Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Christie Commission - Ten Years On.

Next week is the tenth anniversary of the report of the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, known as the Christie Commission. I spent six months working as an expert advisor to the Commission. Sadly, while the principles of the Christie Commission are widely quoted, the delivery has been patchy at best.

 The Commission’s key conclusions were that Scotland’s public services require comprehensive reform by empowering communities, integrating service provision, preventing negative social outcomes and becoming more efficient. 


At the time, the Commission's public finance predictions were regarded as pretty grim. However, due to the political choices by the UK Government, which we now call austerity, the cuts were even more severe in practice. The long-term trends around the demand for public services and the impact of demographic change have proved all too accurate. Equally important to the Commission was growing inequality between the top and the bottom 20% in income, employment, and health outcomes. The consequences of disadvantage impose financial costs on public services, estimated at 40%+ of local public service spending. They also recognised the crucial contribution public services made to the Scottish economy and tackled the myth that public services are a drag on economic progress. Sadly forgotten during austerity with consequential damage to the Scottish economy.


The Commission identified problems with public service delivery, including fragmented authority and operational duplication, coupled with a top-down approach that designs services for individuals rather than with them. The recommended solutions focused on allowing services and communities to work together to decide what needs to be done, making the best use of all the resources available - taking an integrated long term, preventative approach. Staff should be empowered by leaders to actively seek innovative solutions with a strengthened public service ethos and common training for all staff based on enabling and empowering the lives of people and communities.


Ten years on, public service challenges look pretty similar, with the obvious addition of pandemic recovery following on from austerity economics, which created the longest recovery from recession on record. Scotland’s deep-seated inequalities remain largely untouched, and child poverty has increased. Demographic change has only partially been alleviated by increased migration, even that is under threat from Brexit and UK Government immigration policies. Austerity has savagely reduced the public service workforce, particularly in local government, forcing staff to abandon the critical Christie approach of prevention and revert to the statutory minimum at best.  


Integration has been limited, even in the vital area of social care. The idea that all public service organisations operating in a local authority area should view themselves as part of a common framework hasn’t happened. The silos that Christie sought to bring down are very much in place. Instead of a bottom-up approach based on empowerment, we have seen the centralisation of services. 


Five years after Christie, I wrote a paper for the Reid Foundation on public service reform. This built on the Christie principles with a call to build integrated public services around recognisable communities, based on the principle of subsidiarity with service delivery at the lowest practical level. I argued that the role of the central government should be to set the strategic direction based on outcomes – rather than trying to direct services from Edinburgh. Government should agree on frameworks that allow the local to focus on what matters. This should include a public sector ethos and fair work principles embodied in a national workforce framework. The single public service worker could minimise organisational and professional barriers and provide confidence for staff to engage in service redesign. 


As we look to build back better after the pandemic, the principles of integration, prevention empowerment and subsidiarity look as relevant as ever. The question as ever is the political will to make the necessary changes. I hope I won’t be writing a similar blog in 2031, but I wouldn't bet on it! 

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The future of work

I have been helping to review the HR policies of a charity as it considers a return to normal operations after the pandemic. We had a false start last year, although the return to work arrangements are still broadly relevant. I did an HR review a couple of years ago, and there was significant opposition from middle managers to the flexible working proposals. Almost all of which subsequently proved to be doable during the pandemic!


This is a charity that wants to be viewed as a progressive employer. Sadly, as the recent TUC survey shows, one in ten staff have been put under pressure to return to the workplace contrary to current government guidance. As they say, it is "the tip of the iceberg" of employers ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.  A recent survey found that out of 4,553 office workers in five different countries, every single person reported feeling anxious about the idea of returning to in-person work. A Scottish study also found a wide range of concerns. Official figures show that nearly one in five adults in employment experienced depression at the start of this year. The top causes of return-to-work stress included being exposed to COVID-19, the loss of work flexibility, the added commute, wearing a mask while in the office, and a need for childcare. 56% of respondents reported that their organisation hadn't asked for their opinions about return-to-work policies and procedures. That was the number one priority in the plans we put in place.


The UK Government is creating a one-stop-shop watchdog for enforcing employment rights. Responsibility for tackling modern slavery, enforcing the minimum wage and protecting agency workers, currently spread across three different bodies, will be brought under one roof. As the TUC says, the new body looks "heavy and spin, but light on action" as there are no plans to legislate or make new funding available. The TUC action plan offers a more credible enforcement approach. The Scottish Government has made another bid to have employment law devolved as part of its new poverty strategy. This would have more credibility if they used the powers they currently have, including procurement. NHS Education for Scotland recently awarded a contract to Amazon. They confirmed to my FoI request that the Scottish Government Fair Work criteria were NOT applied to the evaluation of bids for this contract. This reinforces the criticisms of Fair Work in the recent Reid Foundation paper.

