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.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Autumn statement and Scotland

Not a good day at the office for George Osborne. Up to the dispatch box to tell us that the coalition's main political promise would be broken. The deficit won’t be paid off by the end of this parliament - maybe by 2016-17? Aye that will be right!

Excessive borrowing, the claimed Labour disease, is clearly spreading to the ConDems with £158bn more borrowing over the next four years than it planned a year ago. Cash that won’t even be spent stimulating the economy, instead he will be borrowing to pay for unemployment and lost tax receipts of the newly jobless. The much vaunted growth forecasts have been downgraded by the OBR to just short of another recession.

And what will Scotland get from this dogs breakfast? Well it’s very difficult to see from the 98 pages of the Autumn Statement. Not even a supplementary Barnett consequentials paper on the Treasury website.  The Scotland Office tells us “Scotland will receive an additional £433m in Barnett consequentials for capital projects.” And the revenue consequentials? No one seems to know. Not in the documents. Not in the Scotland Office statement. I understand phone calls from Scottish Government officials to the Treasury have not produced an answer.  So John Swinney is left saying “the Treasury are so far unable to tell so how much our revenue budget is to fall.”  It all gives the impression of a hastily cobbled together plan.

We don’t even get the capital straight away. The nominal figures are £50 million for 2011-12, followed by £68.3 million, £141.9 million and £172.3 million in subsequent years, eventually totalling £432.5 million.

What we do know is there’s plenty of other bad news in the Statement for Scottish workers and their families:

·         Raising the state pension age to 67 by 2026. Further proof you can’t trust this Government on pensions.

·         More public sector job cuts. 710,000 across the UK and that could mean around 70,000 in Scotland

·         A public sector pay cap of 1% for the next two years when inflation is topping 5%. The cumulative effect of 2 yr pay freeze, 2 yr 1% pay cap + pension contributions increase will be a 16.48% pay cut in public sector.

·         Looking at Regional Pay so he can give ungrateful public sector workers in the most deprived regions of England and Scotland a further pay cut.

·         Promised increases in Child Tax Credit abandoned.

·         Creating further job insecurity by undermining employment rights on unfair dismissal, redundancy and TUPE.

·         And if you still have a job you are more likely to die at work when health and safety rules are abandoned.

In essence the UK Government is planning to borrow £billions to keep workers on the dole rather than investing to get people into work and growing the economy. Even those in work will be less willing to spend when they see what’s coming.

On the eve of the probably the largest strike the UK has ever seen – the priorities of this Government are very clear for all to see.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Labour Leadership

Ballot papers will start dropping through members letterboxes this week for the election of a Leader and Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. This is an important election as it will be the first leadership team to be elected as party leader in Scotland, rather than simply leader of the MSP group. In addition, after last May's election defeat, the Scottish Labour Party leads to take a new direction to win back the support of the electorate.

There are three competent candidates for each post, but I will be supporting Johann Lamont for Leader and Ian Davidson for Deputy.

My reasons are primarily the same for both candidates. The Party needs more than simply a competent front person. We have done with New Labour, the 'what works' presentation above substance politics. We need leaders that imbue Labour values, not simply a smart soundbite.

It is not an accident that almost all the trade unions in Scotland back Johann and Ian. Trade unions don't operate in the political bubble. They represent workers who have made it very clear that they want political leaders who stand up for workers in their current struggles. Johann and Ian are the candidates with a proven track record of promoting Labour values. 

And record is important because it is easy to make promises in an election. Endorsements like Maria Fyfe and senior union women for Ian Davidson shows that he has walked the talk for fair representation in the party. He has been on the marches, the picket lines and taken forward the cause of working people in Parliament. Johann has a similar record on a range of causes and has the backing of respected politicians like Hugh Henry

That's not to say that we will agree on everything. I have had many a policy disagreement with both Johann and Ian. Pretty robustly on occasions too! But these have always been tactical differences - I have never doubted their underlying values.

They also understand the need for change. Not just as an easy slogan, but because they understand why we lost support and what we need to do to rebuild trust.

As a senior union official, SEC member and as a former Chair of the Scottish Labour Party I have worked with many politicians, through good times and bad. I can tell you that Johann and Ian are the real thing and that's why I will be voting for them.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Nordic inspiration

Comparisons with Nordic countries are in vogue with the Cabinet Secretary for Education recently extolling the merits of the Swedish free schools. Looking to Scandinavia for public policy inspiration is very worthwhile and the work of Nordic Horizons and others is important in promoting a dialogue. These countries are of similar size and geography to Scotland and share at least some common attitudes and cultural links.

Last week I was giving a presentation to a visiting delegation of Norwegian trade unionists on the Scottish health and social care system. This was a privilege because we usually look to them for inspiration. For example, the Norwegian health service has a much better staffing ratio per head of population than Scotland. They also have a genuinely ‘local’ council structure, serving real communities rather than our historical compromises. Of course their greatest achievement is a more equal society that delivers better outcomes in almost every measure.

This visit was one of a number of similar trips by Norwegian unions to Scotland in recent years. They are concerned that market principles are invading their public services, largely based on the English model promoted in the New Labour years and taken to new lows by the ConDems. They come to Scotland to learn how another small country has taken a different path of public service reform based on cooperation not competition. I was able to give them an historical overview and update them on the work of the Christie Commission that again sets a very different course from other parts of the UK.

Interestingly, they were less than impressed by the Swedish free schools and pointed to recent studies that question how effective they have been. The number of low performing pupils has increased since the free school system was introduced. They regard this as a good example of how market principles are undermining the success of the Nordic approach in creating and maintaining a more equal society. It is equality that makes the difference and this is reflected in UK studies that show that school systems are less important than social class determining positive education outcomes.

I would therefore look to Finland instead of Sweden where they combine the highest levels of attainment in the OECD‟s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and have “high and consistent performance standards across the entire education system”. It is important to note though that Finnish success in world education rankings is not just about their school model. It is a country that values social cohesiveness. Finns pay relatively high taxes which provide the money for high quality services which all contribute to the well being of their children.

So while we should continue to take inspiration from Scandinavia, we should remember that some developments there are driven by the same neo-liberal policies that have caused so much damage in the rest of Europe. I wonder if Mike Russell would be as keen on free schools if he fully appreciated the link to the English market reforms? Well he might, but the rest of us should be more wary.