Category Archives: Political witterings

The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month

The SNP and Labour, for better or worse

There are couples we all know who appear not to be able to live together nor live apart. They bicker and feud all marriage or partnership long, neither finding much to like or praise about the other. Often, the banter is good-natured, if a little wearing for its audience, and some really do like an audience. They tend not to put on such a performance when it’s just the two of them and rub along just dandy with small kindnesses and shared habits, born of living closely together. Secret rituals which puzzle the onlooker.

Others though, have you wincing at the barbs and the taunts and wondering why they don’t just split up. Having voiced this to a few such couples I’ve encountered in my time, the reaction is almost one of disbelief. The thought has never occurred to them. Or if it has, there are ready excuses as to why they stay.

Occasionally, you get to witness sublime moments of affection, instances which make you truly stop and wonder and admire. But then they go and spoil it. Back to business as usual, the default setting of a pattern of ingrained behaviour, a cycle which neither are willing nor wont to break.

A bit like the SNP and Labour over the bedroom tax. Here is an issue upon which both parties are agreed in opposing, for largely similar reasons. Listen to any MSP from either party and you’d be hard pushed to determine which is which. Holyrood’s welfare reform committee is united in demanding its downfall.

At first, Labour called on the SNP government to do more with the powers we have in Scotland to mitigate against its pernicious effects. The SNP was unmoved. Both parties have said they will abolish it, Labour if it wins the 2015 UK General election, the SNP if Scotland votes yes in September and assumes powers over welfare and benefits.

Both parties have made efforts at local government level to find routes around it, though some local administrations appear not to have got their party memos and have justified not doing anything with the powers they have to address it. Often it’s been as petty as if the Labour/SNP opposition group moves for a stand to be taken, the Labour/SNP led administration refuses to support it.

Find £50 million from the Scottish budget, Labour cried. You could if you really wanted to, they blustered. Tell us what you’d cut instead, the SNP demanded. We would if we could, the party of government countered.

And then, yesterday, a breakthrough. The Depute First Minister has indeed found the necessary readies to offset its impact but needs Westminster to allow the Scottish Government to breach its arbitrary rules on housing discretionary grant.

Labour’s response? Effusive acclamation? Dinna be daft. Apparently, that’s not what the Scottish Government should be doing. Apparently it should be adopting and advocating a scheme developed in East Lothian which appears to achieve the same effect as Jackie Baillie’s bill without the need for legislation.

The SNP’s response? Rejoicing that a further solution has been found? Naw. Our way or no way it would appear.

It would cost both parties zilch to welcome each other’s efforts to find solutions. Even if they had to grit their teeth, surely they could share this platform and demonstrate their determination to find common cause. That occasionally we can be better together when we find ways of going it alone.

But so used have they become to the snipe of day to day politics, they cannot even countenance a ceasefire. By habit and repute, they are set on a course of constant arty bargy, desperate to find the next stair heid in which to stage a rammy.

And we the voters, the onlookers are left scratching our heads in bewilderment. Is it too late to hope that they could all stop for a moment and reflect on why they came into politics in the first place?

Grown up politics

What a week.  Indeed, the sort of week in politics which requires everyone to go and lie in a darkened room for a while and recover.

If there is a discernible pattern, it is that everyone – to a greater or lesser degree – is “playing the man not the ball”.

Johann Lamont’s starting position for every First Minister’s Questions appears to be to snide and sneer at said First Minister – and if she can get a wee pop at his sidekick, the Depute First Minister, as she did this week, then that appears to count for double. It’s dispiriting and unedifying.

There was the expose of the cybernats by that bastion of taste and rectitude, the Daily Mail.  And a counterclaim by an SNP MSP of dirty tricks.  And ultimately the First Minister – who frankly has better things to be doing, like running a country and a referendum – having to come out and call for calm.  Play nicely was his plea, which was ignored, of course, by everyone engaging in the internet battle for hearts, minds and votes. 

Currency wars resulted in everyone rushing out to wave goodbye leaflets at commuters on Friday. Which must have puzzled them somewhat. But then engaging the voter wasn’t really the point.  The fun was in activists getting to fight a guerilla war with each other – and having done it myself, I know how fun it can be - but this is supposed to be about them not us.  And if all that sounds a little sanctimonious, I apologise.  The point is if this “biggest decision in a generation” debate has degenerated into a bunfight among ourselves, well, therein lies disaster.  A referendum is not an election after all.

