Ten (other) good reasons to vote yes to independence

1.  Poverty.  Child poverty in particular, is a stain on our society: it cannot be right that 1 in 5 children grow up with poverty pervading their childhoods, following them into adulthood and old age.   And that we live with an economic and social framework which not only reinforces conditions for poverty but enables them.  With independence, we can prioritise the need to tackle poverty and put our wealth as a nation to its best use.

2.  Inequality.  Despite being 50% of the population (slightly more actually), women are still under-represented in all spheres, especially at the top of those spheres. Worst of all, women in Scotland still earn nearly 12% less than men.  Yes, things are changing but the pace is too slow. We could address some of the inherent inequalities in our society through a written constitution and create the conditions in which equality for all might be achievable.

3.  Economy.  We are failing to harness all of our natural resources and skills to our best advantage.  We are over-reliant on several key industries and while the re-industrialisation of Scotland by investing in renewables is welcome, we can do much more by thinking radically differently about how to power our economy.  We are still not investing in future-proofing our economy;  we don’t spend enough on children’s earliest years and consequently, are spending too much on young people’s tertiary education;  we don’t spend nearly enough of our GDP on research and development.  Independence can offer a climate and culture in which we turn prevailing economic and investment wisdoms upside down.  Finland managed it – so can we.

4.  Fuel poverty.  More than 1 in 3 households in Scotland are considered to be in fuel poverty, yet we are an energy rich nation with the resources available to make us much more energy-efficient than we are.  People in this country die every winter from living in damp, cold homes.  We could change this by a better-regulated energy market, raising the standards of new-build projects and focusing on improving energy-efficiency.

5. Housing.  There are over 50,000 households who are homeless, containing 22,000 children;  3% of households live in overcrowded conditions;  there are 298,000 houses affected by dampness or condensation and 62% of houses do not meet the current quality standard.  Having somewhere adequate to live is a right, not a privilege:  what kind of a society are we when we cannot adequately house our population?  And how hard can it be to provide people with decent homes to live in?

6.  Tax.  Despite efforts to simplify income tax in the UK, it is still cumbersome and complex.  And that complexity creates loopholes enabling avoidance.  The core characteristic of the UK approach to tax is unfairness – the greater your wealth from a greater number of sources, the less you pay.  With independence, we can create a fair and progressive tax system which ensures that as a country we gather what we need to pay for services we want to receive, from all our and our people’s resources and wealth.

7.  Mortality.  In Scotland today, thousands of men and women die before they reach pensionable age.  They do not get the chance to grow old, either gracefully or disgracefully.  Each year, we spend billions on our health service and on care provision, yet the gains made in improved health and lower incidence of killer diseases and conditions are incremental.  Privatisation and marketisation are not the answer but surely there is a better way, which allows more people to enjoy better health and live longer.  We can take a long, hard look at all that we spend currently and determine to do things differently from now.

8.  Infrastructure.  We do not have the infrastructure to support the needs of our nation nor its aspirations.  Our transport network regularly grinds to a halt, no matter which form you use and the roll-out of fast broadband has been painfully slow – whether you are doing it virtually or for real, getting from A to B can be gruelling.  Yet, efficient and effective infrastructure is vital to our wealth and well-being as a nation and individuals.  A different mindset which embraces our rurality and sparsity, rather than trying to pretend they do not exist, would revolutionise our approach to investing in our infrastructure.

9.  Resources. Our culture, heritage and environment make us uniquely admired and envied all over the world.  Yet, we are careless with it all.   Many leave, never to return;  much is razed and lost, never to be replaced;  most is taken for granted and treated disrespectfully.  Valuing resources like these through proper tax, policy and investment approaches would maximise the benefit and enjoyment for everyone in Scotland and elsewhere.

10.  Welfare state.  The UK Government is in the process of dismantling the welfare state as we know it, demonstrating that this is indeed an administration – which enjoys considerable support in other parts of the UK but not here – which knows the cost of everything and the value for nothing.  Yet, there is no doubt that the welfare system was creaking under its own weight of bureaucracy and broken in many places.  The system we would inherit on independence will be a mess but independence will give us the opportunity to start again and create the kind of welfare state we want and which meets our population;s needs.

The astute among you will have noticed that much of what I reckon are good reasons for independence are largely things and areas we could influence now.  We have at least some of the powers over some of these matters.  And yes, we could make some of this happen.

But we don’t.  We haven’t.  Not in 300 years of Union, not in sixty plus post-war years, not in thirteen years of devolution.

And poverty, inequality and social injustice are growing.   Because we lack the will, determination and resolve to change things.

With independence, we could change Scotland, change how we are, how we think, what we do and prioritise, the ways we act, respond and engage.  As a nation and as families and individuals.  Or, of course, we could choose not to and largely continue with what we have now.  But why would we want to?  The liberation of standing on our two feet, of having to make all the choices and decisions for ourselves, will encourage us to be brave enough to change.

