“Ding Dong” is still the Song of the Clyde – politically at least

Two contrasting opinion pieces on all things Clyde-built this morning. Euan McColm takes Nicola Sturgeon to task, suggesting that her assertion that post-independence, of course Clyde ship builders could still make frigates for the Royal Navy, was rash and unfounded. “Sturgeon’s handling of this issue began so well. But today her argument is destroyed and her personal credibility damaged by that trade union attack. I wonder how she’ll get out of this one. I don’t see an obvious route.” Ouch. In fact, more than ouch, for McColm seems to think this might well be a hit which sinks the good ship Sturgeon.

And then we have Kevin McKenna in the Guardian denouncing the behaviour of Unionist politicians who used the job losses at Govan and Scotstoun to foretell impending doom if Scotland votes yes next September. “Last week in Scotland showed that there are still many in our midst who loathe and fear their own kind. There are those, including Davidson, Robertson and Carmichael, whose hatred and fear of independence is such that they would punish their own country by destroying part of its industrial infrastructure.” More ouch, this time for those on the No side.

So, which opinion is right?

There is no doubt that talking in certainties when the future of Scottish shipbuilding is anything but, is dangerous: why politicians persist in it is a puzzle.

What’s also a puzzle is that despite apparently spending the last twelve months squaring off the difficult questions about life post-UK, someone in the SNP inner circle forgot to include the defence manufacturing industry. Angus Robertson’s Powerpoint presentation at a fringe meeting ahead of last year’s great NATO debate at SNP conference – and indeed the motion setting out what a post-independence defence function would look like – should have addressed all this.  Perhaps it did and we’ve all forgotten. That’s what happens when you allow carefully crafted policy to be hijacked by a totem issue.

Also perplexing is why those what lead the rest of us yay-sayers persist in shaping the future of an independent Scotland around our continuing relationship with rUK. It instantly allows those who’d rather we stayed whole to rebut any claims about how that relationship might be founded; they, after all, as the larger partner reckon they hold more of the cards – and how does that sound familiar?

Yet, earlier in the week, Nicola Sturgeon was quite brilliant in holding up the Norwegian example as one that might provide a blueprint for Clyde shipbuilding post independence. Far from gaffing as Euan McColm suggests, I thought the Deputy First Minister was first class standing in at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. She expressed sympathy for jobs lost, including at Portsmouth, and relief at those saved; she brought Johann Lamont into the conversation, talking of what they shared as neighbouring MSPs; she highlighted the Norway example – again; and she called out the UK Government for daring to suggest that if Scotland votes yes, the Clyde won’t get to build those frigates after all, by quoting the UK Defence Secretary’s musings on collaboration with Australia on future defence procurement contracts. A vital contextual matter which Euan McColm conveniently ignores in his opinion piece.

In fact, the one criticism I would have of the Cabinet Secretary for Capital and Infrastructure’s handling of this situation this week is that she hasn’t fully exploited the failure of UK elected representatives for Govan and Scotstoun to do anything to diversify the order book and create a sustainable future for those workers.  Could someone, somewhere please ask Ian Davidson what exactly is it that he has done for those shipyards as the MP for the area for 21 years, other than appear like Banquo’s ghost whenever there’s bad news?

I share Kevin McKenna’s distaste for the behaviour of UK politicians this week:  if anyone has treated Scotland’s shipyards like a political football, it’s them.  And I’d also call out the GMB Official John Dolan for talking down the prospects for work post-independence.

In a week in which GMB Scotland declared its support for a No vote in the independence referendum, based on a series of consultative meetings but no workforce ballot, his remarks have surely to be qualified politically. After all, he’s speaking as a paid official of that union, not as an elected office-bearer from the workforce to either GMB Scotland’s regional council or indeed, its manufacturing branch. If, as he says, he’s speaking up for the workers, where’s his critique of successive Labour and Tory UK Governments which have allowed the prospects of Govan and Scotstoun to wither to the extent that their very future hangs on orders for two frigates that are still at least two years off having a rivet bolted on to them?

The crux of the matter boils down to this: who do Scots and indeed, the Clyde shipyard workers, families and communities trust to speak up for them and stand up for their interests more? An SNP Scottish Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK coalition government or even, Labour opposition politicians?  The polls all suggest the former but such is the fear-mongering going on in the referendum debate, the Scottish Government and its Ministers have been pushed onto the defensive again. This despite the evidence plain for all to see that a once mighty industry and workforce has been allowed to wither away almost to nothing by the failure of UK Governments to generate a blueprint for a sustainable future.

