Category Archives: Political witterings
The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month
If it’s Friday night, it must be politics night.
Tonight, there is not one, but two political lectures taking place. One, in the memory of the late, great Bob McLean will be delivered by Trevor Phillips at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on George Street.
The second is by Douglas Alexander MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary, who is delivering a lecture to mark the 50th Anniversary of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. The whole text will be available later today over at Labour Hame and it will definitely be worth a look. Hearing it delivered will be well worth it too, as it is a mighty fine speech, even if I disagree with a fair bit of the argument.
Douglas is right to try and analyse what has been going on in the last 12 months and in particular, why support for independence has not grown to match the increase in support generally for the SNP. “How do we explain the fact that in the wake of the SNP’s greatest ever election victory, after securing the referendum they had willed and worked towards all their political existence, while commanding a comfortable majority in the Scotland Parliament and while controlling the full apparatus of the Scottish Government, the support for independence is at best becalmed and, in reality, quite possibly diminished?”
Importantly, he reminds us that while “the referendum is new, the debate is not“, rightly pointing out that the constitutional debate about Scotland’s future and that the failure of the yes camp to move the debate on is fuelled by two distinct deep “drivers”. The first was encapsulated by the Olympics and people’s attitude to their success and in particular, the success of Scottish athletes within the British squad. This, Douglas suggests, is that the Olympics “exposed something deeper about the very real and confident connections, the personal relationships that have helped build the United Kingdom over the past 300 years.” His contention that the SNP – or the Nationalists as he somewhat annoyingly refers to the Yes camp generally – tried to use the Olympics to construct a different narrative – that the rest of the UK has become so foreign a place with such different values, a foreign place so lacking in points of deep connectedness, and with so little sense of being neighbours, that we should split apart – is essentially right. It wasn’t even subtle, and he is also right to suggest that it failed.
Where he is wrong is to try to afford deeper meaning and significance to the Olympics as a test of our inter-connectedness on these islands. The argument around his second driver is more persuasive, which is that the potential prospect of a return to power by Labour at the 2015 UK General Election – as evidenced by current poll ratings, if not by the Eastleigh by-election result – will do for the narrative that only independence can save Scotland from perpetual Tory rule. Douglas considers this as “an opportunistic political strategy designed to make antipathy to the Tories synonymous with support for independence. But like the response to the Olympics, it reveals a deep misunderstanding of the Scottish sense of identity, and of our relationship with our friends and family, and neighbours.”
Instead, he considers that if this is a debate, a national conversation about identity, then it needs to factor in the whole of our relationship with the rest of the UK, which is “as cultural, indeed as personal, as it is political”. And he asserts that because the Nationalists are losing the argument on identity, they have shifted tack to frame the choice in the referendum as an ideological one, pointing to recent speeches made by the Depute First Minister in particular, which outline the rationale for choosing independence.
In trying to explain what he sees as wrong with this approach, Douglas quotes Tom Nairn: “the state has entered a historical cul-de-sac from which no exit is visible”. This narrative, Douglas suggests, conveniently ignores the gradual expansion of the devolution settlement and our increasing international inter-dependence, achieved as part of the UK. He acknowledges a desire for change but:
“The change we want is different from the change they promise. And as Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory Government and supporting the permanent break up of Britain…that one is political, the other is also personal and that our identity is deeper, richer and more diverse than the philosophy of any one political party.”
If there is anything resembling a central tenet, a philosophy ahent many Scottish Labour folk’s resistance to independence, this is it.
In order to dismiss the SNP’s “ideological case for independence” founded on principles of “democracy and social justice“, Alexander revisits the past, citing great social policy achievements, most of them delivered by a Labour Government at some point in the last 70 years. He suggests that this marks the central fault line between the SNP and Labour: the SNP want independence to deliver social justice solely for Scotland, while in looking back, “the bearers of that Scottish tradition of social justice, with which the SNP now tries to associate itself, understood that social justice was not just for Scotland, but was a universal ideal: a statement of solidarity and connectedness with neighbours and the strangers.”
