, but didn't push to a vote, some helpful amendments supported by the Scottish Government, appears to partly agree. He argues that the Scotland Act was not designed for a Brexit situation, so a more subtle, pragmatic solution is required. 

The Scottish Government argues that this is a matter of principle, while the UK government argues that the Scottish Parliament cannot have a veto on UK legislation.

I think there is an important principle at stake. This includes a defence of the hugely important Dewar amendment, which embodied the principle that all powers are devolved unless they are specifically reserved. This was not the position in Wales until the 2017 Act, so I appreciate that they may not view this matter in the same way as we do in Scotland.

However, it goes wider than that. The 24 areas that the UK government wants to have its own veto over are already clearly devolved areas. The current Clause 11 would give them the power to interfere, not just with new powers coming from the EU, but existing legislation. A particular concern for me is procurement. Scottish legislation and statutory guidance may be more timid than I would wish, but it's a lot a better than anything the UK government would support. 

If this debate appears to be a bit arcane, let me give a practical example. A care worker in Scotland should receive the Scottish Living Wage thanks to our procurement rules. This could be ended by the UK Government, using Clause 11. A pay cut is not in the slightest bit arcane! 

Then there is the 'veto' argument of the Tories which claims the Scottish Government wants to extend the powers of the Scotland Act to block UK legislation. A line reinforced by the usually more sensible Tory MSP Adam Tompkins in Scotland on Sunday. This is highly misleading. Of course it is the case that s28 of the Scotland Act 1998 gives Westminster the power to legislate on Scottish matters, but the principle in the Sewell Convention, incorporated into the 2016 Act, was that they would not normally do that. 

This is not a veto on UK legislation. It just means that UK legislation would not apply in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. That leaves the UK government with the option of amending their legislation to get the Scottish Parliament's consent, or excluding Scotland from the geographical scope of the Bill. 

As a consequence of devolution, we don't have a single market in many areas. If you are a UK firm trading in Scotland, you already have to deal with different rules between England and the devolved administrations. Procurement is again a good example, but there are many others. In fact, some of these pre-date devolution in Scotland. New EU powers may add to these, but it isn't a new challenge. 

So, the nationalists and the unionists may pose on constitutional principles and use the dispute to further their politcal strategies. Those who support a devolved or federal model for the UK should focus on defending the devolution settlement. There is a pragmatic solution to be found that resolves differences over UK frameworks, while respecting both parliaments. What's missing is the political will.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The case for a Scottish energy company needs greater ambition

The creation of a Scottish public sector energy company is very welcome initiative, but the suggested model lacks ambition and is unlikely to tackle the failed energy market.

On 10 October last year the First Minister announced the Scottish Government's intention to set up an Energy Co. by the end of this Parliament in 2021. They commissioned consultants Ernst and Young LLP to prepare a Strategic Outline Case, which has recently been published.

The strategic case for Energy Co. is based on the significant challenges that exist in the Scottish energy market, including high electricity prices, a lack of consumer switching and significant levels of fuel poverty. The strategic case demonstrates that the creation of the Energy Co. has the potential to successfully address some of these problems.

Their analysis indicates that the pre-tax profit margins made in the retail energy market are limited. This may present challenges to the Energy Co. in a highly complex and competitive market. However, if the Energy Co. is able to provide competitive pricing, together with positive and trusted branding as a public provider, it would be well positioned to develop a sufficient customer base. Particularly with disengaged customers that would otherwise have remained on an uncompetitive tariff.

Energy Co. could also encourage energy efficiency more successfully than existing suppliers. Promoting energy efficiency as a way of reducing energy consumption, as opposed to reducing energy costs, is another means of tackling fuel poverty. Energy Co. also has the potential to support economic growth by supporting local energy generation and efficiency, using the lower cost of capital available to government and local authorities.

