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, 19 March 2020

The case for Universal Basic Services

If the current crisis teaches us anything, it has to be the importance of a genuine safety net for everyone in our society and the weakness of the global economic system. COVID-19 has brutally exposed the failings of capitalism and the failure to maintain effective public services.

Now that a crisis threatens to wreck the livelihoods of those normally comfortable under capitalism, there are pleas for increased state support that were previously confined to the left. Robert Peston, writing in The Spectator of all journals, quotes a Tory minister saying; “We’ll find ourselves implementing most of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme.”

The crisis should be an opportunity to rethink our approach. Instead of a series of ad-hoc measures and bailouts without conditions, we should recognise the value of systems that provide the essentials for everyone.

For example, last December many commentators regarded Labour’s plan for a British Broadband Service as unrealistic. Today, universal, free, full-fibre broadband is an essential service for almost everyone who is trying to minimise face to face contact. Some of the opposition came from the same people who would have opposed free education or universal access to clean water in the 19th century.  

The crisis has highlighted the case for Universal Basic Income. While there are sceptics (including me) over this as a long-term plan, there is a strong temporary case, which could add to our understanding of how it might work in the longer term. It should at least get the DWP and HMRC to cooperate with the planned Scottish pilots.

Ed Miliband makes a good case for turning statutory sick pay into employment retention pay, available to all those workers whose businesses have had to cease or reduce activity due to the crisis. If Denmark can pay up to a 75% cap – so can we.

Another idea is Universal Basic Services (UBS). Anna Coote and Andrew Percy make a case for expanding the principle of collective universal service provision in their new book. The goal as they put it is; “Acting together to help each other, and ourselves, so that everyone has access to three things that are fundamental to a successful, peaceful, functioning democracy: security, opportunity and participation.”

 Central to their case is that we must improve the quality of existing services and reach into new areas such as care, housing, transport and digital access. This is the collective ideal, which the current crisis is bringing out in many communities. The politics of individual choice and market competition leads to the actions of some supermarket customers and the spivs in private healthcare selling testing kits for just short of £300.

This doesn’t mean just using existing service delivery models - services need to be genuinely participative. This can be linked to measures that provide meaningful engagement with wider forms of democracy.

The authors take us through the benefits of UBS, concisely outlining and referencing the evidence. This is not an academic tome, it is very readable while pointing to further reading. They set out how UBS could be rolled out and address the challenges and likely responses. They cost the additional expenditure required for the services proposed at around 4.3% of GDP for a typical OECD country, less than 15% of total government spending. And that doesn’t take account of the savings brought about by economies of scale and a healthier population.

As the post-war rebuilding, 2008 financial crisis, and now COVID-19 shows, when governments decide to increase spending, it is more a matter of political choice than applying rules of contemporary economics. 

While it is right that we focus on the measures necessary to tackle the current crisis, we should also learn the lessons. There will be those on the far-right who will exploit the crisis with disinformation, conspiracies and scapegoating. We need to develop new, sustainable solutions based on social justice. A starting point is ensuring everybody has access to collective services that are sufficient to meet their needs. 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Turning climate change rhetoric into action

Despite the best efforts of industry lobbyists, the debate over whether climate change is happening is over.  In Scotland, we have ambitious targets, but targets alone don’t remove emissions from the atmosphere. For that, we need equally ambitious action plans.

The Scottish Government has recently published a new Environment Strategy. It offers some long- overdue reassurance that our environment and biodiversity will be protected and enhanced in the face of the climate emergency. It also recognises that the climate and nature crises are intrinsically linked.

Like many government strategies, it is strong on vision, has lovely infographics, and describes processes.  There are some actual plans, such as SEPA’s sector plans, expanding forestry, and re-using vacant land. Other plans don’t really have the level of activity that most organisations would recognise as an action plan. In fairness, there is a commitment to outcome pathways, but we are not there yet.

As the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said, Scotland and the UK now need to "walk the talk". Not least because we are hosting COP26 in November - international experts will not be much impressed by a nice infographic. 

A key area for action is industrial strategy. We need a Green Industrial Revolution that includes a massive investment in low-carbon infrastructure. People in cold, damp homes waste over £400 on gas every year, and fuel poverty is a challenge for many households. Retrofitting homes would employ thousands of people, and the resulting health benefits of warmer homes could save the NHS millions.

A real industrial strategy, including the creative use of public procurement, will stop the reduction of emissions by simply offshoring jobs. The recent loss of contracts to manufacture turbines for a wind farm off the Fife coast demonstrates the dismal failure of the Government to link climate action and industrial strategy.

This is something highlighted in the interim report of the Just Transition Commission. The report also stresses the importance of turning sectoral emission targets into detailed Just Transition plans. As they say; “To date this sort of planning has not been undertaken in as rigorous a manner as might be the case.”

Transport is responsible for more than a third of Scotland’s greenhouse gases, while estimates suggest air pollution causes upwards of 2,500 deaths every year. Electric cars will be part of the solution, but what is needed a real shift to public transport and active travel. This means a step change in the provision of low-emission buses and the early electrification of our railways. Aviation growth also has to be curbed and needs measures like a frequent flyer levy, if the polluter pays principle is to mean anything.

A lot of progress has been made in decarbonising electricity generation in Scotland, but that still leaves heat decarbonisation, which will require the roll-out of technologies like solar hot water and hydrogen and investment in district heat networks.

A recent WWF report clearly sets out the actions needed to reduce emissions in agriculture. I am not sure this week’s NFU report really steps up to the challenge with its steady-state message. We need a much more radical approach to land use and food production, as well as action on fertilisers and pesticides.

As this week's row over fossil fuel investments at Strathclyde Pension Fund shows, some parts of the public sector have some way to go in taking climate change action seriously.

Many of these issues are covered in a new Scottish Labour policy consultation paper.  The paper argues the action required to deliver on our climate change targets cannot simply be done by governments imposing top-down solutions. It requires grassroots action and social innovation, changing social norms and behaviour as much as technology. A (low carbon) net-zero economy can mean many more jobs, but we must ensure that there is a Just Transition, which doesn’t leave any community behind.

Scotland needs to demonstrate that we are not just a world leader in climate change ambition, but that we can also lead in climate change action.