And then we had that House of Lords’ debate on  the independence referendum. Of course, the headline-makers helped to obscure some thoughtful contributions but if you ever wanted to emphasise how anachronistic the concept of an unelected revising chamber can be, then you might want to put out an edited highlights on Youtube.  It wasn’t just Lord Lang insulting us , there were others at it too.  Mainly, these are yesterday’s men (and they are mostly men) who having made their way under the status quo are anxious to keep it that way. They are an argument for change all in themselves. 

So, having just played the men rather than the ball myself – we’re all at it and frankly, they’re an easy target – let’s turn to proper politics.  Grown up stuff which examines policy options.

As an academic institution, if both Yes and No claim that your research report helps their case, you’ve done your job well.  Thus, Stirling University’s report into tackling inequality found selective favour.  The whole thing is definitely worth a read, even if I was toiling with some of the economic constructs at times.  Making your brain hurt is good for you and we need more, not less of that in this debate.

What this report shows is that politics is actually very hard, if it is played as chess rather than tig. The research explored the effectiveness of a range of economic levers at tackling inequality.  They looked at the powers Scotland has, the powers coming to Holyrood through the Scotland Act 2012 and the powers Scotland would have if independent and modelled the impact of a range of options.  The conclusion is that no matter what fiscal and economic levers you have, tackling inequality  and closing the gap is a tough one, if you rely only on progressive, redistributive tax and benefit policies to do so. The report concludes that the reason Nordic countries – to which many aspire to emulate – has greater equality is because it has less inequality in earnings.  We need a more equitable starting point altogether, which make policies like the living wage almost irresistible.  

It’s all good, interesting stuff but the key aspect for me was the potential outcomes from either re-valuating the council tax or raising it in its current form.  A revaluation might address inequality but it would raise precious little income and a council tax rise actually increases inequality.  How?  Here’s the view of the report’s authors:

“The Council Tax revaluation specified here is virtually revenue neutral, raising an additional £8m in council tax revenues (relative to £2b total revenue from this source). This policy can achieve a high impact on inequality with minimal impact on overall government finances. However it can have large impacts at an individual level – there are a small number of households with low income but exposure to the top bands of council tax who are hit hard by this policy: compare the 5% loss in net household income for some households to the direct revenue raised of only £8m.

 The council tax rise scenario is unusual in that a tax increase actually increases the GINI. This result occurs because a rise in council tax disproportionately affects lower and middle income households: higher income households’ council tax liability is smaller as a proportion of their income than lower income households; so a flat percentage rise in the rate of council tax is more burdensome on the lower half of the income distribution.”

Which last point, Labour proponents of a rise – except when a by-election is on, of course – might want to ponder. 

The fact that this little nugget has been overlooked rather makes the case that we are all so obsessed with the future, we are ignoring the here and now.  Or maybe it’s been ignored because this analysis suggests that the only thing worth doing with the council tax is to abolish it and replace it with something more equitable and progressive.  What that might be is uncomfortable, difficult territory for all parties and requires grown up politics to even broach, never mind achieve.

In the current febrile atmosphere, don’t expect an outbreak of maturity anytime soon.

Show them the money

Apparently, there are lots of people out there still seeking information about the consequences of voting yes or no in the independence referendum.  In fact, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings published last week, the longer the referendum campaign goes on, the less informed people feel and the more unsure they are of how they’ll vote.  

Which is astonishing really. Particularly when you consider that since the start of 2014 we have been deluged with papers, speeches and opinions, most of it coming from the No camp.  Better Together appears to be working to achieve a barrage effect:  by keeping up a constant bombardment of artillery fire, the other side won’t even have time to get their weapons loaded.  Yet, it would seem that the electorate is becoming used to the ack-ack of another big set-piece speech, another UK government paper, another finger-pointing, doom laden portentous observation.  They are effectively putting their fingers in their ears and hoping it will all go away.

What the bombast does show is that Better Together has many units upon which to call to fight its air war.  Its own campaign and myriad groupings; the three main political parties which form its backbone;  the UK Government and its battalions of civil servants; some significant public figures, commentators, even the odd celebrity; and of course, a media willing to splash every banal announcement as though the day of reckoning had arrived.  It helps that Better Together has sufficient big names (in the view of the media at least) that in one day it can blanket the news agenda with its sound and fury.

By contrast, the armoury in Yes Scotland seems pretty thin.  Aside from the key protagonists in the Scottish Government – leading SNP figures – who and what have we seen out there on the frontline in recent weeks?  Zilch from any of the other parties in the Yes camp, a welcome book launch offering an alternative vision from Jim Sillars, re-emerging onto the Scottish political scene for one last big push, smatterings from other vision-makers such as Radical Independence and the Common Weal.  But where is Yes Scotland?  There is no sense of its imprint on any of this, nor of its being the central axis for co-ordinating efforts to counter the air attacks with a few of its own.

