Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.






We need to talk about Labour

If you’ve not read Euan McColm’s piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, I’d recommend that you do.  Though you might want to grab a mug of strong coffee and a pen and paper first.

That’s because he sets out the intricacies of the tangled web of Scottish Labour politics.  And how it really is all about them and not about us.

Euan explores Labour’s current inability to get its story across. He concludes that the party needs a new storyteller, one who can not only craft a narrative the electorate will buy, but also sell that narrative to voters coherently and convincingly: “Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.”

He lays bare the extent and scale of Labour’s problem but fails to highlight the glaringly obvious; that Labour in Scotland is so focused on its own machinations that it cannot see the extent of its problems. The very fact that all this internal manoeuvring and calculating is going on during the most important debate in Scotland’s history shows how far Labour has drifted from its founding principles, values and purpose.

People like Jim Murphy – and even Douglas Alexander and a few others besides – are weighing up the ifs, buts and maybes of outcomes from not only the referendum, but also the 2015 UK election.  For Labour it is all about power for individuals and the party: the fate and the future of Scotland and her people are but pawns on the chessboard.

I’ve listened to a fair number of very decent Labour folk try to articulate why Scotland should vote no in September. They sing yesterday’s song, harking to the past and what was achieved particularly in the postwar years.  Which is fine and I agree with much of what they say.  But this debate isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, Scotland’s future.  And on that, their cupboard is largely bare.  They have a string of soundbites which sound plausible but which go nowhere.  Their arguments fail to frame their opposition to what the independence offer means for families and communities.  Let them talk long enough and they disagree with themselves, ending up far from where they began. I’m not even sure they believe what they are saying half the time.

When their devolution-plus proposals are more timid and offer fewer powers being transferred from Westminster to Scotland than the Conservatives, then the game’s a bogey.  Their Devolution Commission final report offered less than was touted because it was a shoddy compromise, finalised within a framework of hoping to win the UK election in 2015.  What that means is that if Labour is in charge of the UK in the next five years, they’ll be putting precious little Scotland’s way in terms of further devolution.  Because if they’re in power, they don’t want to be handing it over to us.  It really is that simple.

And if they lose, then MPs hoping for UK Ministerial office start to look elsewhere. After years of ignoring Scotland’s wee pretendy parliament and playing with the big boys, some of them might set their sights on Scottish leadership and the possibility of First Ministerial or other Ministerial office in Scotland.  I’m sorry but if Jim Murphy is the answer, then someone, somewhere is asking the wrong question.

Already Labour is working towards winning in 2016: that’s why it has selected most of its parliamentary candidates to run already. Forget the referendum, that’s just a sideshow: the real focus is on regaining what they see as their rightful place in Scottish politics. In power, in control and in charge.

Which is not to say that there are not good and decent Labour people whose hearts and minds are much less calculating than that. Some of them really do believe in the Union. Some of them do believe that what they offer is best for Scotland and her people – the best of both worlds is more than a slogan. I – and many others I know – share common values on fairness and equality in particular.  It’s just that those core beliefs are being obscured by naked ambition, particularly at leadership level.  And yes, I agree that power is needed to put into effect the policies you believe will change people’s lives.

But what are these exactly?  Scotland will get control over housing benefit, the rest will stay at Westminster.  It will get all income tax levers but not the ability to cut tax, only raise it. A UK Labour government will stick to the Tory public spending plans – that’s familiar.  So the £5 billion cut to Scotland’s block grant, putting at risk key public services will go ahead in the next two years.  The freeze on energy prices is good but takes no account of the disproportionate impact of high costs on rural Scotland. Worse, freezing bills for a limited time gives the energy companies a continued opt-out on investing in providing outlying areas with greater choice of cheaper energy. It’s a short term fix.

And in the absence of a positive offer to stay in the Union beyond the notion of family and a shared past and the hint of a Labour government to come, Labour is resorting to the scaremongering tactics so expertly practised by their Tory counterparts in the Better Together coalition. You might not put border controls up but we will, cries Ed Miliband.  Thus, he would treat us differently from a completely foreign, neighbouring country across the water.  I’ll resign if the Treasury allows a currency union, whines Ed Balls.  Who cares, shrugs most of Scotland.

The very fact that Labour is selecting candidates not just for the 2015 UK election but also the 2016 Scottish election tells its own story.  The fact that it is having these internal conversations in dark corners about who is best placed to lead the party in Scotland tells us all we need to know about where the party’s priorities lie.  And it ain’t with the people of Scotland.

It’s why more and more Labour party members and supporters are not just moving from no to yes but also getting involved in the Yes campaign.  They want to talk about the future of us all, not just their party.  They want to be part of this exciting, big conversation that individuals, families and communities are having about their future and their country’s future.  They want to talk about how best to end child poverty, to protect and nurture our NHS, to raise incomes, to create a fairer society for all.

And that’s a narrative we can all get behind.