The paper suggests a number of delivery models ranging from using an existing supplier, a Government company or a hybrid option involving municipal energy companies.  The operating model could be a simple 'White Label' branding of an existing supplier, to a full capability licensed company. The former would have low start up costs and risk, while the latter is more costly in year one, but has greater flexibility and operating scope.

In fairness to the consultants it may have been the brief, but the report is very modest in scope. There are also a number of uncertainties, not least the impact of Brexit and the effect that will have on the current market arrangements. Energy regulation is reserved to Westminster and while the Tories are taking baby steps in reforming the market, Labour is developing much more radical options.

Setting up another retail option in a crowded market is a very limited model. As with municipal energy companies, they need to be in generation and energy efficiency as well. I would also argue that distribution networks could be more local on European models, but that option isn't currently available. The 'Topco' model in the paper has some merits in developing common billing and other systems, but we should be wary of over centralisation, which would negate the innovation and localism of municipal energy.

Having energy efficiency as a National Infrastructure Priority hasn't added much so far, although the Scottish Government has just published a new Route Map to an Energy Efficient Scotland. In addition, one of the brand selling points of Energy Co. ought to be its low carbon offer. Sadly the paper is pretty light on this. The same can be said of how it deals with heat, just as important going forward as electricity.

Developing a new state Energy Co. within the constraints of the current energy market and EU restrictions will always be challenging. We need a much more radical approach to energy reform including public ownership of the transmission and distribution system, public investment in new forms of generation linked to a new industrial strategy, as well as public energy supply companies. 

The risk in this Strategic Outline Case is that we end up with a modest dabble in the market that fails to address the real problems facing Scotland's energy sector.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Automation and the case for government intervention

The robots are coming to take your job - or maybe not quite yet.

As the recent ScotGov/ STUC paper puts it, there are two schools of thought. Those who believe we stand on the cusp of widespread technological unemployment to those who believe the labour market will prove, as it has in the past, much more resilient. It may simply be my age, but I tend to fall into the latter category.

I can recall futurologists telling us that we would all have portfolio careers, yet in practice the amount of time we work for the same employer has actually increased. Yes, automation has resulted in fewer jobs in some sectors, but it has created new ones that we would never have thought of twenty years ago. 

I was pleased to read that my ageing instinct is supported by Danish academic robotic experts who argue that there is still a long way to go before robots will be able to match a number of fundamental human skills. They give five reasons why robots aren’t about to take over the world. These include the abilities of the human hand and manipulation that robots are nowhere to replicating. Humans also have tactile perception through sensors in our magnificent skin. Finally, robots haven't got the human interaction and reasoning skills of humans.

So, robots are a reality today in industry and they will appear in public spaces in more complex shapes. But in the next two decades, robots will not be human-like, even if they might look like humans. Instead they will remain sophisticated machines.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't plan for the future. At the start of my career as a trade union official, we were busy negotiating 'new technology agreements'. They addressed the direct workforce implications of computerisation, but didn't always tackle the workforce planning and wider economic and social policy implications of automation.

As I said in Monday's Herald feature on the ARI report: "Proper planning and strategy is needed now, not further down the line. We should be anticipating where we are likely to see job losses and putting measures in place to ensure that we have a just transition to new types of jobs.  Industry will not do this, it's very hard to get companies to plan that far in advance, so government needs to step up to the plate."

The ARI report revealed the UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to preparing for the changes - with education and training the main areas of concern. It lists the UK as number 8 in the world in preparing for the expected rise in robots. Education and training in schools and the workplace is a key concern. The report found that UK primary schools have not focused enough on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills.

That brings me back to the ScotGov/STUC report. It gives us a very balanced view of the evidence, without coming down on one side or the other. However, they highlight that researchers on both sides of the future of jobs debate share concerns over the potential distributional consequences of technological change. The OECD finds that; “low qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the adjustment costs... the likely challenge for the future lies in coping with rising inequality". There are also significant regional differences. For example, the OECD report says 33% of jobs in Slovakia are at risk, compared to only 6% in Norway.