For, independence is about the art of the possible, about deconstructing the obstacles and barriers that hold us back, that prevent better and it’s about taking responsibility for who we are, what we do and how we might be.

I do not want my children to reach my age and be living in Scotland as it is now.  I want them to live in a different Scotland.

A Scotland which isn’t Norway, Finland, Denmark, Ireland nor Iceland.  Nor wants to be exactly the same as these other small nations.  While we can learn from what other countries do well and adapt their successes to suit our own needs, independence will afford us the opportunity to determine for ourselves what we want Scotland to be like.  Independence offers challenge, but above all, it offers opportunity.

With independence, we can be a nation which chooses to be better, which puts need before want, which works for the benefit of all rather than the gain of the few.  And which determines to become equitable, fair and socially just.

Who says it best when they say nothing at all?

I was a council candidate once.  I started out as someone else’s election agent.  Then became the paper candidate when that person couldn’t and we swapped roles.

Eventually, we resolved to have a proper go at it, especially when we realised that the former district councillor of some 16 years standing was making a bid for the new unitary authority.  Particularly when we knew her as the Countess of Stair.

She clearly thought she was a shoo-in, especially as her main challenger – me – was a single parent on the dole.  Yep, class warfare alive and well in rural Scotland.

We thrashed her.  The best thing was finding out that lots of women voted for me, some of them for the first time, and folk I’d never have expected to vote for me, did.

So, on the eve of another council poll, this is a long way of saying to all 1600+ candidates (dummy included), I feel your pain.  In our four weeks of campaigning, we canvassed – me and the former candidate/election agent – in torrential rain, blizzards and a heat wave.  We delivered four pieces of literature, including an eve of poll card.  And I visited every single farm, steading, shop, business, council house, bungalow and flat in the ward.  At the end of it, I was exhausted.  I know how you are feeling right now and remember that sense of being too tired and exhilarated to sleep.

But I’m also pensive, if not a little bemused.  For this is the election lacking a sense of reality, where some words and issues have been rather missing from the fray.

First, Labour.  In some areas, particularly where longstanding councillors have been seeking re-election, the campaign strategy has been rather Fawlty Towers-esque.  Don’t mention the war?  Don’t mention the party!  And take that rosette off while you’re at it.

So feart have some been about the association with the erstwhile party of the people, the dominant force in Scottish elections since World War II, that the word “Labour” has been expunged from leaflets, posters and doorstep chats.  If some of its oldest and hardest working stalwarts see the party name as an electoral liability, then it has deep-seated problems to overcome.

It’s not been the case everywhere, mind.  In Edinburgh, Labour has fought a fairly vibrant campaign, largely on local issues and standing behind an imaginative and creative manifesto which offers a shift in mindset and approach.  Whoever wins would do well to study it and implement some of the measures, even if they weren’t theirs to begin with.  The party – simply for having put the effort in – deserves to do well, and while it will do okay, I doubt it will be enough to win.

And that’s because the strategy of the SNP in particular has been defined by what is missing from its offering, as much as what it contains.

Scotland is a country deeply divided.  We have more super-rich people than ever, and more who are simply filthy rich.  Despite us being back in recession, some folk are doing very nicely, thank you.

Then there’s the ones who are not.  Poverty and inequality mark this country and her people with their sores of violence, substance misuse, joblessness, low self-esteem, poor physical health and mental well-being, crime and neglect.  And it’s getting worse.  Yet, poverty – and parties’ proposals to tackle it – has scarcely been mentioned in this election.  Cos we’re all aspirational now and no one ever got elected laying bare the awful truth of the magnitude of the task ahead.  At least, not in this country.

People like promises of more in elections.  More money in your pocket, more and better schools, more police on the street, decent roads, improved bus services.  Except when it comes to the bad stuff, which of course, they’re going to make sure there is less of.

This election has been fought in a parallel universe, where budgets are not being slashed and local authorities are not about to enter the period of real cuts.  Year on year, councils will have less money to spend – in real terms.  What we’ve had until now has been little more than a dress rehearsal and we will not see spending back to pre-election levels until at least 2016, just in time (helpfully) for the next local elections.

Few have dared to mention the c-word in this campaign and we voters have colluded with the complicity.  Maybe if we pretend the word doesn’t exist, they – as in cuts – won’t really happen. And maybe Scottish voters prefer their politics served with a healthy dollop of dishonesty, preferring instead to indulge them and us in a game of make-believe.   That there really will be a council tax freeze until 2016;  that we can provide more and better care for a growing, ageing population;  that we can keep libraries and community centres open, and build more of them.

Or maybe – as in 2011 – we are working with known knowns and therefore unmentionables.  That Labour isn’t an electoral tag worth boasting about in some areas.  That poverty won’t be solved anytime soon.  That the cuts are coming and there isn’t anything we can do about them.

When I stood in 2005, folk told me they voted for me because I was one of them, that without having to say very much at all, they knew I’d be on their side, that they could trust me to speak up for their needs and interests.

