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.

Falkirk is more than a little local difficulty

Many will pick up their Sunday paper this morning and scratch their heads, wondering why Labour’s inability to select a candidate in Falkirk for a UK election some two years away is front page news.  They will frown and dismiss the story as the political class chattering to itself as usual, and turn to more pertinent concerns.  Such as Andy Murray’s date with Wimbledon destiny (part two).

They’d be right, but they’d also be wrong.

This imbroglio is more than a little local difficulty, for Falkirk displays in all its ugliness, the canker at the heart of the Labour party.

Indeed, internal selection is an issue for all the parties.  Most might have introduced one member, one vote for candidate selection and ranking, but these electorates can still be terrifyingly tiny, which makes them powerful fiefdoms to be fought over and controlled.  The solution, as Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour spin doctor, suggested this week (as many others have before him) is for local primaries to be run for candidate selection, not just by Labour, but by all parties’.

And as Andrew Rawnsley points out in his Observer column, Ed Miliband could seize the opportunity arising from this crisis to push through sweeping reform in his party.  He has already failed the test.  In the same paper, Labour’s leader talks ofmending not ending” the relationship with trades unions.  Like many of his peers, he owes his elevated status in politics to those same unions and he is not of a mind to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.

Yet, some of us have been arguing for decades that these ties, for all their historical significance, need to be broken.  I was chortled at by the late and much missed Bill Spiers in 1999 when daring to suggest that the STUC and its members might want to lead that charge.  The dawn of devolution in Scotland, I reckoned, was the perfect time for trade unions in Scotland to think about fashioning a new relationship with Labour and indeed, other parties, one which might serve their members rather better than the head lock Labour had them in.  My argument was – and still is – that trade unions shouldn’t have any affiliation with any of the parties, leaving them free to truly represent their members’ interests and align with any party at any time which offered a fair deal for working people.  And if people felt that unions were only working for their members, then more might be inclined to join.

But even though Miliband is offering a wimp solution to this current crisis, unions like Unite will fight any changes.  Because it will mean losing the concentration of fiscal and voting power at the top of their structural pyramids and those that enjoy it rather like it that way.  As Falkirk shows, it’s not just the big contests for leadership positions that unions can boss, but also the much smaller ones.

Miliband suggests that events in Falkirk “have betrayed the values of our party. The practices we have seen should be unacceptable in any political party. But they are certainly unacceptable in the Labour party.”  What he fails to point out is that these practices have been going on for years: they’ve only become unacceptable now they’ve been found out in a very public and embarrassing way.  Indeed, he claims that these events are “unrepresentative of what is happening in Labour parties“.

That hostage to fortune ignores suggestions that Unite was also gearing up to secure the downfall of Douglas Alexander.  That would have been a spectacularly stupid piece of fratricide, but had the parliamentary boundary review continued and Alexander found himself pitted against Jim Sheridan for a single Paisley berth, it might well have come to pass.  Who cares whether the Labour party needs MPs like Alexander, he isn’t one of Unite’s and therefore, would have been fair game in its strategy of influencing local contests.

And the idea that this is a peculiarly Westminster problem, which doesn’t affect Labour’s selections for Holyrood, is also nonsense.  Anyone remember Janis Hughes?  She was rumoured to have secured a second term as Rutherglen’s MSP purely on the votes of the mini-block union vote in her constituency.  The story goes that the members of the party, every single one of them voted for someone else to be their candidate, only to have the affiliated union votes in the constituency back her.

Which only serves to underline why Johann Lamont’s silence on Falkirk is both futile and inane.  If she thinks she can get away with keeping out of it, she is very wrong.  The problem of inappropriate and disproportionate influence of particular trade unions and their memberships afflicts her leadership too.

Because while there is much fun to be had by political commentators and other parties poking a stick at this issue, it has wider significance.  When a party is riven, as Labour clearly is, such division makes it difficult to function in the public arena with any semblance of competence.  The eye is off the ball. And that does not make for an effective opposition.

The SNP might like to have a free rein with which to run the country but good government needs stout opposition. The threat of a fully functioning and competent party opposite focuses minds and leads to more meaningful and thought-through governance.

And if Johann Lamont harbours any real ambition to steer Scottish Labour back to power in 2016 – no matter what the constitutional situation is – then she needs to act and get a grip on what goes on in her party’s pockets.

Most of the population will do little more than scan the headlines of this story, but that will be enough to confirm for them that they made the right choice in 2011 when they took their votes away from Labour.  And it will encourage them to stay away in 2016.  A party mired in a mess of its own making, particularly when it fails to clean up that mess, is not one you want to trust the running of a country to.

As Margo MacDonald is fond of saying, you wouldn’t trust this lot to go for your messages.


Well, she started it

First, an admission.  I like Johann Lamont.

I might not always agree with her politics but there is a robustness there which means you can say you don’t agree with her and she won’t flounce out of the room.  She’ll even listen to your opinion.  And throughout her time as an MSP and even, as a Minister, there was a real attempt to stay true to who she was.  Which is why every day, she’d be on the train at 5.30 heading home to have tea with her family and when they were younger, help with homework and bath time, before heading out the door for an evening shift of politics.