The report points to labour market trends in Scotland, few of which have been driven by technology. The Scottish Government points to their labour market strategy and the Fair Work Convention. As well as their support for new industries and the planned Just Transition Commission.

These are all worthwhile initiatives, although they are often stronger on process than delivery. If we are to seriously address the challenges of automation it requires a radical industrial strategy coupled with much stronger Fair Work measures. We need to be more like Norway than Slovakia, otherwise automation will have significant job consequences and create an even more unequal society.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Better pensions coverage wont be sustained unless we sort out the pensions system

The big increase in private pension coverage is very welcome, but we need to improve the adequacy of pensions and the quality of provision as well.

The impact of auto-enrolment on pension coverage has been very significant. As the Resolution Foundation chart below shows, overall workplace pension coverage has jumped from 46.5% in 2012 to 72.9% in 2017. 

This chart also shows that the proportion of employees holding defined benefit pensions has continued its longer-term decline. However, this form of quality provision still covers almost 30% of the workplace. I know from my own experience as Joint Secretary of the SLGPS, the largest pension fund in Scotland, that auto-enrolment has also increased coverage, particularly among lower paid, mostly women workers.

While the growth in pension coverage is very welcome, contribution rates are often low. The initial default minimum contribution rates was only 2% of qualifying earnings. More than half of all private sector employees with a workplace pension contributed less than 2%. The minimum contribution is now 5% (with at least 2% from the employer). This will rise to 8% next April (with at least 3% from the employer). it remains to be seen, at a time when real wages are still falling, if these increases result in higher levels of opting out, particularly amongst low paid workers. 

The growth in coverage is largely in defined contribution schemes. This type of scheme places the investment risk on the workers who are least able to sustain it. If pension coverage and adequacy is to be sustained we need to defend and grow high quality defined benefit schemes and collective defined contribution schemes that share the risks.

A recent report by MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee highlighted market failure in relation to so called pension freedoms. The committee called for the government to rethink its decision not to allow state-backed provider NEST to offer retirement products. As they say, "Concerns that allowing NEST to offer such products would hinder competition in the market would carry greater weight were there evidence of a functioning market currently."

We also need to tackle the lack of transparency over the fees charged by investment managers. This is something UNISON has campaigned on for several years - a cause that has now been taken up by the Financial Conduct Authority. Their study found that fund managers were overcharging clients for hundreds of billions of pounds worth of investments. They enjoy huge profits and salaries, but performance is frequently mediocre. If low paid workers are to be encouraged to hand over their hard earned wages in higher pension contributions, then every possible penny needs to go into their pension pots, not the pockets of fat cats, who are currently ripping them off.

Finally, we also need to ensure that our pension funds are invested wisely and help to grow the real economy and create jobs. For example, investment in fossil fuels is not only risky as the world wakes up to the threat of climate change, but they don't create jobs either as the chart below shows.

So, let's celebrate the increase in pension coverage, but at the same time recognise that we have to put our pensions system in order. We also need to improve real wages and the adequacy of incomes in retirement, if that coverage is to be sustained. 

Thursday, 22 March 2018

World Water Day

World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about focusing attention on the importance of water. This year’s theme, ‘Nature for Water’, explores nature-based solutions (NBS) to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.  

Water is a human right according to the United Nations, which in 2010 declared that every man, woman and child should have access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation.  As the most precious life source the earth has to offer, without which humans cannot survive, the recognition of water’s importance to human beings as equal to their right to life and dignity goes without saying.

In Scotland, we take the provision of clean water from our taps and the safe removal of waste water for granted. Sadly, this is not the case in many parts of the world:

  • 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. 
  • By 2050, the world’s population will have grown by an estimated 2 billion people and global water demand could be up to 30% higher than today. 
  • Around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas. By 2050, this could increase to around 3 billion people. 
  • 1.8 billion people use an unimproved source of drinking water with no protection against contamination from human faeces. 
  • Globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the environment without being treated or reused. 