The return to something approaching normal after the pandemic is an opportunity to think about the future of work as part of a Build Back Better approach. I was pleased to see that Angela Rayner will be looking at this as part of the UK Labour policy review. This has been widely welcomed in recognition of the changes the pandemic will bring, not least a hybrid model of working. It wasn't that long ago when I was making at least a monthly trek from Glasgow to London for meetings, but that world is thankfully gone.


Having said that, we should be careful about how we manage this change. The pandemic measures were hastily put in place in most organisations. There has been minimal discussion around what day-to-day working lives might look like, how the benefits of flexibility might be successfully realised, and the longer-term challenges. There is good evidence that employees are more productive, but there are also additional costs. Another study found that only half of the workers felt their employers had adequately supported them in this additional outlay. There are also concerns about a two-tier workforce developing and fears of insecurity and outsourcing. As someone who worked from home before the pandemic, I have some sympathy with the view of anthropologists who have been telling us that it's often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. According to a 2017 Co-op and New Economics Foundation report, the cost of loneliness to UK employers was estimated at £2.5bn every year. A guide published by the UK Government identifies five key themes in addressing loneliness at work. 


The future of work also has to address other fundamental changes like artificial intelligence and 'spy' technologies at work. The loss of old-style supervision in the workplace is being replaced in some organisations by technologies that allow managers to track workers' keystrokes, mouse movements and the websites they visit. They can take screenshots of employees to check whether they are at their screens and looking attentive, or even use webcam monitoring software that measures eye movements, facial expressions and body language. The organisation I have been working with decided to adopt an 'ethics of care' approach that reviews their surveillance practices and opens a dialogue with workers and their trade unions about the impact. Through collective organising in trade unions, workers can help shape how technological change is implemented in their workplace, and there are some positive examples of this. There is also a need to update the regulatory standards.


While we can take some short-term actions to manage a good work approach to the post-pandemic working environment, the future of work needs a long-term approach by governments, employers and trade unions.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Paint Your Town Red

Community Wealth Building is a new kind of economy. It offers a way of addressing the major divides in wealth and opportunity by focusing on local economies. This new book by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones looks at how the UK’s leading exponent, Preston, took back control of their local economy and how others could do the same. The leading exponent of Community Wealth Building in Scotland is Labour North Ayrshire Council, and the Scottish Government has also announced its intention to develop a country-wide programme.

 At the heart of Community Wealth Building is the belief that ordinary individuals and groups can take ownership, direction, and control of their own resources to improve their own lives. When there is little prospect of economic transformation coming from Westminster, local action is a critical source of hope and change.


The book has three parts.


Part One looks at the history and thinking behind Community Wealth Building. It makes the political case against austerity economics and the case for a radical alternative. The pandemic has also highlighted the failure of global supply chains and precarious work. Community Wealth Building has its roots in cooperative and other self-governing movements worldwide, and these are explored from the Mondragon cooperative in Spain to the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland, Ohio. And finally, to Preston and their work with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). The book recognises the importance of local leadership, including Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne and Joe Cullinane in North Ayrshire, who bring in new ideas tailored to local circumstances.


Part Two looks at how the ideas were applied in Preston, not as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ blueprint; instead, it shows how the concept has been used in practice. It has taken Preston from being one of the country’s most deprived and disadvantaged, hit by deindustrialisation, austerity and government funding cuts, to seeing significant economic improvement through shifting spending and investment from external suppliers to local producers and businesses. This chapter shows how it was done, bringing on board the anchor institutions in the city and using the power of public procurement, using case studies to illustrate the mechanisms.


Part Three looks at how Community Wealth Building is being applied in different ways across the UK. Devolution has been an important driver, as it allows the nations and regions of the UK to take a different approach from the UK Government’s centralism. North Ayrshire is used as a case study to illustrate how the concept has been applied to reflect the needs of that local authority area. Although welcoming the Scottish Government’s interest, Joe Cullinane emphasises the need for it to be accompanied by a commitment to a transformative agenda, to avoid diluting its potential when scaled-up and to get beyond abstract political platitudes on “inclusive growth” or “well-being”.


One aspect of Community Wealth Building that can seem challenging is creating alternative financial institutions after the 2008 financial crisis exposed the failings of the current banking model. The book highlights the role of credit unions and how to establish a mutual ‘people’s bank’. I also liked the chapter that urged less consultancy and more “Let’s do something and see what happens”! 


