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, 30 September 2010

Scottish Left Review

The latest edition of Scottish Left Review has been published. The current edition is a tribute to Jimmy Reid who was the driving force behind the creation of the journal.

For those not familiar with SLR it offers a space for original thinking and analysis on the political left. Contributors come from many political parties and none. This edition sets out a number of ideas for next year's elections and beyond.

I contributed an article on the Independent Budget Review, 'Three Wise men?', concluding not surprisingly, that they weren't very wise at all! There are also good articles on Scottish Water and how the Scotrail franchise could be brought back into public ownership.

Energy - locational charging

I was at a meeting of the STUC Energy Group today. Whilst UNISON is better known for its health and local government membership, we are also the biggest trade union in the Scottish energy industry.

There was the usual wide ranging discussion on energy developments in Scotland. One positive development has been an Ofgem consultation paper that addresses one of our major concerns - the reform of locational transmission charges.

National Grid, the company appointed by Ofgem to manage the GB grid, implement a charging regime that levies higher charges for access and use of the transmission network on generators furthest from the main centre of demands to encourage generation closest to where it is needed the most. These charges act as a disincentive to investment in renewable and other energy generation in Scotland. Locational charging means Scottish generators produce about 12% of UK generation, but account for 40% of the transmission costs, or about £100 million per year more than generators in the South.

Ofgem has announced a review called Project TransmiT, that would “consider whether the way in which grid costs are shared between users needs reforming” . UNISON has long argued that a flat rate charge, the 'Postage Stamp' principle should apply. Lets hope that this time Ofgem drops its market economic ideology in favour of a system that encourages diversity in supply from sustainable sources.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

ETUC Day of Action

We marked the European Trade Union Confederation’s (ETUC) day of action today with members gathering in the city centre to pull on the belt of a ‘real’ fat cat. The aim was to send a clear message that the public should not be left to pay the price for the bankers’ mistakes. And not just the bankers. The government should be closing down the tax avoidance scams that allow corporate Britain to avoid their tax responsibilities.

Despite the wet weather there was a good turn out of activists and plenty of media photographers for a very visual way of getting our message over. Plenty of fun with shoppers as well as our 'fat cat' played up to the part!

The stunt links with the launch of UNISON Scotland’s Tell A Pal initiative, which urges members to spread the word that there is a real alternative to the cuts and privatisation agenda. We handed out copies of the Tell A Pal leaflet which feature four key messages covering cuts in services, fair taxation and the economic impact of cuts on the local economy.

A range of materials to help members Tell A Pal are available on our website. The idea is to mobilise our members to spread the message using word of mouth and social media links.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


I hosted a visit today from our sister union in Norway, Fagforbundet. We spent the morning discussing organising strategies and health policy. In the afternoon I took them over to the Scottish Parliament for a tour and a discussion with the Shadow Health Secretary, Jackie Baillie.

I always enjoy a discussion with trade unions from Scandinavian countries. They understand the importance of collective provision and universalism. These are some of the most equal societies in the world and as a consequence benefit from good health, low crime rates and are better educated. We have much to learn from them.

Coming back on the train I noticed in the station bookshop that The Spirit Level is available in paperback and moving up the bestsellers chart. This is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding why more equal societies do better.

There are also positive signs that Ed Milliband gets this message. In his speech at the Labour Party Conference today he said:

"And we need responsibility at the top of society too. The gap between rich and poor does matter. It doesn't just harm the poor it harms us all. What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker earns in a year? It's wrong, conference."

Spot on. This is just the sort of policy Labour must articulate. And Norway is one country we can point to for positive outcomes from this approach.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Scottish Living Wage

Scottish Labour Leader Iain Gray announced at the UK Labour conference today that Scottish Labour will introduce the Living Wage if elected next year. This is very welcome and is an important step towards a goal that UNISON and partrner organisations have been campaigning for over the past year or so.

Low pay remains a very real problem for hundreds of thousands of workers across Scotland. The national minimum wage has helped outlaw blatant exploitation and the tax credit system has helped boost the pay of thousands of low paid workers. But despite this over 350,000 full time workers are low paid. The existence of so many low paid jobs traps individuals and families in poverty, denying the opportunities and choices that should be for everyone in a country as wealthy as Scotland.

In the current financial position we should also recognise the positive economic contribution a Living Wage can make. The cost to the public purse is marginal and low paid workers spend most of their wages in the local community. This stimulates an economy that by next May will be devastated by the Con-Dem cuts.

