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.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Council Tax and local democracy

Stirling Council has become the only local authority in Scotland to cut the Council Tax this year following a Labour/Tory amendment to the budget. Residents in Stirling will be 23p a week better off on average as a result. I say on average because of course wealthier households gain more and poorer households get less.  As one Councillor fairly put it "This is quite clearly a Tory budget – tax cuts for the rich and service reductions for the poor."

The poor, in this case the working poor, lose out twice as it appears the Scottish Living Wage may be one casualty of this decision along with other service reductions. Quite apart from the less than prudent use of capital receipts to fund revenue spending. The same workers who won't get the Living Wage are also subject to a pay freeze that will further reduce spending in the local economy.

The SNP minority administration haven't got too much to shout about as cutting the Council Tax is only marginally worse than their policy of freezing it. It is again a regressive measure that has led to increased charges for services across Scotland. If money is available to help people during these tough times then it should be targeted on those most in need - not the wealthiest households. As for 'getting into bed with the Tories', well they and the SNP at Holyrood have done that a few times. In a PR system you sometimes have to sup with the devil. Although that is something Labour groups, including Stirling, should avoid in almost all circumstances. 

There is another interesting side to this debate. One SNP MSP said:
"Does Johann Lamont back the actions of her party's Stirling councillors? Or does she agree with those Labour politicians who want to scrap the SNP government's council tax freeze, which is providing invaluable help for hard-pressed households across Scotland? She can't have it both ways."
Well actually she can. I believe that the Stirling Labour Group made a wrong decision, just as the SNP Government has over the Council Tax freeze. But the difference is that I defend their right to make that decision. Issuing dictats to councils on the Council Tax freeze undermines local democracy, just like the ring fencing of council funding - something else the SNP promised to end but have reintroduced.  

So the debate does illustrate some interesting approaches to local government. The fact that "The SNP have challenged Johann Lamont to say where she and her party now stand on the council tax" does reflect a highly centralised view of government - and for that matter party organisation. But there is another story............

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Independence referendum

At the risk of adding to the many column inches on this subject, I will offer a few of my own thoughts on the immediate process issues having finished a briefing, discussion paper and presentation for UNISON branches.

I can't get very excited about the wording of the question. Yes, the SNP version is obviously a leading question, but by the end of this very long debate everyone in Scotland should know what they are voting for. The simple solution with these matters is that they should be set by an independent Commission as suggested by the STUC.

On timing, I understand the SNP's tactical considerations. The Autumn of 2014 follows lots of positive events including the Commonwealth Games, Bannockburn anniversary and the Ryder Cup. Plus at least the prospect of a Tory election victory in 2016. It has hard to think of a more propitious date. For the rest of us 30 more months of this is a tough shift and more importantly a distraction from the big issues facing Scotland. It will be seven years from the first consultation paper to the referendum. It took Labour a year to deliver the devolution referendum.

This long delay is not entirely risk free from an SNP perspective. Apart from voter fatigue a long campaign gives much more time to expose the detail of the case for independence. If the SNP strategy is keep the debate high level and emotional, a long campaign could be tricky. And there is also the First Minister problem. Can he keep to the script for for that length of time? Early evidence on issues like defence would suggest that he will find that challenging.

On the franchise there appears to be a surprising degree on agreement between the UK and Scottish governments. The main difference is 16 and 17 year old voting. UNISON has long supported extending the vote to this group and I agree with that. If you are old enough to pay taxes you are old enough to vote in my book. Of course if you move from the current franchise on this you open up the debate in other areas.

One of those areas is the ex-pat vote. I suspect SNP strategists believe 16/17 year olds are a plus for them and ex-pats are not. I am not so sure. Polling and voting are not the same thing and some studies show that giving young people the vote doesn't necessarily make much difference. I come from an ex-pat family and my experience is that Scots outwith the country can often have a romantic view of Scotland that might play well with an emotional campaign theme.

Then we have the thorny issue of a third option on extended devolution, devo-max etc.

While it is rarely articulated in public many SNP members are furious at the idea. Here we are with the best chance of achieving independence for a generation and a watered down option appears. Give people three options, the middle way is always going to be attractive, particularly when opinion polls show that this is the long standing preference of most Scots. Jim Sillars clearly articulates the strategy behind the First Minister's support for this approach. Whatever the final option it will cause plenty of internal party friction.