The book’s final part is a guide on ‘How to Paint Your Town Red’. It starts with local government and how it can still offer radical and positive change. Then develops how you can use the council to establish progressive procurement and engage with the trade unions and the pension fund. This includes a useful guide to further resources. This book doesn’t duck the challenges in adopting this model. In particular, it isn’t always easy to evaluate the outcomes, and public engagement is never simple. In Scotland, we have tried a wide range of initiatives, but none have fully achieved citizen buy-in, particularly in disadvantaged areas. 


It also recognises some of the political challenges in getting councils to think radically. The recent elections show that the electorate has rewarded councils like Preston. These ideas featured in the Scottish Labour manifesto, but community didn’t feature as strongly as it might have done in the campaign. However, It’s encouraging that Labour’s devolved leaders are to meet regularly to develop ideas like Community Wealth Building. Labour’s electoral path to recovery should be built on localism, not centralisation. 


This isn’t an academic evaluation of Community Wealth Building. It aims to explain the concept and help those councillors who want to break away from simply administering the council towards painting their own town red.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Where next for Labour?

That's another Scottish Parliament election completed with few indications that any real change will happen as a result. Scottish politics remains in a rut that not even a pandemic could shift. The ‘Thank You’ election worked for all the incumbents across the UK, but that leaves the long term issues to be resolved. 

It is a state of affairs that suits the SNP and the Tories. For the SNP, as the primary representative of the pro-independence vote, it almost guarantees a majority, however poor their record is in government. For the Tories, they can rely on a core of hard-line unionists, and they don't have to worry about having any solutions to Scotland's problems. This is despite the almost daily exposures of cronyism by their UK Party and the dismal campaign performance of their Scottish Leader.

The core unionist block is not the only explanation for the Tory vote. We like to think of Scotland as a beacon of EU Remainerism, but this ignores the one-third of voters who voted Leave. They only have a home in the Tory party, even allowing for the cross over between the two issues. As this slide from John Curtice shows.

Another analysis groups Scottish voters into four constitutional tribes; YesLeave, NoLeave, YesRemain, and NoRemain. While this is a neat academic exercise, anyone who spends time talking to actual voters knows that few people neatly fit into such groups, and, as the authors concede, there is a degree of intensity within each group.

The campaign itself was low key, and as a consequence, few voters shifted their position. It wasn't for lack of trying, but an election held during a pandemic was never going to generate much interest. While the constitution polled very low on voters priorities in this election, it still defines voters more than any other issue. These two slides from John Curtice show that constitutional preference and voting intention has hardened since 2016.


The constitution, therefore, remains Scottish Labour’s biggest challenge. The Party has tried uber unionism, a softer middle-ground position, and ignoring the issue altogether. Voters in the first two categories have better homes with the Tories and SNP, and if the latter didn’t shift votes in a pandemic, it is hard to see it ever working. That only leaves getting it off the table, which means a referendum. That is also the democratic case made by the STUC and others. Not immediately, as that would contradict Scottish Labour's election position and most people's priorities - although there are Tories who are encouraging Johnson’s gambling tendency. In any case, the SNP will delay as long as possible because the numbers don’t stack up, and their fundamentalist fringe has moved to Alba. However, a note of caution. A failed second referendum doesn't mean the issue goes away forever. Plus, as Brexit and the 2014 referendum have demonstrated, a referendum's voting impact lasts a long time.

If there is another referendum, it doesn’t have to be on the SNP’s terms. The referendum question should be up for grabs, as well as a third Home Rule option. Gordon Brown's new initiative to make the progressive case for the union is a better bet than Johnson's flag-waving muscular unionism. He also argues that the big issue is not a referendum; it's independence. I would have to concede that the political case for independence has got stronger. However, the economic case is much weaker. SNP ministers look lost when pressed on the currency, borders and the deficit.

Strengthening the political case for the union depends on a credible challenge to the Tories on a UK basis. This took a battering in last week's elections, not helped by the shambles over Angela Rayner's position. Much as I love Labour activists, you have to despair when reading the forums over the weekend. They were full of members who spent much of the past few years attacking the Party because they didn't get the Leader they wanted, attacking members for doing the very same thing to the current Leader. Everyone would do well to listen to Angela Rayner’s call; “United we stand, divided we fall. The past we inherit the future we build. Solidarity.”

For those who argue for leadership change, I would draw an analogy with football clubs and managers. A new leader generates initial energy but doesn't necessarily impact the underlying issues. Anas Sarwar had an excellent campaign with good personal ratings, but even that didn't move the electoral dial. Keir Starmer's 'under new management' might have been an initial branding, but it’s not a strategy. There has been too much effort placed on internal fights and not enough on setting out what Labour is for. People aren’t going to vote for you just because you are a good critic, even when there is plenty to criticise. You've got to have something to say, and you need a positive alternative.