They need to find a way to stop this happening. There are no certainties for Govan and Scotstoun either in the UK or as part of an independent Scotland. There are only opportunities, possibilities and yes, threats and challenges. The SNP has already pointed out the positive example of Norway’s thriving and vibrant shipbuilding industry as one which could be mirrored here with a Yes vote.  Now put the ball back in the UK parties’ court:  beyond two frigates, what else has the UK got to offer the Clyde?  And what is it that Labour would do differently if elected in 2015?

Scotland on pause huh?

It’s one of Scottish Labour’s most tried, tested and apparently trusted lines. “This SNP lot are so obsessed with independence that they have forgotten about doing the day job of governing Scotland…. They’ve no time for real-time concerns, no inclination to use the powers they have… Scotland is on pause.” The inference is that if they just focused on what we pay them to do, we’d all be a lot better off.

It was used to dismiss this year’s Programme for Government; it is trotted out regularly by Johann Lamont at First Minister Questions; increasingly, it is used when lambasting a perceived failure or weakness or running away from an issue by the Scottish Government; and it’s trotted out lazily by nearly every journalist in the land.

It’s clever politics. It’s a handily crafted soundbite that trips off the tongue. It creates uncertainty about the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s priorities:  Scotland now or Scotland tomorrow.  And it’s hard to rebut without sounding defensive.

The Scottish Government is good at pointing to what it is achieving: a balanced budget year on year; economic growth;  employment rising and unemployment falling; things still being built, not least new houses, hospitals and schools; less crime, still more police officers; maintaining universal services that people get to feel the benefit of, day in day out – council tax freeze, bus passes, personal care, prescriptions.  All of these and more are tangible examples of the Scottish Government getting on with getting on.

But they suggest that the Scottish Government’s best creative days might be behind them, that if not on pause exactly, everything is simply ticking over. Business as usual, which by itself is no mean feat in the current financial climate.

Yet, that would be an unfair analysis. Everywhere you look in Scottish Government and in the Scottish parliamentary timetable, there is evidence of wholesale shift.

There is a clutch of reforming bills heading through the parliamentary process – at indecent haste in some cases.  There’s one to change how we deliver health and social care to elderly, adult and child populations who need support, removing artificial barriers over budgets, services and professionals. There’s a bill on regulatory reform which aims to streamline tribunals’ structure and activity; one on procurement which aims to change how public services are planned for, designed and delivered; one on children and young people which, while bitty as charged, will result in significant change in how we make sure more of the next generation get a better start in life. There’s a bill on its way on community empowerment which will enable the transfer of assets from councils to communities.  And there’s a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry – a revolutionary shift in social policy if ever there was one.  There are even bills which will change the stewardship of the Burrell collection allowing parts of it to be loaned furth of Scotland and one to enable Edinburgh council to use a park to build a much-needed new school.

Indeed, it’s hard to find a section of the public sector or society that is not currently been turned on its head by Scottish Government activity.  Nowhere is this more true than in our justice system, where every part of it is being poked and prodded into the 21st Century.  Changes to evidence, to the treatment of victims and witnesses, to courts, to policing, to procedures for jury trials, to the introduction of new offences – and more to come post referendum.  It’s a wonder lawyers have any time to do any lawyering what with the need to engage with change on so many fronts.

But such wholesale change creates potential risks and problems for the Scottish Government.

First, little of it is sexy. Given the shoestrings on which journalists operate these days, no one has the time or energy to turn concepts like community empowerment into digestible, bite sized chunks of copy.  And political journalism in particular, has degenerated into reporting the spat de jour.  One of the reasons Scottish Labour can give the impression that nothing is happening but the referendum is because of a complicit and compliant media.  All they want to report, or rather, have resources to report is the referendum.  And if they weren’t, well we’d all be criticising them for that omission too.

Second, humans don’t do change very well.  And if change is constant then that’s a lot of people discomfited.  All those vested interests the minority SNP Government worked so hard to bring on board and keep on side are now being tipped out of their comfy chairs.  Funnily enough, many of them – and their unions – don’t like it. They’re bleating loudly and that gives Scottish Labour something to bleat about too.  Responding to all this noise takes up time and energy, particularly when the aim is to try and keep it all under wraps: when it does erupt into the media, dampening down the flames also sucks up resources.