A child’s verdict on Osborne and Balls? “Like kids. Actually, worse than kids”

The chicklet likes to watch the news.  It’s one of his deft tactics to avoid the start of the long, and ever so slow, march to bedtime.

He was transfixed watching the scenes from the House of Commons on Channel 4 on Thursday, as Osborne and Balls slugged it out over the Libor-Barclays scandal.  As they exchanged verbal jabs and hooks, they were by turns spurred on and jeered at by the braying mobs sitting behind and opposite them.  The chicklet was agog.

I sought his opinion.  “Like kids.  Actually, worse than kids.  Much worse than anything we’d be allowed to do in the playground.  They made a lot of noise, it scared me a bit.  What was it about?”

Where to start?

Another banking scandal – the mother of all banking scandals – has at last achieved what none of the other outrages of the last five years could manage.  An inquiry will be held into the state, culture and practices of the industry and all that remained to be determined was the type:  the Eton toffs wanted a parliamentary one, the opportunists opposite demanded a judicial one.  At the start of the week, the Conservatives decided that offence was the best defence to any claims that their world was too closely entwined with the banks, claims which had been made in several Sunday papers.

To divert attention from them not wanting to do anything much, they focused attention on the previous Labour government.  Briefings culminated in Osborne giving a J’accuse interview to the Spectator.  Ed Balls, the current Shadow Chancellor who was a pivotal member of Labour’s Treasury team, was the man in their sights, requiring him to find a way off the ropes.  The result was the unedifying scenes in the UK Parliament on Thursday.

Both protagonists should be ashamed of themselves:  they would be, if they had a shred of decency between them.  This issue, one which yet again has found our financial institutions wanting, where the greed of a few threatens – continuously – the well-being of the many, should be a sober topic requiring our politicians’ fullest attention.  Yet, these boys treated it like a game: if they could have used conkers, they would.

What the main UK political parties have forgotten is that this is not about them, but about us.  None of us cares anymore who is to blame for the mess we are in.  We all know that both are culpable:  neither party seriously questioned the wisdom of removing the regulatory framework at the turn of the century, nor have they seriously suggested clamping down since.  Promises from the banks and their advocates to behave better when they came down off the naughty step have proven shallow.

Still, they – and their pals in Parliament – resist the need for greater regulation.  At the same time as the Tories were doing the rounds dissing Ed Balls, familiar calls were being made on the back of LIBOR and interest rate swap mis-selling not to rush to temper the excesses of the banks, on the now spurious grounds of turning away the talent and turning off the profit.  Osborne himself has been at it this weekend, preparing to “fight for bankers’ bonuses in Europe” (the European Parliament votes on bonus-curbing measures this week).  Hasn’t he had enough of the bare-knuckle stuff, for we certainly have?

MEPs – somewhat bizarrely – appear to be more in touch with the mood of the people(s). If limiting bonuses results in higher wage costs and removes some of the gamblers from European markets altogether, so be it.  Yet, the bankers have mounted a ferocious rearguard action, and even if the Parliament votes for the move, it is unlikely to be ratified by all member states.  The UK will be at the front of that queue.

If we needed reminding of Labour’s unreadiness to govern, their willingness to fold on the type of inquiry provided it.  Bob Diamond’s outing before the Treasury Select committee showed just how useless and pointless an exercise this is going to be.  Politicians might spend much of their career applying spin and gloss but when it comes to telling porkies with a straight face and trembling voice, no one can compete with bankers.  Lying to Parliament holds no fear, only lying to judges might.

Today, Ed Miliband is trailing a speech setting out his strategy for putting the banks in order.  Break them up and simplify it all hardly amounts to a Nobel prize winning approach and it’s all a little, well too little, too late.  These are things his own government could have set in train before it was shown the door and they are changes already much called for by the Lib Dems.  Where was Ed when Vince Cable was looking for political support for similar?  A potent Labour leader would have ignored partisan politics on the basis that this is a crisis that needs sorting,  one we are all in together and which we must all work together to fix.  Backing Vince Cable would have been seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

No, this is about posturing and gesturing in the run up to the next General Election:  Miliband’s interview is in the Mail on Sunday which speaks volumes.  In truth, none of them actually wants to take responsibility for doing anything about it.  The banks reign over all of us and politicians and parties – still – are in thrall to them.  Consequently, they fiddle, we burn.

Others have already commented on all this – Marina Hyde, Charles Moore and Kevin McKenna especially wrote articles that made the burd cheer.

And here in Scotland, does any of it matter?  As McKenna suggests, as long as the current state of things continue, “the SNP doesn’t need a strategy for independence“.

He is half right.

The do nothing and letting it all play out tactics seem attractive.  But like the chicklet, many of us were wondering what this week’s playground antics in Westminster were all about.  Some of us need it spelled out and reminded – regularly – that this is them, not us.  And that we can do something different if we take charge of our own affairs.

Which would require resolution of the tensions in a referendum strategy aiming to persuade the populace that independence means we won’t have to change much and can also keep our British culture.  It might also require setting out different how.  All of which requires another blogpost to explore.