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.