Moreover, reform with potential long-term benefits often creates unhelpful short-term consequences. It might make sense to streamline the court estate, so that we have courts which are better placed to deal with the increasingly complex business which passes through them, but closing sleepy hollow courts, no matter how sensible, irks folk.  The same applies with police stations.  Modern policing on straitened budgets with new and emerging national and international threats requires a different configuration:  allowing precious resources to languish in local offices that do nothing other than create a chimera of community policing makes no sense.

But closing anything local upsets local people and for all those who voted SNP for the first time in 2011, this isn’t exactly what they signed up for.  It also gifts the opposition a horse – hence Scottish Labour’s home webpage dominated by its campaign to save local police stations.

Which kind of leaves the Scottish Government damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Drive forward with a multi-reform programme and they are creating the kind of tumult they really do not want before the referendum. So, they are trying to reform quietly. But that then risks giving the impression that all they are doing is keeping a firm hand on the tiller all the way to next September.  Suddenly, that mischievous myth of Labour’s making seems to have foundation.

What this delicate balancing act requires is a first class communications strategy, which gets the message out about what the Scottish Government is delivering now, what it is doing with the powers it has to deliver for the future and what it could do if it had all the powers a normal country needs to create the wealthier and fairer society the SNP espouses.

There is no doubt that it’s doing the first bit very well and the last bit at every opportunity.  But the bit in the middle?  Well, the fact that Labour is still using “Scotland on pause” whenever it can suggests it thinks it’s on to something.  Allowing the charge that this is a do-little government to go uncontested might not be the best tactic after all.  Not when you’re trying to persuade people to trust that we have what it takes to make a success of independence, nor to feel confident that we can do better, making our own way in the world.  The bit about using the powers we have to create a better, brighter future might actually be helpful to the narrative aimed at encouraging more to vote yes.

Focusing on the council tax freeze ignores the need for wider reform

Before we pick apart some of Professor Midwinter’s arguments set out in today’s Scotland on Sunday, first let’s welcome the debate.

It is rare that we have serious – or at least semi-serious – debates about policy in the public domain and this one is a biggy.  While it is framed around the need to consider the affordability of public services and provision in the current landscape of cuts to the Scottish block grant, at its heart is a more fundamental matter.  Should we strive for universal provision or target funding at those who need it most?

In truth, it is the kind of policy area that whets the whistle of Labour much more than the SNP, which has far less of a social policy tradition in its DNA.  Indeed, the party’s approach to policy formulation in this area has always been of less interest to the big brains of the party whose boat is floated by economic stuff.  The party is great at the vision thing on the kind of Scotland we want to be, advocating a distinctly left of centre, socially progressive hue.  Words like fair and common weal and social wage pepper speeches but what is lacking is the intense policymaking and dialogue within party structures to work out what that actually requires a nation to do.

Hence, the attraction of universalism or as some have dismissed it, retail politics. There’s an element of truth in this – why would a party which has successfully campaigned its way into majority government on the back of universal policies tear those up?  Whether the SNP and the Scottish Government is in fact examining the affordability of any of its so-called “free” policies and working out different ways of tailoring the offering is a moot point:  it doesn’t have to, when Labour is doing the heavy lifting for it.  Labour might just find itself advocating, for example, raising qualification for a free bus pass to 65 – as Midwinter suggests – and the SNP deciding to accept the shift reluctantly in public and with some glee in private.

But a point of placement. Let’s not forget that Labour started the craze for universal and free stuff.  Free personal care, free bus travel, free heating systems for older people – all of these were introduced by a Labour-led administration when money was no object. In fact, I recall that Labour-Lib Dem executive resisting attempts to widen energy efficiency measures to the poorest families with young children because the money was needed for rich pensioners to get new heating systems.  And indeed, at Westminster, somewhat bizarrely it was Labour and the left which led the charge against cutting off child benefit for the most wealthy on the basis that it overturned the principle of universality in one of the last benefits to offer it.

So, having welcomed the debate which Labour is having with itself and bringing to our attention, let’s get on with cutting through some of Professor Midwinter’s crap.

Firstly, the charge on the Scottish Government that it has dismantled anti-poverty spending to the tune of £1 billion. To arrive at this figure, Midwinter selects policy and spending programmes which he considers to be anti-poverty and of course, ignores others. But he is right:  the Community Regeneration, Supporting People’s and Fairer Scotland Funds were handed over to local authorities and community planning partnerships to spend. But if they decided not to spend them on tackling poverty, they are to blame for the loss, not the Scottish Government.

