It garnered a lot of unwarranted media coverage, both in the run up to the vote and on the result itself.
In a mock referendum for students, organised by the quaintly named Dialectic Society at Glasgow University, the nos had it. 62% or 1642 students voted to stay in the United Kingdom with 38% or 967 voting for independence. What was most remarkable was the paltry turnout of 10%: only 10% cared enough to cast a vote. That hasn’t stopped us all umming and awing and looking for signs of relevance to the real thing.
Somewhat predictably, Better Together seized on the result with glee, pointing out that it matters because Yes Scotland invested time in the campaign. Why, the Depute First Minister even deigned to visit, ignoring the fact that as a former Glasgow university student and a current Glasgow MSP, she might have been expected to show some interest. Damned that she did and she would have been damned if she didn’t.
I’m not sure Yes Scotland threw the kitchen sink at this one, as some have claimed, but it would be odd if the main protagonists ignored mock referenda like this. What both sides will have to work out – because Better Together will take a few knocks on the road to 2014 eventually too – is how to gee up campaigns and ensure materials and messaging are reaching prospective voters without being seen to be all over such mock events like a rash. That’s a tough one and maybe Yes Scotland has realised it needs to be less overt in its approach if only to avoid unnecessary negative commentary. Of course, less overt should probably translate into building well organised, strong supporter bases in obvious places for such activity well before the event.
Some have also surmised that because Glasgow is a more working class university with more Scottish students than its ancient peers, the result would have – could have? – been more damaging for the yes camp if held elsewhere. But the idea that Glasgow is a working class yooni is a relative concept: more home-grown than Edinburgh or St Andrews certainly, but not nearly as populated by young people from less well-off areas than Dundee or even its near neighbours, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caley. Nearly 87% of its student population might hail from state schools but I’d hedge a bet that many are from local authority top-performing schools, most of which are located in better off areas. And perhaps people who have the opportunity to make it in life within our current political and institutional structures are more likely to want things to stay as they are. Why rock a boat which doesn’t need rocking?
However, until we have a mock poll involving all higher education establishments, we cannot really rely on one result from one university to tell us anything meaningful about how different demographic groups will actually vote, even within the student population.
Perhaps of greater interest is the turn-out. People have thrown their arms up in horror, metaphorically, at how few students bothered to turn out and vote but is the low poll for the referendum representative of student apathy in political polls more generally or did they specifically reserve disdain for the great constitutional debate of our times? Probably a mix of the two.
What it tells us is that many have yet to awaken to the charms of voting yes or no for independence. While there is a veritable cottage industry of forums, seminars, events, debates and conferences on the constitution, in truth, it is operating in a parallel universe. The issue and its consequences might be of significant interest to the chattering classes – and to political anoraks like me and thee, dear reader – but for most of the population, there is plenty time to get excited with the vote still some eighteen months hence. This is not the dominant political issue of the day for ordinary folk, who are more likely to be concerned about more mundane matters like jobs, fuel bills and horsemeat. The lack of interest displayed by Glasgow students is perhaps a microcosm of a wider indifference at large in the electorate.
But when put beside the recent IPSOS-Mori poll findings which showed a remarkable leap of faith among voters aged 18 to 24, then the failure of the Yes camp to win this one is possibly more startling. That poll suggested that a firm majority of young voters would now vote yes, yet when put to the test among a significant body of voters in that age group – and most university students are aged between 18 and 24 – then they shied away. And while Yes Scotland was quick to trumpet this shift as a sign of something more momentous happening, the Glasgow university result should sound a note of caution, for if it is to rely on the votes of young people to carry the day come autumn 2014, then it needs to actually get them to vote in the first place. Giving an opinion for market research is apparently a much easier, more palatable option than getting out of your bed or out of the bar to physically cast a vote.
And all those traditionalists in the SNP – and there are plenty – who have resisted the march of technology on voting, preferring instead to adhere to the safe, manageable option of making people go in person to a specific place to cast a vote using a pencil and paper might come to rue such incomprehensible adherence to the good, old ways.
The opportunity to reform the voting system in time for the referendum might have passed us by, but there is still plenty that can and should be done to encourage more young people to participate. Students, in particular, have always been a thorny voter group to reach. Many are registered nowhere, some are registered both at university and at home, and many of them despite having the choice of where to vote, choose not to. Over the years, many’s the time I’ve been on polling day knock-up and enquired about the third or fourth person in a household marked down as “one of ours” only to be told they are away at university. All the parties could tell the same tale.
While potential campaign advantage might prompt Yes Scotland to seek to plan and implement a voter registration and turn-out process by itself – and for Better Together to leave well alone – neither camp should be left to its own devices on this one.
Pete Ramand has already highlighted why a voter registration drive should be one of the pro-independence campaign’s priorities – and he’s bang on. But actually the job should sit with the Electoral Commission. Because this is a once in a generation poll, it needs to involve everyone and enable everyone to vote. And if the referendum is treated like just another election, there is a big risk that young people – and others who traditionally do not register to vote, particularly poorer people – miss out.
We need a mass voter registration drive, co-ordinated and driven by the Electoral Commission, which is adequately financed. In recent times, the electoral body has been given paltry amounts with which to engage voters: that must be rectified. Given that the power to hold and manage the referendum has been transferred to Holyrood, then the Scottish Parliament can provide additional funds for this purpose. At the very least, it would put pressure on Westminster to match it. Additionally, we need widespread voter engagement and education activity, with the Electoral Commission supporting charities and organisations which can reach the voter groups least likely to participate, to conduct it. People need to be persuaded in this vote, above all others, why their vote matters and such activity would have the bonus of ingraining a voting habit in people and parts of society where previously there was none.
Why? Because it is vital that all of Scotland takes part in this decision and that we all own the outcome. Consequently, turnout at the referendum matters, almost as much as the reckoning does. To achieve a high turnout and an engaged and informed electorate requires a non-partisan, mass participation and registration programme to persuade people of the necessity and desirability of voting, however they choose to do so. Who knows, such an approach might even manage to double turnout at Glasgow university.
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.