This February, the European Commission published the Re-cast of the Drinking Water Directive. We have been waiting four years for this first concrete outcome of the European Citizens Initiative, following the Commission’s unambitious Communication in 2014. The proposed Directive, as the ETUC and others said at the time, is a step forward, but misses the opportunity to recognise the Human Right to Water. Now we have to mobilise allies in the European Parliament, the European Social and Economic Committee and the Committee of the Regions to push the European Union to commit to really implementing the Human Right to Water. Hopefully it will happen before Brexit, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

In Scotland, we have the benefit of a largely public sector water service. Despite Scottish Water’s persistent reference to ‘the company’, they are in fact a public corporation. This public service delivers a quality service more cost effectively than private companies in England, despite the additional costs of managing water in Scotland. The private sector has crept into a few corners of the service through competition measures in the non-domestic market and through ruinously expensive PFI schemes. However, the core service remains in public hands. 

There is a case for greater democratic accountability and moving away from the regulation model that seeks to copy the private sector model in England and Wales. We could also do much more with water as an economic asset, something envisaged in the Hydro Nation concept. Sadly, that vision hasn’t been realised in full. I hope that is something Scottish Labour and other political parties will consider in the run up to the next Scottish Parliament election. 

The sharks are always circling around Scottish Water and we need to remain vigilant. Scotland’s water is not for sale.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The case for a credible Just Transition Commission

Any plan to tackle climate change has to have Just Transition and an industrial strategy at its core.

Those of us who take a close interest in climate change tend to leap into the detailed aspects of the policy. In the era of Trump and false news, we should always remember to start any discussion by making the case for tackling climate change. 

In short, we are faced with rising temperatures relating to the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To address this, the Paris Climate Change agreement seeks 1.5°C and 2°C commitments. However, if we continue with ineffective mitigation measures, in less than 12 years current emissions will see the 1.5°C aspiration pass by, with the 2°C carbon budget exceeded by the mid 2030s. We need to put long-term planetary stewardship before short-term profit, if our generation is going to bequeath a sustainable planet to our children. 

Scotland can rightly take credit for our radical Climate Change Act, secured with cross party support. However, grand aspirations and ambitious long-term targets need to be backed up by practical action. A new Climate Change Plan should be an opportunity to set out a clear pathway for slashing emissions and building a thriving green economy. Sadly, Parliament found Plan fell remarkably short on new policy action and lacked credibility in key areas like the budget, energy efficiency, cleaner transport and agricultural emissions.

There is public support for stronger action. 99% of people who responded to the consultation want the Government to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, and increased action in the next decade with a stronger 2030 target.

On Just Transition, we should welcome the announcement of Just Transition Commission, but again this has to be about more than just process. For example, the growth in renewables has benefited our energy mix, but Scotland has a shockingly poor record on manufacturing jobs associated with renewable energy. Workers in these industries are entitled to expect that Just Transition plans are closely linked to a new industrial strategy. Warm words and vague aspirations don't pay the rent, or put food on the table.

Just Transition plans should build in the principles that livelihoods will be maintained; and training and re-training will be funded. They must also include measures to tackle disadvantage in the labour market.

Practical action should include:

  • A heat map of vulnerable industries and companies.
  • Advance planning, not last minute BiFab style interventions.
  • Links to a green industrial strategy and Fair Work principles.
  • Investment, including the National Investment Bank and pension funds.
  • Community benefit including the use of local supply chains.
  • Recognising that ownership matters, including taking a stake in enterprises to ensure just transition and support for co-operatives.
  • Using public sector procurement to promote transition.

There are international examples of good practice that we can call upon including; Statoil, Alberta coal and the Latrobe Valley in Australia. Canada and New Zealand are also looking to develop Just Transition commissions.