Listening to Keir Starmer today on policy gives me some cause for optimism. Like Anas, he was focusing on what a post-pandemic recovery should look like. How we generate an investment economy with better skills, wages and productivity. A focus on preventative public services and changing the culture that divides our country into young and old, cities and towns, and so much more. I would add the future of work to that list, and I am pleased that is in Angela Rayner's new brief.

Most importantly, he talked about the need to devolve power. Where Labour did well last week in Wales, Greater Manchester, Liverpool city region, and Preston, it was because Labour led with conviction, promoting a positive vision for their local area - showing a Labour alternative to a new brand of northern conservatism. In Scotland, we have local elections next year, an opportunity to demonstrate red water between SNP centralism and Scottish Labour localism. The best Labour-led councils do more than administer local services. In areas like Preston, Salford and North Ayrshire, they have a vision and act to regenerate their communities.

There are no easy solutions to the political environment Labour faces in Scotland and the UK. However, we know internal squabbling doesn't work, and we should learn from the positive examples of what does.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Manifesto 2021 - National Recovery Plan

After more than two years of consultation and engagement, it was good to see the Scottish Labour election manifesto launched today. I have been working part-time managing the process leading up to the publication, so it is personal closure for me.

Drafting a manifesto is not the same as writing a book. That can be a solitary experience, even allowing for the research. A Labour manifesto, unlike some other parties, is not the product of a policy team disappearing into a darkened room to think beautiful thoughts. It is supported by a democratic structure and a series of consultation papers and engagement with members, affiliates and external stakeholders. There were literally hundreds of submissions, meetings and engagement events. The final document is also the product of teamwork with colleagues and elected representatives from all sections of the Scottish Labour Party.

I have been involved in many manifestos over the years, but this has been a very different experience. The pandemic not only meant the process shifted online, but it also impacted the structure and content. Most manifestos are largely done and dusted long before the short campaign starts. However, this year the lessons from the pandemic were an important influence on the final document. It also changed the focus from a parliamentary term to the immediate actions necessary to address the recovery from the pandemic. As one journalist pointed out, ‘recovery’ gets 193 mentions in the manifesto!

That is why the manifesto has two parts. Scottish Labour's National Recovery Plan sets out the immediate actions, and a second part outlines the policies that will address the underlying issues facing Scotland. I am personally agnostic on the constitutional arguments that bedevil Scottish politics. As I am not a nationalist or a unionist, it is just another policy option. What I am not agnostic about is the need to focus on the recovery from the pandemic. When 10,000 people have died, thousands more have lost their job, and 25,000 are ringing the mental health helpline; we need to forget about flags and focus on what really matters.

It is a lengthy document, which I am not going to attempt to summarise. However, it includes many radical policies that I have written extensively about in recent years, including:
  • Creating good quality sustainable jobs to avoid a lost generation of young people.
  • The concept of Good Work that goes much further than the current Fair Work initiative and will be properly enforced through procurement.
  • A real focus on health inequalities, Scotland’s most enduring and deadly problem.
  • Investing in a National Care Service with a new deal for the workforce and local democratic accountability.
  • Preventative spending in areas like housing, fuel poverty, early years and the environment.
  • Tackling climate change, moving from rhetoric to action with a Just Transition.
  • Ending the centralism of recent years through the principle of subsidiarity and investing in the social infrastructure that helps build stronger communities.
A few personal interest favourites include supporting working-class history and protecting our battlefields and other historical sites. Sadly, I couldn’t sneak the reintroduction of steam engines past ASLEF!

I recognise that few people read manifestos from cover to cover. The contents and word search mean you can dip into the sections that interest you. However, in my less than objective view, it’s worth a read.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Understanding opinion polls

 I was doing a session on public affairs at a company staff conference last week, and in the Q&A, I was asked about using opinion polls. The questioner referenced a Twitter exchange I had over a poll commissioned by Scotland in the Union and published in the Daily Record

In fairness to those responding, you would get a similar reaction from Unionists to a poll published in The National.

I have commissioned many polls over the years from different polling companies. The decision to publish a poll by a newspaper will be influenced by that newspaper's editorial line. So, it's no surprise that the Daily Record chose to run this story about a poll rather than The National. However, they didn't commission the poll, so they had no influence over its results.