And he suggests that not only does the SNP “misunderstand the past, it misunderstands the present”….“But the Nationalists claim relies on the implicit but spurious assertion not only that we as Scots are committed to social justice, but that our friends, family and colleagues across the rest of the UK are not. That explains my difficulty with the recent rhetoric of Scotland as ‘a progressive beacon’. It is not simply that the rhetoric is belied by the inequality and poverty still sadly present in Scotland today. It is something deeper. I reject a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK.”
This final section of the speech sets out Alexander’s most stinging critique of the SNP’s position, while at the same time, urging Labour to acknowledge and embrace the fact that Scotland does want change.
“It must be a disorienting, indeed painful, reckoning for the Scottish nationalists to be confronted daily with the accumulating evidence that the change Scotland wants is different from the change they promise. The inconvenient truth for the nationalists is that their disagreement is not with their political opponent – it is with the overwhelming opinion of people in Scotland. This is not a party political fight. It is a conflict between the sovereign will of the Scottish people and the settled will of the SNP. The sophisticated view of the Scottish electorate can be seen through opinion polls – polls in which the electorate is carefully picking horses for courses. These polls challenge Scottish Labour to renew ourselves to regain the public’s trust and their votes. That is the vital work that our leader Johann Lamont is now taking forward. Yet even more unequivocally, these polls confirm that the SNP’s independence plan is viewed as an analogue offering in a digital world. But, as Scottish Labour, we should be in no doubt that Scotland does want change.”
The focus then is on setting out a vision for Scotland which is curiously old Labour – for one who cut his political teeth on Blairite New Labour politics – in its core composition. This section is highly personal and full of stirring rhetoric – as a vision of a future Scotland, it hits all the right buttons for a leftie like me. And within it, we can see hints of how UK Labour will present its case at the 2015 General Election. In outlining our current travails, both economic and social, Douglas suggests that it all comes down to this: “are we up to the challenge of building and sustaining a good society in austere times?” This neatly encapsulates the challenge for Labour, both in the UK and within the national conversation in Scotland – the need to persuade the voters that Labour is up to the challenge of leading this shift.
He finishes his speech by focusing on this task, of the need for those who want to stay in the UK to make the case for change before the referendum and then, after it, in the run up to 2016. Crucially, Douglas sets out his stall for more devolution and makes a plea for a different discourse:
“Too much of our political life has been dominated by debates about constitutional change to the exclusion of social, political, cultural and economic change. And those debates have been further diminished by a recurring “I’m right, you’re wrong”, “He said, she said” conflictual discourse that satisfies no-one. Least of all those it is supposedly there to persuade. It has led to a shallowing, not a deepening, of our debates about the kind of nation we should be. So having decided Scotland’s constitutional future, we should be debating instead the different Scotland we want to build.”
He calls for the establishment of a Scottish Convention in 2015 “to chart a new vision for an old nation in the next decade”.
There is a whole separate blogpost to be written analysing this proposal but what is most interesting about this speech is its thoughtfulness. Yes supporters might scoff but this is a leadership speech, not in terms of a pitch for position, but as an attempt to lead the debate and thinking around the kind of contribution Scottish Labour should be making in the National Conversation.
Many of us might disagree with his deconstruction of the SNP’s narrative and positioning in this National Conversation but the arguments are deftly put. The fact that someone in Labour has done so – and can do so, so eloquently – is interesting in itself.
More exciting – for the body politic in general – is that here is someone who straddles Scottish and UK Labour, who is making the connections between how Labour has to contest the referendum with its pitch for power in the 2015 General Election. And then, also sets out how Labour, if in power, should take forward the devolution settlement. Labour, Douglas Alexander contends, should be a voice for hope in the national conversation.