Maybe that’s what’s going on in this election, that there’s an unspoken bond, of people knowing which party is on their side, which will do the best it can not to let them down and which will stand up for them and their families when it matters.

Maybe that’s why the SNP says it best, when it says nothing very much at all.


The worst of times are just around the corner

The UK Government’s response to the rise in unemployment is a remarkable example of the triumph of spin.

Highlights include the central assertion that the “rise in employment and vacancies shows a stablising labour market“, the suggestion that 1,000 more young people becoming unemployed and 22,000 more full-time students looking for work represents “a more stable picture“; and the trumpeting of there being 11,000 more jobs in the economy while hiding the fact that over the year to December 2011, there were actually 21,000 fewer jobs available (in the footnotes).

But the most astonishing claim was that its welfare reforms are working.  The UK Government used the fall in the number of people designated as economically inactive to point to its success (sic).  The number of people claiming incapacity benefits – disabled people to you and me – fell by 43,000 while the number of lone parents fell by 84,000.  Cheerily, the media release points to a further fall of 15,000 in the number of lone parents on income support for November 2011, “driven by welfare reform“.

What all this means is that in the last quarter of 2011, there were at least 150,000 more people chasing just 11,000 more jobs.  Far from the picture being rosy, it is terrifying.  There might be 476,000 vacancies in the economy but there are now 2.67 million unemployed people in the UK to fill them.  You don’t need your Standard Grade in Arithmetic to work out the supply is nowhere near being able to meet the demand.

The UK Government also suggested that the number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) rose, partly because of the shift of people off of incapacity benefits and income support on to JSA.  This might be true, but if there are only 1.6 million on JSA, it begs the question – what are the other 1 million unemployed people now living on?

Sorry, but however the latest Labour Force statistics are viewed, they are far from good.  Unless, of course, you are a Conservative or Liberal Democrat and want to point to the impact of the toughness of your austerity measures in all their technicolour glory.  They might see this all as very good news, but the rest of us can only watch from behind a cushion.  It’s beginning to feel like we’ve been pushed down Alice’s hole and are now hurtling ever faster without any sense of how and when we are going to hit the bottom.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in an excellent Guardian article a week or so ago, the cuts have barely got going yet.  Only 6% of public service cuts have actually filtered through (it’s probably less in Scotland) and in benefits, 88% of already announced cuts and changes are still to come.  April is going to be a bit of a shocker for many individuals and families, as reality bites.  In fact, that moment for many came yesterday, when epistles from HMRC indicated an end to people’s entitlement to tax credits.  The cut off point is £26,000 for joint and single incomes:  a lot of families are going to hurt.  My own hit is in the region of £50 a month.   Still, let’s look on the bright side, there’s another budget looming – there will be more goodies coming our way from 2013 and 2014.

Everywhere you look, people really are starting to struggle.  A recent Netmums survey found that one in four families are living on credit cards and one in five mothers regularly go without meals in order to feed their children.  Anyone shocked at the latter finding shouldn’t be.  Such behaviour has always been with us:  I remember doing it too, a while ago.  You wait to see what they leave before you decide whether or not to make yourself something to eat.  More often than not, you make do with a half portion of food off of your child or children’s plates.  It ain’t pretty but it’s survival and it makes sure that your children get what they need.  The feckless poor and single parents huh?

The gulf between the haves and have-nots all across the UK has never been greater.  What has kept the system of inequality in place, the demographic glue of it all, has been the existence and mobility of a big group in the middle. Folk shifting their status a bit, from lower middle class to nearly the top, by dint of a university degree, a decent berth, promotion, credit, fortuitous house purchase etc, with the prospect of more to come, particularly if employed in middle management in the public sector or the financial services industry.

They are the ones about to slide right back down the ladder, for whom the haves were tantalisingly in reach and are now still sitting pretty while they and their families suffer.  The haves remain at the top, still untouchable in every way it seems.

Many, including myself, have been astonished at how calmly we have taken every insult and injustice thrown at us since 2008.  Self-interest and self-preservation has played its part in ensuring that we have chattered and grumbled but shown no real outward sign of our pain and displeasure.

All that might well change from April.  Middle income families – that’s people on between £15 and £45,000 per year – are about to get hammered.  It’s a big pool but the Tories are keen not to discriminate for once; while people at the lower end of the band will face real hurt, the impact might well be most keenly felt by families at the top end.

A two parent family could lose one worker, endure another pay freeze, lose the tax credits and find the credit cards maxed out.  Just like that.  Such a scenario takes them from the top end of that income band into its lower steps but with all the trappings of greater prosperity – cars, mortgages, holidays, nursery fees.  In the coming year, notorious lag indicators like homelessness and repossessions will undoubtedly start to rise.

The worst of times really are just around the corner – we might well be about to see deprivation creep in from the margins of our towns and cities and into suburbia.  Poverty is bound to get more visible, more pervasive and it will be interesting to see if folk continue to seethe silently or become more vocal about it all.