So, what about those commissioning the poll. Well, they do have some control over the questions asked. The Scotsman reported on another question commissioned by the same organisation. The question read: “If there was a referendum tomorrow with the question 'should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?', how would you vote?”. 47% said to remain, 37% said leave. In effect, this is the reverse of the 2014 question giving the unionist camp a positive position. This very clearly illustrates the importance of how the question is worded. Asking the 2014 question generally delivers a 50:50 outcome, as John Curtice's analysis shows.

While both questions are legitimate, they are clearly not comparable, and I doubt John Curtice would include it in his poll of polls. Polling companies, in my experience, will allow some leeway over questions, not least because they will publish the question so people can make their own minds up. What they won't allow is an overly leading question, and what they certainly won't allow is any interference with the polling methods and analysis. 

For campaigning purposes polls can be very useful. They can demonstrate public support for your campaign, something always likely to catch the attention of the politicians you are attempting to persuade. It may be tempting to try on a leading question, but its unlikely to be credible. The best advice is to stick to a positive but reasonably balanced series of questions, which give you a range of options when publishing. 

I'll leave polling analysis to the experts. I was at a Fraser of Allander Institute event for University of Strathclyde Alumni as well last week, second rate though we may be according to Andrew Neil!  John Curtice was giving the lecture and emphasised that a single poll is only a snapshot in time. I'll leave you with his summary slide. 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

On the Corona Frontline - European perspectives on social care

A new report based on in-depth case studies of social care workers in nine European countries offers a unique perspective on the situation of elderly care workers during the pandemic. I wrote the Scotland case study, and it was fascinating to see how the different care systems across Europe responded to the pressures caused by COVID-19.


Even though the coronavirus pandemic has had different impacts on European countries, one common denominator is that the virus has hit the elderly hard, particularly those caring for older persons. This placed Europe’s care workers on the coronavirus frontline. The overview report, written by Lisa Pelling, head of the Swedish think tank Arena Idé identifies some common themes across Europe, including:
  • Shortages of personal protective equipment and lack of clear guidelines for when and how it should be used.
  • Pre-existing staff shortages worsened further during the crisis, increasing the already unbearable workload of care workers. 
  • Care workers suffered from increased physical and mental pressure, and there are reports of a dramatic increase in the incidence of burnouts, depressions and substance abuse.
  • Although they were forced to work harder and more overtime than ever before, elderly care workers were left with precarious working conditions, many on zero-hour contracts and paid by the hour. When they too fell ill, many countries left them without adequate sick pay.
  • Trade unions representing elderly care workers have made a decisive difference, both for the workers and older people. 
The report makes several recommendations covering the pandemic and the broader reform of social care. These include basic safety provisions, raising employment standards, and an end to social care underfunding. 

In my case study, I explain how health and social care are organised in Scotland and how they responded to the pandemic. It is interesting to look at how other countries deliver these services, with varying degrees of integration and the balance between public and private sector involvement.

In Scotland, social care was in crisis before the pandemic hit due to an ageing population, staffing shortages, and chronic underfunding. The pandemic has cruelly exposed these problems with excess death rates significantly higher than similar countries in Europe. Half of all deaths from COVID-19 have been in the largely privatised residential care sector, exacerbated by the transfer of patients with the virus or untested from hospitals to care homes early in the pandemic to release NHS capacity. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment, inadequate testing, minimal sick pay, and the use of agency staff have all contributed to this outcome. Care at home services have also been reduced, placing additional pressure on unpaid, informal carers.

Employment standards in social care vary considerably between sectors and employers. Care work is undervalued, not least because of discrimination against the mostly female workforce. Attempts have been made to improve pay in the sector with the requirement to pay the Scottish Living Wage, along with new registration and training standards. However, implementation has been challenging, which leaves a range of poor employment practices that have not been addressed.

The trade union response focussed on providing immediate support to members, negotiating with employers and government, and campaigning for service reform. The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges in organising a disparate workforce, and unions have relied heavily on social media. Recruitment has improved, helped by victories over wages, the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sick pay and death benefits. Unions have also campaigned for a reformed social care system, structured around a new National Care Service, which is properly funded, ends the marketisation of care, and values the workers who care for society's most vulnerable members.

I wrote the paper before the Feeley report was published, but I was able to add in a short commentary. The establishment of a National Care Service and workforce reforms have been welcomed by the trade union movement. However, the proposed structures are highly centralised, largely removing local democratic accountability, and does not do enough to rein in the marketisation of services. While the need for a significant increase in funding is recognised, the report makes no recommendations on how this should be financed.

The overview report concludes:

"The pandemic has proven that deficiencies in social care— which trade unions and their members have warned and protested about for many years—such as precarious working conditions, understaffing and underfunding, have been devastating for the ability to protect the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic: the elderly. It is high time that we listened to them."