The Living Wage is just the sort of radical policy Scottish Labour needs to energise its supporters. There won't be the money for big spending commitments, so Labour needs to adopt other measures that reflect the concerns of supporters.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ed Milliband

Congratulations to Ed Milliband as the new leader of the Labour Party. It couldn't have been closer, so all the effort paid off given how trade union members voted.

The correct decision in my view. A clear break from New Labour was required and Ed Milliband was the candidate who offered that prospect.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Irish Experience

Another warning today for the UK and Scotland in particular of the danger of public spending cuts. The Irish Republic's economy shrank in the second quarter from the previous three months, surprising analysts who had been expecting growth. Gross domestic product (GDP) fell 1.2%, and growth in the first quarter has been revised down to 2.2% from 2.7%. Gross National Product (GNP) also fell by 0.3%.

The Irish have been doing for the past two years what the Con-Dem coalition is planning for the UK. The consequences are clear for all to see.

The Irish banking system is also in continuing difficulties. Again lessons for those who argue that separation is the best policy for Scotland. As the two main Scottish banks were at the heart of the banking crash, the much vaunted 'arc of prosperity' is looking pretty tarnished yet again. Lessons also for the UK Government that we cannot afford to slow up on regulatory reform of the financial system.

We will be putting some focus back on the 'Fat Cat' bankers next week during the ETUC Day of Action on 29 September.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Protection of Workers Bill

I was in Parliament this morning giving evidence on the Protection of Workers Bill. UNISON Scotland is supporting this private members Bill than will in effect extend the scope of the Emergency Workers Act to cover all public facing workers.

We don't believe that legislation is complete solution to tackling the 30,000 recorded violent incidents in Scotland last year. However, together with public awareness campaigns and effective workplace measures it has an important part to play. 

The main argument against the Bill, from the Scottish Government, is that the Bill is not necessary because it duplicates the common law provisions that are working well.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that the common law is working well. The Crown Office have produced no statistics to support their assertion that they prosecute these cases or follow the guidance on aggravated offences. Our anecdotal evidence is that all too often this is plea bargained away.

Most of the incidents involving our members are at a low level that the prosecuting authorities simply don't take seriously. New legislation brings these offences into focus and by passing this Bill Parliament would send out a clear message that assaults on public service workers are not acceptable.

Monday, 20 September 2010

More warnings on economic pain

More evidence this morning on the impact of cuts on the Scottish economy. This time from David Blanchflower, one of the very few economists who predicted the 2008/9 crisis.

He said in an interview in The Herald: “It will probably kill off 1.5 million jobs, but especially in places like Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north-east (of England). That is where the jobs will get killed."

He mocked George Osborne's assertion that jobs lost in the public sector would be replaced by new employment in the private sector, and taking Glasgow as an example, he asked: “How will these jobs cut in the public sector suddenly appear in Glasgow? Who is going to come to Glasgow in the next few years? The private sector is going to step into Glasgow and create what? What are they going to create in Glasgow in the next four years to make up for what they have cut? It is cloud cuckoo land. It is laughable.”

He went to argue that the Coalition’s economic strategy is based on “a belief system, on dogma, rather than on a flexible way of responding to the economic data. I hold them responsible for this inept action – for the greatest macroeconomic mistake in 100 years.”

Strong language from someone who should be listened to because he has a credible record.

One of the challenges for Labour is how to respond to this analysis. It was an issue for the Scottish Policy Forum on Saturday when debating the policy programme for next year's elections. There are some in the Party who want to stick with the line at the General Election that our cuts would have been less than your cuts. Whilst that may be true, it is not a coherent economic strategy and more importantly - it failed.

What we need now is a strong articulation of an alternative economic strategy. Given the growing public recognition of the impact of cuts this also offers a credible political strategy. At UK level I would argue that that Ed Milliband has been the credible candidate most willing to break from the past. However, I give credit to Ed Balls whose Bloomberg speech was probably the best economic analysis given by any of the UK leadership candidates.

The challenge for Scottish Labour is set out this alternative in a Scottish context.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Economic impact of cuts

More evidence today of the economic impact the Con-Dem coalition's cuts strategy is having.  This time on the high street, with figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that sales fell by 0.5% in August, ending six months of growth. Year-on-year sales growth, which fell to 1.9% in August, was the worst since January, with non-food items badly hit.

John Lewis chairman Charlie Mayfield said: “For the remainder of this year and into 2011, we anticipate more challenging trading conditions, as higher taxes and public spending cuts begin to bite and household disposable incomes come under pressure.”