And this actually points at a bigger issue. Unlike Labour which ring-fenced every new pot of money for every centrally announced and planned initiative – to the tune of nearly a billion pounds by their end days – the SNP trusted local government when it said it should be freed up from central constraint to deliver “local solutions to local needs”.  If those same local authorities have over the last six years made spending decisions which mean those funds haven’t been targeted at their original purpose, then maybe we need to shine a critical light there.  And work out how to fix that.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know just what councils have spent the money on.  They should be required to justify this, rather than wrongly blaming the Scottish Government for trusting councils to do as they said they would.  And that might well lead to a much broader discourse about whether local authorities as currently structured and populated are fit for purpose.

Secondly, the criticism against free prescriptions policy is unjust – and somewhat disingenuous, given that Labour was at pains to remind the voters of Dunfermline that they supported its introduction. For every well-off person who benefits when they occasionally need a pill or lotion, there are far poorer people who are reliant on whole streams of medication to manage their conditions who used to have to pay out significant parts of largely limited incomes on doing so.

Nicola Sturgeon’s objective on becoming Health Secretary in 2007 was always to introduce free prescriptions for those who need it most – the rules on who qualified had emerged in haphazard fashion so that some people with long term health conditions and disabilities got and some didn’t. But analysis suggested that expanding the qualifying criteria and the means test would actually cost more to administer than actually making all prescriptions free. Professor Midwinter ignores this context completely.

If the bill for free prescriptions is rising, then that is bound to be linked to our ageing population and sick man of Europe tag – entirely separate issues which need different policy solutions.  Keeping people healthier longer ie preventative activity, is actually a keystone for Scottish Government health policy, and more of it is required. Investing in this will bring the overall prescription bill down in the long term.

Finally, there’s the council tax freeze. There is no quibble here that given its longevity, it has meant a substantial saving for better off households and that even proportionately, those on the lowest bandings are not saving as much from the policy as others do.  But it is unhelpful only to quote the savings at the top and the bottom:  I’d imagine UK Labour, given its focus on the “squeezed middle”, would be just as interested in the savings applying for Bands C to E housing where these “hard pressed families” are likely to be living.

And even if they are still not saving as much of their income as those in these highest bandings, the wider picture of who is bearing the brunt of UK cuts and austerity measures needs to be factored in. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has been telling us since 2010, that’s these same “hard pressed families”. Take away the council tax freeze and that would no doubt tip some of these families – with children – over the precipice. What are the wider consequences of this for other public services like housing, social work, health and education?  This kind of modelling has to be done before arriving at the conclusion that the council tax freeze is inherently unfair and now a massive problem.

Looking simply at local authorities’ needs, ‘m afraid I’m not getting how allowing them to raise council tax will add significantly to their spending power. £70 million is the total estimate for a 3% increase at Band D levels across the whole of Scotland, yet the total local government allocation last year was just over £10 billion.  We are talking pennies here in budgetary terms, yet the increasingly shrill calls from some councils to be freed to use their tax powers give the impression that we are talking serious money.  We’re not.  And say, councils are allowed to raise tax and they all choose to do so by say, 3%. It’s a universal, flat rate increase paid by folk in the wee houses as much as the big ones.  Who does such a raise hurt the most?

Moreover, what impact would any council tax rise have on council tax benefit requirements?  Would more people become eligible for benefit? How would that be paid for? Is Scottish Labour remembering that the monies for that pot are now devolved and were only kept at last year’s levels because the Scottish Government reinstated the UK Government’s 10% cut? It is to be hoped that Professor Midwinter’s analysis of the situation is rather more detailed than the simplistic statements in this article suggest.

There is no doubt that the parties are effectively dancing around the pinhead of the council tax freeze to avoid the bigger issue of local tax reform. The SNP parked its commitment on local income tax a long time ago;  no one except the Scottish Greens has investigated the plausibility of a land value tax;  and Scottish Labour appears to have shelved its 2007 manifesto commitment to add new bands to the top of the council tax structure.

Yet, working out how local authorities can be made more accountable for their spending decisions by allowing them to raise more of their own income is a key part surely of this debate.  Professor Midwinter is right – fiscal realism is necessary but we won’t get it if no party is prepared to consider how we create a more sustainable funding base for all public services, including local ones.  Targeting universal and supposedly free services to justify a shift towards means-testing might provide some short-term political answers for Scottish Labour, but it won’t provide effective policy solutions in the long-term.