I am concerned that the Scottish Government is planning a very low key Commission model, reporting just to ministers with a short life span. The Commission needs to adopt a social dialogue model with social protections; an independent secretariat and adequate resourcing, not a rehash existing funding pots

It should also report to Parliament as well as ministers, allowing the economy and climate change committees to scrutinise its work. There is a case for putting it on statutory footing in the new Climate Change Act, but at a minimum it must have a balanced membership, with credible people, a realistic work programme and extensive worker engagement.

The Just Transition Partnership will shortly be publishing their detailed proposals for the Just Transition Commission. These proposals will argue that the focus should be on transforming Scotland’s whole economy through driving the transition to low carbon emissions, attending to jobs and job quality and the needs of workers and geographical communities. Setting out what needs to be done and how it can be done expeditiously and with a fair distribution of costs and benefits. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

Why ownership matters

Ownership gets too little attention in industrial policy and in public service reform. Richard Leonard, in his first Leader's speech at the Scottish Labour Party conference, put some clear red water on ownership between him and current UK and Scottish government policy. That is the right approach because ownership does matter.

While Richard rightly highlights municipal socialism, this does not mean the adoption of a Morrisonian command and control model. I was highlighting this point at the Scottish Co-operative fringe meeting on Saturday.

This is an exciting time for the development of new thinking on economic policy and role of co-operatives. In a 2016 Red Paper publication, Richard Leonard and others set out a different industrial strategy with a strong role for cooperatives. My chapter in the same publication described how we can take a different approach, extending national policy to local economies - often described as the foundational economy.

The ideas have been built from substantial evidence based studies written by NEF, Centre for Local Economic Strategies, APSE and of course Co-op Party. Some of these ideas are being applied in practice in cities like Cleveland and Preston.

 The foundational economy is built from the activities which provide the essential goods and services for everyday life, regardless of the social status of consumers. These include, for example, infrastructure; utilities; food processing; retailing and distribution; and health, education and welfare. They are generally provided by a mixture of the state (directly or through procurement); small and medium enterprises (SME); and much larger companies such as privatised utilities or branches of mobile companies such as the major supermarkets. These larger firms often originate from outside the local economy, and all too often are the first to flee when the economic cycle shifts.

It's a complex idea, but The New Economics Foundation (NEF) in their handbook for local economies called ‘Plugging the Leaks', describe the concept like this:
"Imagine the local economy as a bucket. If someone has £5 and spends it in the local grocers, the £5 stays in the bucket. But when they pay the electricity bill, it doesn't stay in the bucket. Spending on electricity is like a leak in the bucket: the fiver leaks out as the supplier is a business outside the area. But there are usually ways of stopping all of the five pounds from leaking out. Insulating the house will cut the electricity bill, for example. If there's a local company to do the work, there'll be even more in the bucket"

This is not about local protectionism, it's about strengthening local linkages. It also generates a local multiplier - money spent locally gets spent again locally. This concept is particularly relevant in Scotland where disadvantaged communities often sit next to affluent communities. This can create an umbrella effect when money directed at poor areas too often sprays off the wealthy neighbours.

These ideas have been highlighted very recently by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. The Labour Party is setting up a Community Wealth Building Unit to support co-operatives and mutuals as a means of driving local economic growth. It is important to emphasise that this approach is part of economic and industrial policy, a point that has held back cooperative development in public policy for too long.

These are exciting times for those who believe that ownership matters.  As a long-standing cooperator Richard made clear his support for new cooperatives in the private sector as well as a substantial expansion of public ownership, including the railways, postal services, energy, social care, public housing and of course PFI contracts.

These are new ideas on economic policy, being applied in a practical way with a Labour Leadership in the UK and Scotland, which understands that ownership matters.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Labour and exiting the EU

I often start a conference presentation by saying I am not going to talk about Brexit, but usually do. The subject is unavoidable as it impacts on so many aspects of public policy. As we approach the Scottish Labour Party conference this weekend, here are my thoughts on how Labour should approach the issue.