For low paid workers the squeeze on wages and services quickly impacts on the economy. This is highlighted in a new report by the Fair Pay Network that shows that more than one in five UK employees earns less than a "living wage". The report finds that since 1997, the poorest 10% of households have seen their weekly incomes fall by £9 a week. As real wages have fallen, the gap between what people earn and what they need has increasingly been filled by debt. The amount owed by UK households has tripled in the last decade.  As a result, the economy suffers from significant levels of wage inequality and people having to work long hours to meet their basic needs, it warns.

Some food for thought for Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs as they gather for their Autumn conference this weekend perhaps?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cuts impact - the message getting through?

There are some encouraging signs that our message about the economic impact of cuts is beginning to be more widely understood. Today's STUC analysis of Scottish long term unemployment figures brings the message into stark focus. Their analysis confirms a rise in long-term unemployment of 132% across Scotland; rising to over 400% in 3 local authority areas; Borders (475%), East Lothian (420%) and South Lanarkshire (416%).

James Cusick's analysis piece in the Sunday Herald The cuts: is there an alternative? highlights growing public concern that has even reached some of the Con-Dem coalition's political allies. He points to the OECD data and suggests that "fast track belt-tightening could be the wrong medicine at the wrong time". Charles Kennedy is not the only Lib-Dem to baulk at the ideological attack on public services that is causing misery for many. Tom Gordon's piece in the same article points to the number of households without any adult in work rising by 10.4% in Scotland compared to 3.3% in England.

Today we also have an unlikely ally in the IMF, usually the bastion of neo-liberal economics. The IMF undermines the main thrust of the Con-Dem coalition's economic strategy, warning western governments that they risked holding back the recovery and creating a massive pool of disaffected labour if they pursued draconian cuts in spending. The IMF Director General, Dominique Strauss-Kahn appears to have read The Spirit Level on less equal societies, because he also said "If you lose your job, you are more likely to suffer from health problems, or even die younger. If you lose your job, your children are likely to do worse in school. If you lose your job, you are less likely to have faith in public institutions and democracy."

Finally some evidence, again not from a usual source, that we are beginning to win the public debate. The Times newspaper reports three pieces of bad news for the government in a Populus poll.

* the government’s deficit reduction strategy is rejected by three out of four voters.
* the public is more gloomy about the economy than at any point since the summer of 2009 – with those expecting things to get worse up 8 points since June, to 33%.
* most people reject the idea that the Labour government is most to blame for the deficit.

Even a majority of Tory voters agree with Labour's strategy.

We have a long way to go, but many others are beginning to grasp that there is a better way.

Monday, 13 September 2010

CBI 'War of Words'

A fairly bizarre call from the Chair of CBI Scotland over the weekend to end the ‘war of words’ over public services. At the CBI Scotland annual dinner Linda Urquhart declared it was time to “call a halt to ‘them and us’ attitudes which have prevailed for decades”.

This would be really welcome if she meant it.  However, it is hard to take such calls seriously when the rest of her speech was an unrestrained attack on public service delivery. Councils shouldn't deliver services, Scottish Water should be privatised and more of the usual self serving cant, drumming up business for her members.

The current financial crisis was caused by private corporate folly and the deregulated financial system that the CBI supported. It is public service workers and the communities they serve that are paying the price of the policy promoted by big business. To impose this failed policy on public services would be further economic vandalism.

The CBI leaders speech also called for further privatisation of public services. Evidence submitted by UNISON Scotland to Parliament last week (see blog below) shows that this approach has cost the taxpayer millions of pounds in extra costs and undermined the integrated delivery of services.

In a week that has seen the collapse of a leading outsourcing company (Connaught), it is a strange time to call for the imposition of further chaos on hard pressed councils. One Council that is buying the CBI hard sell is Edinburgh City. This is the council that made a complete mess of a recent social care tender. In their latest tender evaluation they gave Connaught a clean bill of health financially!

Public services should be democratically accountable to local communities, not to the Boards of big business who are driven solely by the need to make profits. Profit is of course part of what makes the corporate sector tick. But the public realm is different, driven by a public service ethos that the CBI just doesn't understand.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Budget Review Debate

Parliament held its first debate on the Independent Budget Review report yesterday.

I submitted a detailed briefing to MSPs setting out UNISON's response to the key recommendations. The key points included:

The financial projections, whilst disastrous for public services and the economy, actually understate the scale of cuts in local services.

• There is a credible economic alternative to cuts in public spending.

• The privatisation of Scottish Water would contribute nothing to the capital budget; result in higher bills to the charge payer and transfer control of Scotland’s greatest asset abroad.

• Outsourcing will cost more and break up integrated service delivery.