There is plenty to disagree with in his arguments but the very fact that he is setting out a positive course for his party to take in this debate is a symbol of hope all in itself.
some many who read this blog who no doubt think that the Eastleigh by-election is no concern of ours. You all might want to look away now.
But the backdrop to it, and the way in which it is being fought, is of interest to political anoraks, for it is zeitgeisty. At least, to this observer.
First, there’s Labour. I watched the Channel 4 News hustings and took a long hard look at the candidates for all of five minutes. John O’Farrell stood out head and shoulders above them all. By saying very little.
Everything about him screamed decent human being. A lifelong supporter of a party who now wants to get involved; to lend his not inconsiderable talents to a greater purpose; and essentially, a non-politician’s potential politician. He has brought humour to his thankful task – his tweets have been a joy to follow – and displayed diffidence and honesty. All the reasons why he should win but won’t, though if Labour has any sense, it will find him – and his ilk in the party – a safe berth for 2015.
It is likely that Labour’s vote will fall in this by-election and they will trail in in fourth place. That should in no way reflect on the candidate but on the party and its leadership. In truth, it was never going to overhaul a standing start of a 9% share of the vote but the main opposition party, scoring consistently highly over the coalition parties in the polls, should have made a better fist of it. Labour either didn’t bother – and if not, why not – or couldn’t get its act together. If it’s the latter, then they should be mighty worried about the state of its campaigning machine: as a dress rehearsal for the 2015 election, this does not augur well, for it is in constituencies like this, albeit more marginal, that it will need to persuade Lib Dem voters to switch directly to it to win.
The coalition parties have fought a curious battle, trying to persuade the voters that the only way to keep the other out is by voting for them. It’s the kind of labyrinthine logic much practised at by-elections: both sides hope the electorate fails to see that the Emperor has no clothes. If either win, it provides a filip to the notion of a coalition government and its programme which is hell bent on destroying the economy, society and the basic pillars of state infrastructure. Those of us up here – and that includes the North of England in this instance – will groan audibly. Voters either use such by-elections to deliver a kicking to the incumbent parties or are so caught up in local concerns that they ignore the bigger picture completely.
And for all the shared concern about jobs, the economy and the cost of living, Eastleigh is the sort of constituency which helps to accentuate the geographical difference in political beliefs and habits on these islands. When we see how those issues play in the minds of the goodly folk of deep-south constituencies like this, it is easy to conclude that Scotland and England are indeed very different, near foreign lands.
Thus, Maria Hutchings is the sort of Conservative candidate whom we haven’t seen much of in these parts recently. Forthright and far right, the irony is that she is managing to make the UKIP candidate appear like a paragon of common sense. She is symptomatic of the fault lines in the Tory psyche at the moment and representative of everything David Cameron would like to leave behind. She is a throwback to previous parliamentary times and William Hague’s ill-fated and jarring general election campaign.
The Tories were best placed to capitalise on the Lib Dems’ local and national travails but not with this candidate. Which is curious and does not augur well for the prospect of a majority win in 2015. A loss here – and the Tories might well lose – will heap pressure on Cameron, with more dissenting voices demanding a return to Tory bad old ways.
UKIP, I am sad to relate, has played a blinder. It picked a local candidate who comes across as ordinary, respectable and is playing the game very well. Everything – or nearly everything – Diane James said at those televised hustings sounded plausible and sensible. And left me feeling distinctly queasy. This xenophobic party is beginning to hide its true colours well, even if it does speak in blatant untruths. This morning on GMS, Diane James recounted the tale of a local man who has been unemployed for 10 years, tried for every job going but is giving up. Only yesterday, she said, he was at an interview for a job and out of twelve candidates, ten of them were European. Oh, it’s subtle and remarkably silver-tongued.
Those closer to the campaign suggest that if there was another week to go, UKIP would win this contest, such is the speed with which the other parties are haemorraghing potential votes to it. It might still leapfrog both Labour and the Conservatives into second place. And frankly, we don’t really know how the stench and taint of scandal hanging over the Lib Dems at the moment will play out in voters’ minds.
