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, 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.