So what of Labour's options. The leadership preference, particularly at Westminster, appears to be for a straightforward yes/no option. While most Scottish Labour MPs have moved on from their negative approach to devolution, getting agreement on the next stage is still tricky. I speak from personal experience as the person who chaired Scottish Labour's Calman Working Group. Not one of my easier jobs!

The strategy would be to defeat the referendum making a weakened SNP that much easier to defeat in the 2016 election.The problem with this approach is that the very voters Labour need to attract are generally in favour of greater devolution and may well punish a party that blocks their favoured option. Promises like Cameron gave this week for another look simply are not credible when you consider the timescales and political factors required to deliver that approach. In addition much of the SNP support last year had little or nothing to do with independence. Voters can still make a judgement on which party is best placed to protect Scotland from the Tories at Westminster and Holyrood and run the country in the most effective way, in tune with their values. It is also a high risk option forcing home rulers to choose between nationalist and unionist options.

Of course an extended devolution option requires a broad consensus on a credible plan. No one can be under any illusion as to how difficult that will be to achieve. Getting agreement on the principle of devolution was challenging, the next stage is much more contentious. The current grouping of Civic Scotland organisations taking this forward include some strange bedfellows. Right wing think tanks like Reform Scotland have a vision for Scotland that is not shared by many outwith the Thatcherite fringe, let alone the trade unions. Even if a consensus can be achieved, the question to be asked and how it relates to the other options is far from straightforward.

None the less it it right that we make an effort to develop a consensus on extended devolution. A constitutional debate on Scotland's future without the current majority option on the table would be wrong.

Finally, interesting and important though these issues are they are not the only consideration. Once we get past process we should be more concerned to develop a vision of the sort of Scotland we want to live in. Then we can measure the constitutional options against that vision.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Jobs and crowding out

As another 16,000 Scots joined the unemployed in the last quarter it is worth looking back at the ideology that drives this crazy policy of cutting public spending when the private sector is in no position to bridge the gap.

In his first budget George Osborne set out his economic approach when he said cuts in public spending were necessary because the state is “crowding out private endeavour”. This line has also been parroted by some business organisations in Scotland as an excuse for the lack of growth in the private sector.

The concept was developed by Roger Bacon and Walter Ellis in their 1977 book ‘Britain’s Economic Problem: Too Few Producers’. In essence make the state smaller and the private sector will grow. The problem with this theory is that not even the Treasury’s own economic model could find any crowding out effect. Of course Osborne’s mentor Mrs Thatcher didn’t let the small matter of evidence get in the way of ideology when it became a guiding principle of her strategy.

Even Bacon and Ellis would struggle to find the factors that underpin their theory today. If crowding out occurs it is limited to very specific conditions such as a budget deficit leading to a hike in interest rates. Today these rates are at a record low that means that the public deficit can easily be funded. The problem is inadequate, not surplus demand.

The real problem is an imbalance in the private sector. In recent years the growing dependence on a finance driven business model has pinned back productive parts of the UK economy. The hedge fund gambling, takeovers and mergers have provided short term cash gains at the expense of long term investment in factories and new products. Successful economies are those that ensure adequate funds for infrastructure and technology.

Between 1999 and 2007, 45% of all UK bank lending went on property. In contrast, as a share of total lending the value of loans to manufacturing firms more than halved. In 2007 R&D intensive companies spent £17bn while £86bn was spent on mergers and acquisitions. As Angus Tulloch (a global fund manager) put it in the Scottish Parliament in 2010 “The financial sector has become totally detached from the real world”. The relentless drive for short term shareholder return may have made a few parasites very rich, but it has wrecked the UK economy.

If the Tories could get past their Euro-sceptic wing they would see that countries like Germany have a banking system designed to support productive industry. Financial profit is not allowed to crowd out real investment. They don’t have the destabilising dominance of the City of London that dismantles the UK’s biggest companies. In the 1960’s shares were held for an average of five years – by 2007 it was seven months.

UNISON Scotland commissioned research from the University of Strathclyde before the crash that confirmed that crowding out has simply not been an issue in Scotland. And all is not lost. Half of UK exports still come from the manufacturing sector and there are many sound firms. However, there is a real risk that unless we give greater value to long-term returns the UK will slip into a low-wage, low value-added, low knowledge-based economy.