I admire her too, for many of the unfashionable causes she has championed over the years – carers are an obvious one – and for the fact that she led a backbench rebellion against her administration’s opposition to Tommy Sheridan’s poindings and warrant sales bill.  Indubitably, there were base politics at play here:  Sheridan was, after all, snapping at her heels in her Pollok constituency.  But that too is worthy of respect.  When it came to it, she put the people she represented and what she believed in before party.

She is a fully paid up member of the scary Scottish wimmin in politics club and I like that.  Takes one to know one after all.

And even though I like the fact that over the years, she has demonstrated a welcome ability to do the political street-fighting bit, I cannot understand what possessed her to attack Nicola Sturgeon the way she did at FMQs this Thursday.  To try to make a wider political point, about the unfairness, perceived or otherwise, of Scottish Government policy by attacking the earnings of the Depute First Minister – AND HER HUSBAND! – was shameful.

As a woman who has represented one of the most impoverished constituencies in the country for thirteen years, she knows that very few women ever get to earn big sums.  Indeed, a while ago, she was one such, having taken home a Ministerial salary herself.  And she also knows how demeaning it is for a woman to be treated like a chattel, lumped in with her husband’s earning capacity.  What Nicola Sturgeon’s husband earns – indeed, what Johann Lamont’s husband earns as a longstanding Glasgow councillor whose salary comes directly from the public purse – is an irrelevance in this day and age.

For every woman who needs not to care what their husband earns and how, there are thousands more who live in economic dependency, constantly reminded – yes, even in this day and age – that without him and his earnings, they’d be on the street.  It’s that imbalance of economic power which compels many women to stay, with their children, cowering in fear and putting up with the abuse and the violence which still define far too many modern marriages and relationships.

So, for a woman so steeped in traditional politics, who has climbed to the very top of her party, by making a virtue out of pointing up inequalities for women, to attack another female politician in this manner in order to score a cheap point, is low.  About as low as you can go.

Such tactics diminish the debate that Johann Lamont purports to be trying to create in Scottish politics, about what kind of public services we can afford.  It is a debate which is welcome and overdue – which is not the same as saying that I agree with her contention, before the SNP supporters bray at my betrayal in the comments section.

And actually, to fall into simplistic party lines on this one is disingenuous.  There are as many SNP folk who have muttered about whether free everything for wealthy pensioners at the expense of poor children – for universality appears not to apply to them – as there are Labour ones.  I know, for I have muttered with them.  Free allsorts makes for good short-term politics:  it helps wins elections after all, but it does not provide a coherent base upon which to fashion a nation.

But if we are to have a grown-up debate – some of us cling to the prospect of such a concept – let’s first attempt to offer some balm to a few troubled middle class consciences.  The council tax freeze probably does disproportionately benefit the better off.  If you are one such, who frets at spending your financial filip on fripperies, give it away.  If you are so bothered at the idea of that money burning a whole in your pocket, resulting in poor pensioners and single parents struggling, then donate your ill-gotten gain to charity.  There are plenty of good causes which would welcome your largesse.

This one does have to be stripped out of the debate on the great government give-away.  As Kenny Farquharson pointed out on twitter, prescriptions and bus fares and the like are benefits:  a tax freeze is different.  In any event, Johann’s thinking on this one is muddy.  It is economically illiterate to claim that the council tax freeze is costing local government jobs, resulting in incomes being lost to the economy.  The solution to that problem is not to take more tax out of other people’s pockets to keep folk in the public sector in work, for that also removes vital income from the economy.  Or do these earnings, because they are made in the private or third sector, not count in Scottish Labour’s view of all things economic?

Johann Lamont is indeed brave for wanting to kickstart this debate at all, particularly in its efforts to define a place for Scottish Labour in our political future.  I don’t buy the lazy SNP line that she is simply aligning her party with the London lot, though Ed Balls’ proposal for zero-budgeting is a bandwagon upon which she should jump.  Indeed, I’m sure it’s something I’ve heard John Swinney champion in the past.

And the SNP while making political hay in the short term about Scottish Labour stealing away everyone’s supposed freebies, should welcome the debate.  For, whatever is discussed and divined in the next two years, the conclusion is already inescapable that Scotland needs more powers to deliver the policies it wants to.  Johann Lamont appears to have conceded this point by moving at last, to set up a Labour commission on devolution.  She suggests that we must learn to deliver social justice on scant resources, yet she cannot ignore forever the fact that if we had control of all fiscal powers and levers, we would be better placed to decide how much we spend and on what.

Proving the maxim that a week is a long time in politics, I bemoaned last Sunday that we still do not know what Labour is for.  On Scotland Tonight, I opined that Johann Lamont might well be committing political suicide with this venture.  If she is properly serious about this debate, she is unlikely to reap electoral gains from its outcome.  But the debate she has started has the potential to give Scottish Labour a purpose and a platform way beyond the next UK or Scottish elections, whether we are independent or not.

And if she can resist the temptation to deploy more tactical low blows, she could succeed in challenging the SNP to engage in a little more thoughtwork on the policy front.  Johann Lamont might well have started something which we can all engage with.