I voted Remain and my trade union campaigned for a Remain vote. However, that wasn't the outcome and we have to respect that vote. And before some folk get too excited, it was a UK referendum and subsequent polls show that people living in Scotland share similar views on issues like immigration control and they certainly want common trade rules across the UK.

I have written many UNISON submissions to parliamentary committees and elsewhere on the challenges that Brexit brings – most recently on workforce planning in the health and care sector. I have also argued that we should not just defend the rights of EU nationals to stay in Scotland but demonstrate that they continue to be welcome here. I have also made the case for devolving many aspects of immigration policy on the Quebec model and opposed the blatant disregard of the devolution settlement in the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The issue for the Scottish Labour Party this weekend is how Labour should position itself, given the chaotic mess the UK Government is in.

I start from the position that Labour is not the government and is not leading the negotiations. It is the job of opposition to scrutinise government and to indicate a broad alternative approach. Keir Starmer set out his six tests, which I believe form the basis for a Labour response to the Brexit negotiations. As Jeremy Corbyn said in his recent speech, "Our priority is to get the best deal for people’s jobs, living standards and the economy. We reject any race to the bottom in workers’ rights, environmental safeguards, consumer protections or food safety standards."

Most commentators agree that his speech provided some much-needed pragmatism - supporting a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union and strong relationship with the single market. I would argue, as have others, that it was smart politics as well.

It also seems likely, based on the Chancellor’s speech yesterday, that a transition period will be agreed of two years, which “would allow both parties to continue negotiating a free trade agreement”. It could therefore be some time before the Westminster Parliament will hold a final vote on this issue.

In this context, it seems very unwise to adopt a rigid position on the single market at this time. The options available have a variety of nuances as set out in the helpful IPPR paper ‘The Shared Market’. This chart outlines their take on the options.

I understand why those who passionately believe the referendum outcome was the wrong outcome, would want to try and replicate EU membership, if not push for a second referendum. I am more sceptical about the motives of others, who appear more focused on using this issue as a means of continuing their campaign against the leadership.

However, attempts to by-pass the referendum result also give the impression, not just to the majority Leave voters, that Labour is simply bowing to the political establishment. Just another part of the political elite that doesn’t recognise their concerns. The focus and strength of Jeremy’s campaign is that he understands those concerns and will act on them. Too many Remainers fail to grasp the impact our broken economic system has on many people in Labour’s voting base.

We also have to recognise that the Single Market is not a prefect model. The SNP government’s Single Market study is an example of an approach that lacks critical analysis. The gushing support in the paper for the Services Directive, which the Labour movement campaigned against, is one example. Wishful thinking over the Social Agenda, which has largely died since the Lisbon Treaty, is another.

The Single Market not only places actual restrictions on some of the radical policies we would wish to pursue, but it also places a ‘regulatory freeze’ on civil servants and law officers. Recent examples in Scotland include ferry tendering and procurement policy.

I accept that we may have to weigh up the economic benefits of a single market as against the restrictions it imposes, but we don’t have to do that now. We need to see which of the options set out above are practical and make a judgement on all the facts.

Andrew Harrop from the Fabian Society makes this point well when he said:

“The Labour frontbench may ultimately argue for a ‘Norway’ Brexit on EEA terms. But this will only happen if or when it is clear that no less-integrationist alternative is feasible – and when a sizeable portion of Leave voters have changed their minds to the extent that they are prepared to accept the price of soft Brexit.

Neither of those conditions applies today, which is why the Labour centre-of-gravity has not united behind the single market option. In fact it suits the Labour frontbench to be sandwiched between the single-market out-riders on its own backbenchers and the government’s impossible-ist ‘goldilocks’ position.”

For these reasons, I am comfortable with the position Jeremy Corbyn set out in his recent speech. It provides a way forward towards a soft Brexit, with clear red lines between Labour and the ‘Mad Max dystopia’ of the Tory Brexiteers. It also provides a position that has broad support across the Labour movement.