But the Lib Dems have done in this by-election what they do so well: used a highly effective local machine as the base upon which to build a successful underdog, oppositionalist campaign. The candidate, Mike Thornton, is local and played the Chris Huhne thing just right. But whether or not the current Rennard allegations – and what it says about the Lib Dem leadership generally when coupled with the Huhne disgrace – hurts the Lib Dems or as John O’Farrell suggested, encourages voters to deliver a plague on all the parties’ houses, remains to be seen.
The most recent poll put the Lib Dems five percentage points above the Tories and about ten points above UKIP. It’s not enough of a margin to suggest they are home and dry, even though with its strong local standing, this by-election should have been an easy hold for them – despite the circumstances in which it is being fought.
And that lead was recorded at the weekend – and as anyone who has ever fought a by-election can testify – a week really is a long time in such campaigns. If UKIP has the momentum then it could conceivably make huge inroads into that lead and perhaps even overhaul it; it’s doubtful that the Tories, unless they have somehow got much more sophisticated at differential turnout in recent times, can overcome the mood music. The Lib Dems might just manage to hold off and hold on: no one can call it and for political anoraks, that in itself makes it exciting.
If it turns out to be a Lib Dem hold, we are unlikely to remember this by-election other than for marking the complete downfall of the Lib Dems as some kind of other-worldly third party in UK politics. Its cover image has now been well and truly blown and it will have to take its chances in the big elections with the other two.
But if UKIP does manage to pull off the remarkable and win this seat, then we will be remembering it for a long time to come. Eastleigh will mark a watershed in UK politics and not in a good way. In some respects, a UKIP victory would mark the completion of the journey Thatcher began in the 1980s in terms of overhauling our belief system: it might be a protest vote but it will say something pretty fundamental about what constituencies like Eastleigh have to protest about and how they go about it.
And the nature of that protest and its manifestation in a UKIP victory might well have consequences for the independence referendum up here.
Now that the dust has settled on the headlines of councils’ budgets, what does the detail tell us? Largely, that very little changes. That every year, officers and elected members engage in a highly sophisticated game of brinkmanship over cuts, only now they have brought “the people” into the process through extended and largely impotent consultation processes. Because whatever it is that those hardy members of the public who toddle along to be bombarded by financial science think they are nodding in agreement with, I’m pretty sure it isn’t that children should pay the highest price of austerity.
And that’s exactly what Glasgow City Council has done. To some extent, it is inevitable if, like most councils, a one-size fits all approach to budget cut-making is taken. If the call is for each department to bring forward their 5% cuts options, then education and social work as local authorities’ biggest spenders will indubitably end up with a bigger proportion of cuts.
Despite it continuing to be the mode for budget-making all over the country, it really won’t do. Nor will the lack of detail and trust in ability to use the ubiquitous review to save pennies. A review is local government’s equivalent of searching through all coat pockets and at the bottom of all bags, purses and wallets for change for the bus. And to think we pay these people big salaries for the privilege.
Thus, in Glasgow, its related companies – the arms length bodies which have caused no little controversy in recent years – are going to save nearly £1 million through a range of efficiencies. Glasgow City Marketing Bureau is taking its PR activity in-house and saving the taxpayer £36k per year while Glasgow Life is building on its current energy efficiency scheme with staff to save £240k this year. Funnily enough, the amount saved drops to £100k in 2014-15 and there is no sign of an accumulated, ongoing saving. Does this mean that staff won’t be exhorted quite so much to turn off the lights and the heating down next year?