The focus for Yes Scotland appears to be at grassroots level, with community activism and small conversations and public meetings key.  The Yes camp is also relying heavily on Scotland’s Future to provide the answers people seek on every eventuality in the run up to and immediate aftermath of independence.  What it means is that this campaign is being fought in two different arenas, which makes the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s findings even more fascinating.  Whose approach is winning?

You could argue no-one’s. The second most interesting finding is that the referendum campaign appears focused on issues that voters are not very bothered about:  the issues dominating the guerilla warfare between the two camps are ones that many voters aren’t prepared to go to war for.  EU membership, welfare and even nationhood are not the big players the headlines would suggest.  So why are both camps devoting so much ammunition to them?

Indeed, worryingly for Yes Scotland and the SNP, some of its narrative appears to be running counter to the trend of public opinion in Scotland.  Where the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has mapped trends in opinion, it is that fewer now support staying in the EU or at least wish to see reform.  Many Scots appear to support welfare reform – or at least, been captivated by the rhetoric peddled by first Labour and now Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments about the cushiness of benefits.

We  might warm to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK, of creating a fairer society, but drill down into the detail and our opinions do not differ hugely from prevailing opinion elsewhere on these islands.  And if that creates a problem for those in the Yes camp’s narrative, it also suggests that Labour’s theme of all one big left-leaning family together doesn’t exactly chime either.

So eight months to go, eighteen months in and everyone on both sides might as well have stayed in bed.  Or at least, that’s the impression given by this survey.  The shift is not from no to yes or even yes to no, but of yes and no becoming more fluid.  As the survey suggests, those occupying the neutral zone are not just the usual suspects of never votes and won’t vote.  They do appear to be genuinely undecided and looking for more information: just not on what they are currently being given.

There are key target groups in the undecided camp - women, 25 to 44 year olds, C2s – and what they want to know more about is the money.  Not the currency, not revenues, not big numbers, but the rather more prosaic issue of what’s in it for me and mine.

This much we have always known, so why is the debate not coming down into the trenches where voters want it to be fought?  It is remarkable to think that the princely sum of £500 could swing the referendum vote either way.  Those who earn well above the average wage may scoff but clearly £500 is still considered to be a big enough amount of money by many in Scotland to symbolise a gain in real terms.  This fact in itself should stop us all in our tracks – there are enough people in Scotland who think that £500 is a big enough sum to change their lives forever and to prompt them to want to change their lives forever.

People don’t want answers to the big economic questions, they want it explained in terms that are meaningful and indeed, personal to their households.  Will I still have my job?  How much will I earn?  Will I pay more tax?  How will independence affect my household finances?  How much will a bottle of wine cost?  How much will it cost to run a car? 

This is where Yes needs to take the debate and to open up two fronts.  First, the Scottish Government needs to ensure the public know that with the limited powers it has, it is responsible for staving off the worst effects of the financial crisis, but it also needs to mimic Labour’s UK cost of living crisis campaign, pointing the finger squarely at the UK Government and the worst excesses of its brand of economic recovery for people feeling pain and bearing the brunt.  High energy prices, high food bills, frozen wages, hidden taxes – all of it is Westminster’s fault.  You can only be positive if there is a negative reference point, after all.

At the same time, it needs to show, budgetary style, how independence and making different choices with all the fiscal levers available would make a difference.  What does £500 better off look like to families in different circumstances and how will independence make that happen?  Nicola Sturgeon’s focus yesterday at the Scottish Women’s Convention on how childcare will benefit young parents and of how a living wage will help women in particular, is good stuff.  But more needs to be done.

There are signs that the long gameplan for Yes is working, that despite the noise and fury of the naysayers, the focus on momentum rather than a Eureka moment as Stephen Noon’s excellent article in Scotland on Sunday outlines, is starting to turn votes.  It is reassuring that when pushed, many don’t knows are more inclined to vote yes, but at some point, Yes needs to start moving people from their holding position and into departure mode. They need to feel that the big step is worth taking and all they need to feel better off by is £500. 

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings reinforce much of what we already know – and which both Yes and No camps will know in forensic detail, in terms of where the persuadables lie in this debate. Better Together appears to think that it just needs to beat those inching their way from no to yes back;  Yes Scotland needs to entice them across no man’s land.  Showing them the money might well be the key to doing so.


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