• Shared services will make, at best, only a long term contribution to cost savings.

• It is unfair to ask public service workers to pay for the failure of private corporate folly through pay cuts and reduced pensions.

• Universal provision is more efficient and contributes to a better performing more equal society.

• Cuts at this level and at this time in the economic cycle, will damage the economy and result in huge job cuts in the private as well as the public sector.

Rather than simply implementing the UK governments ideological cuts parliamentarians should be championing a better way forward.  that route can be found at UNISON Public Works and the STUC Better Way websites.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Public Services Pensions Commission

Today I met with Lord Hutton, Chair of the Public Services Pensions Commission, in Edinburgh. He was visiting Scotland as part of his evidence gathering programme for his interim report, due to be published at the end of this month.

He helpfully set out some basic principles that would underpin his recommendations. These at least demonstrate an understanding of the important role public service pensions play, not only as the deferred pay of our members, but also the wider economic and social impact any changes would have. In particular the interface between pensions and state benefits for low paid workers.

It was a useful opportunity to expand on the written evidence we submitted to the Commission and highlight the differences between the schemes in Scotland and England. Much work has been undertaken in recent years to ensure that the Scottish schemes are both affordable and sustainable. These have been difficult negotiations but they have at least resulted in a better understanding of pensions and a broad consensus between the Scottish Government, employers and unions.

Lord Hutton's review was commissioned by the Con-Dem UK Government, not the Scottish Government. There is justifiable suspicion, given the public utterances by Nick Clegg in particular about 'gold plated pensions', that this Commission is anything but independent. Lord Hutton did much today to reassure us on that point but as ever the proof will be in his actions.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Public service interdependency

This morning's news gives us a very good example of the interdependency of public services and how cuts in one area simply displace costs onto another.

The UK Border Agency has withdrawn funding for officers working on illegal immigration at the Galloway ports. About two million people pass through the Galloway ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan each year, with two in every 100 passengers being police checked. They expect Dumfries and Galloway Police to pick up the cost. This is a force already facing massive cuts in police officers and staff.

No doubt  the head of the Border Agency will report to his minister that he has met his cuts targets. Box ticked, job done. But locally it is anything but job done. The Chief Constable was on the radio this morning describing the advice he had been given that involved releasing illegal immigrants and telling them to attend an interview in Glasgow the following week. He expressed some scepticism that an illegal immigrant was going to attend such an appointment!

We can expect similar ploys across the public sector. Cuts in social care will block beds in acute hospitals. Cuts in energy efficiency measures will increase ill health with more visits to GPs. Shared support services will place additional administrative duties on front line staff. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, is now to be a national economic strategy.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Strategy Conference

On Saturday we hosted a strategy conference in Glasgow that focused on the alternatives to the cuts agenda. Nearly 300 delegates attended from trade union and community organisations.

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis opened the conference with a clear critique of the Con-Dem coalition government's attack on public services. Cuts at this level are not necessary, they are driven by an ideological desire to cut collective provision. He also warned Scottish politicians to ignore the ‘ice cream van economics’ of the recent Independent Budget Review report. He said:

“A proper review of the budget would have started by looking at the services we need, then working out how you raise the money to pay for them. You don’t look at a Government’s finances and say ‘we’ve got this much, what can we get for it? That’s what kids do at an ice cream van. We should be able to expect better from experts looking at a country’s finances.”

Stephen Boyd of the STUC gave the conference a detailed economic analysis of the state of the nation's finances. Dispelling the myths that Britain is in any way comparable to Greece. What is at risk is slow growth because the UK is cutting the necessary economic stimulus too soon. Much more of this analysis can be viewed on the STUC 'Better Way' website.

In the afternoon the conference broke into workshops to look at different aspects of the cuts and how trade unions and communities can organise. There were lots of positive ideas and a real buzz from participants. A full conference report will be published.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Blair memoirs

This morning's media is of course full of extracts from the memoirs of Tony Blair. It is at times like this that the Labour Party realises how much we lost when John Smith died. Blair is like a number of politicians I have met in all political parties. They are attracted to power but lack the underpinning values that act as a compass when difficult decisions are required. John Smith had such a compass - Blair doesn't.

The Labour Party does not exist to make people like Blair, Prime Minister. It exists to promote democratic socialist values, to create a fairer society. As his memoirs show, Blair was easily sucked in to the world and values of the rich and powerful. He became ever more detached from the Party and socialist values. That's why he refused to take the redistributive actions necessary to create a more equal society and we ended up, at the end of his tenure as PM, with an even greater disparity between rich and poor. That is his real legacy.