It was the ideology of the 1980’s that drove us to the financial crash, not public spending. The real crowding out is the imbalance in the private sector caused by the get rich quick dominance of the financial sector. That’s were the focus should be. Scottish public sector institutions are critical to the success of the Scottish economy through providing basic infrastructure as well as key human and technological resources for the private sector.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Council Budgets

Councils across Scotland are setting their budgets in the context of a 6% cut in the allocation from the Scottish Government. That resulted in a loss of 13,300 jobs last year and we can expect a similar number this year. That will have a further devastating impact on local economies as that spending power is stripped away.

As it is an election year councils are shying away from big unpopular service cuts. It is the workforce through the pay freeze that are making the largest contribution to spending reductions. Most services will be salami sliced in an effort to spread the pain and hope that not too many people notice the decline in services and standards.

Of course councils would normally have the option of considering the appropriate level of Council Tax to fund local priorities. But in Scotland today councils are reduced to administrative machines instructed to carry out the Scottish Government's priorities. Freeze the Council tax and accept our priorities, or you get another 5.4% chopped from your budget. It's not as if the priorities are even sensible. The fiction of 1000 extra police officers 'on the streets' is maintained by sacking huge numbers of police staff and taking police officers 'off the streets' to do their jobs, often badly and at greater cost.

Local democracy is important. We should have local government - not local administration. This week I attended another excellent Nordic Horizons event in Parliament discussing Scandinavian approaches to local government. There they have real local democracy with councils of a size to represent real communities and taxation powers to match. Councils that know what municipal enterprise is really about. While our reform agenda centralises power and thinks the only form of efficiency is economy of scale.

This week UNISON Scotland has set out a better way in our manifesto for local government. Reform that starts from the bottom up with services designed by staff and service users, not management consultants. Devolution, not just from Westminster, but away from Holyrood to local communities. Integrating services, not devising tax dodging mechanisms that will return local services to the chaos of the 19th Century. A revitalised local government that plays a crucial role in reducing inequality to help create the fairer and better Scotland we want to live in.

Every day we all use the services provided by local government. Many people don’t even notice them as we take them for granted. The council elections on 3 May will bring a much needed focus on the importance of local government and the essential services it provides. And not a moment too soon!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

National Libraries Day

Today is National Libraries Day. An opportunity to celebrate our public library service at a time when it is under threat from public sector cuts. I have to declare an interest as a serious book lover in paper and electronic forms. I also have huge respect for librarians as a profession. After more than thirty years of representing them as a trade union official I have met many great union activists from this profession.

And I am obviously not alone. Many authors have come forward today to speak up for libraries including Kate Mosse who said,

“The brick and glass presence of libraries at the heart of our towns and cities gives the unequivocal message that books matter, that imagination matters, that the principles of free and fair access to literature and education to all matter. The most democratic of spaces, libraries are places where anyone - regardless of age or sex or background, their ambitions and opportunities (or lack of them) - is welcome and on an equal basis and for free. Libraries are home to the readers of today and the writers of tomorrow”

On National Libraries Day, we rightly celebrates the wonderful service that library staff in local libraries provide to communities across Scotland. Libraries, community learning centres and access points provide an ever more vital role in this time of recession and economic uncertainty. They provide accessible education and entertainment for people facing pay freezes, job insecurity or unemployment and rising costs.

But our library services themselves are increasingly under threat from cuts. Many councils are cutting opening hours, cutting jobs (particularly professional posts), and reducing the materials budgets. This is a false economy. Councillors and candidates in the forthcoming Scottish council elections should be campaigning for decent library provision and proper staffing levels, not cuts to this vital service.

I'll finish with Julia Donaldson, Waterstones Children’s Laureate, who has written a dedicated poem to celebrate National Libraries Day.

Everyone is welcome to walk through the door.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.
There are books in boxes and books on shelves.
They’re free for you to borrow, so help yourselves.

Come and meet your heroes, old and new,
From William the Conqueror to Winnie the Pooh.
You can look into the Mirror or read The Times,
Or bring along a toddler to chant some rhymes.

The librarian’s a friend who loves to lend,
So see if there’s a book that she can recommend.
Read that book, and if you’re bitten
You can borrow all the other ones the author’s written.

Are you into battles or biography?
Are you keen on gerbils or geography?
Gardening or ghosts? Sharks or science fiction?
There’s something here for everyone, whatever your addiction.

There are students revising, deep in concentration,
And school kids doing projects, finding inspiration.
Over in the corner there’s a table with seating,
So come along and join in the Book Club meeting.

Yes, come to the library! Browse and borrow,
And help make sure it’ll still be here tomorrow.