Similarly, Land and Environmental Services is going to save the taxpayers £276,000 this year (and nothing next) through “efficiencies in contracts management in the supply base coupled with income generation measures”. All of which remain currently unspecified. Development and regeneration services goes one better by offering up “non essential spend efficiencies” from a “reduction in expenditure across subscriptions, printing and advertising through a review and streamlining of processes”. Though its saving of £50k this year reduces to £20k next year. Is it too radical to suggest that all non-essential spend should just cease?
Aside from tinkering around the margins of what they do, these types of services are offering up their biggest savings either through jobs going or by hiking up prices and charges. Though, of course, they don’t say that jobs will go. Corporate Services aims to find over half a million of savings this year from “corporate and service productivity reforms”; Glasgow Life will “more closely align workforce with service using better staff scheduling” to save a substantial £1.1 million over 2 years; and Land and Environmental Services will put an additional £1.3 million into the kitty through increased income generation through “a renewed focus on marketing and trading by in-house teams encompassing recycling income, Glasgow Flowers, grounds maintenance, bereavement services and transport”. What this means is that they will charge education more for grass cutting of school pitches in a classic robbing Peter to pay Paul manoeuvre and charge folk more to be buried.
But this is all pie in the sky in any event. There is no guarantee of the level of income generation forecast. If there are detailed calculations and equations behind any of these figures, I’d love to see them: more likely, a blunt percentage increase on income generated in previous years was applied. And if the increased income doesn’t materialise, are these same departments expected to make their efficiencies in other ways? Don’t count on it. Which puts even more pressure on front-line services which spend considerable amounts like education and social work.
In education, the workforce is going to take a battering. Remember the stushie in Renfrewshire over the SNP’s proposal to cease providing teachers in nursery schools? Guess what? It’s being done in Glasgow but ever the wily political veterans, the Labour group has buried this proposal in a £5million package of “alterations to staff allocation”. The council intends over the next two years to raise class sizes in primary schools (“review of staffing formula in primary schools”), cut subject choice in secondaries (“improved timetabling in secondaries to maximise staffing”), replace teachers in nurseries with “team leader child development officers” and will hit additional support for learning staffing for a second time in this budget. The only measure which suggests planned rather than panicked reprovisioning is the shift to “cluster heads for early years”.
And if we were in any doubt that it is children – and the most vulnerable children – who will bear the brunt of Glasgow’s budget savings, the £2.4 million saving identified for additional support for learning by reducing additional support for learning staff, merging and relocating more establishments, reforming hospital education and stopping the ASL summer programmes confirm it. Additionally, there will be a review of out of school care lets where out of school care services do not run to capacity – which probably means stopping lets to clubs and schemes in poorer areas where higher unemployment ensures there is less demand for after school care. The cost of a school dinner and a breakfast club place is going up, and for the first time, charges will be introduced for fruit and snacks in nurseries on the grounds that it brings pre-school children into line with school age.
In social work, there are jobs and front line services going and privatisation by stealth. The meals service is putting prices up, limiting choice to two courses and moving 390 Cordia clients of its meals at home service “to an alternative service provider who deals directly with clients”. This package provides a one off saving of £306,000. £87,000 will be saved by “redirecting” transport provision for playschemes and community groups; Cordia is stopping its handperson service; and posts will be done away with in hospital social work services, the centre for sensory impairment, community work and homelessness teams. As usual, the voluntary sector will take a big hit totalling over £2 million in 2 years. Apparently there will be “minimal impact on service users”. Yep, that’s what they always say.
What amazes me is how little of this kind of detail finds its way into the public domain, through the media. The detail of the figures might be dull but the potential impact is not. What Glasgow City Council’s budget means is a hard time in the next two years for low income families in particular. It’s bad enough the ConDems whacking their living standards with their austerity measures without local councils adding to their misery.
Yet, this same council has a restricted reserve fund of £4.6 million for culture and recreation, which includes the Commonwealth Games. This fund, it says, is fully committed for the coming year ie that it is spent already. Never mind that some families will be struggling to give their children enough to eat in the next year, at least there will be a circus to take their mind off the hunger pangs.