The SNP and Labour, for better or worse

There are couples we all know who appear not to be able to live together nor live apart. They bicker and feud all marriage or partnership long, neither finding much to like or praise about the other. Often, the banter is good-natured, if a little wearing for its audience, and some really do like an audience. They tend not to put on such a performance when it’s just the two of them and rub along just dandy with small kindnesses and shared habits, born of living closely together. Secret rituals which puzzle the onlooker.

Others though, have you wincing at the barbs and the taunts and wondering why they don’t just split up. Having voiced this to a few such couples I’ve encountered in my time, the reaction is almost one of disbelief. The thought has never occurred to them. Or if it has, there are ready excuses as to why they stay.

Occasionally, you get to witness sublime moments of affection, instances which make you truly stop and wonder and admire. But then they go and spoil it. Back to business as usual, the default setting of a pattern of ingrained behaviour, a cycle which neither are willing nor wont to break.

A bit like the SNP and Labour over the bedroom tax. Here is an issue upon which both parties are agreed in opposing, for largely similar reasons. Listen to any MSP from either party and you’d be hard pushed to determine which is which. Holyrood’s welfare reform committee is united in demanding its downfall.

At first, Labour called on the SNP government to do more with the powers we have in Scotland to mitigate against its pernicious effects. The SNP was unmoved. Both parties have said they will abolish it, Labour if it wins the 2015 UK General election, the SNP if Scotland votes yes in September and assumes powers over welfare and benefits.

Both parties have made efforts at local government level to find routes around it, though some local administrations appear not to have got their party memos and have justified not doing anything with the powers they have to address it. Often it’s been as petty as if the Labour/SNP opposition group moves for a stand to be taken, the Labour/SNP led administration refuses to support it.

Find £50 million from the Scottish budget, Labour cried. You could if you really wanted to, they blustered. Tell us what you’d cut instead, the SNP demanded. We would if we could, the party of government countered.

And then, yesterday, a breakthrough. The Depute First Minister has indeed found the necessary readies to offset its impact but needs Westminster to allow the Scottish Government to breach its arbitrary rules on housing discretionary grant.

Labour’s response? Effusive acclamation? Dinna be daft. Apparently, that’s not what the Scottish Government should be doing. Apparently it should be adopting and advocating a scheme developed in East Lothian which appears to achieve the same effect as Jackie Baillie’s bill without the need for legislation.

The SNP’s response? Rejoicing that a further solution has been found? Naw. Our way or no way it would appear.

It would cost both parties zilch to welcome each other’s efforts to find solutions. Even if they had to grit their teeth, surely they could share this platform and demonstrate their determination to find common cause. That occasionally we can be better together when we find ways of going it alone.

But so used have they become to the snipe of day to day politics, they cannot even countenance a ceasefire. By habit and repute, they are set on a course of constant arty bargy, desperate to find the next stair heid in which to stage a rammy.

And we the voters, the onlookers are left scratching our heads in bewilderment. Is it too late to hope that they could all stop for a moment and reflect on why they came into politics in the first place?

Show us the money!

At least, now we know.

If Scotland votes no in 2014, we face years, if not decades of austerity, of scrimping and scraping, of unemployment and under-employment and of cuts to public services.  No matter who wins the UK election in 2015, Conservative or Labour, we’re going to keep the current spending limits and aim to pay down the debt.  Westminster fiddles while we all burn.

For months, people have been clamouring for information in our constitutional debate and for certainty about what the future holds.  And if this kind of certainty isn’t a potential game-changer in the independence referendum campaign, I’m not sure what is.

For this isn’t exactly what folk had in mind.  The question being put by the undecideds and doubters has invariably been directed at the yes campaign; tell us what independence feels, smells and tastes like to help us make up our minds.  The challenge for Yes Scotland and the Scottish Government is to turn this around, to mess with everyone’s minds if you like and to make the certainty of our economic future a reason to embrace change.  It’s not the uncertainty of a future going it alone that should be vexing you, but the certain path being laid out which offers nothing but sackcloth and ashes.

And it’s time to make a mockery of the premise at the heart of the no campaign – that we are Better Together, because patently we are not going to be.

The Chancellor, ahead of the Spending Round statement for 2015-16 he will deliver this coming Wednesday, launched a natty wee video, to explain in simple terms what our current financial predicament means.  At least £13 billion of cuts, on top of the £11 billion or so already announced for next year.

It’s not clear what this means for Scotland until the actual budget allocations are announced, but given that we are not one of the Treasury’s ring-fenced budgets, we can hazard a guess that it means less money being handed to us to spend.  John Swinney has an article today in Scotland on Sunday which outlines how Westminster is eroding our economic powers:

Since 1999 Scotland’s freedom to allocate spending on Scotland’s priorities has been curbed, constrained and curtailed by creeping Treasury controls. Scotland’s money has been progressively divided into different pots with restricted uses, without any consultation.”

The argument has validity and should – rightly – spark indignation, particularly when UK budget statements start to interfere with democratic spending decisions already made here in Scotland.  As they did, this year.

Moreover, the grievance card has its place in the suit of options available to the Scottish Government in this debate:  it’s not been deployed nearly as much as it was in the first SNP Holyrood administration and we can expect it to appear more frequently as we grind towards the vote in September 2014.  Good.

But we need to start conducting this debate in a language that people can understand, which makes sense to their sense of everyday and which makes it patently clear what certainty means.  The Scottish Government needs to start showing us the money.

Thus, the response needs to be both political and micro-economic. The Scottish Government needs to spell out what this democratic deficit means, that every year that the Tories ring fence spending for schools south of the border makes it harder for us to do the same up here.  And to start setting out starkly what it means when the Chancellor puts austerity before growth in his economic strategy.  We might all nod blithely along when our Cabinet Secretary for Finance rails against this, but in truth we haven’t a clue what it means.

So tell us.  Get us a natty wee cartoon which shows what the cuts to the Scottish budget actually look like.  In terms of leaky roofs in schools, closed libraries, disappearing jobs, broken swings, potholes in pavements and roads.  And spell it out in terms of household finances.  Because cuts in spending mean increased bus fares to get to work or to go to the shops.

It means parents being expected to dig deeper for fundraising activity by schools.  It means your granny having to dig into her meagre pension to pay more for her emergency call service and meals on wheels.  It means your child losing their free swimming session on a Saturday.  And it means your wee cousin leaving university with a decent degree and having no job to go to.

Sure, Scotland already controls most of these policy areas but it really doesn’t matter what we want to provide for our people if we don’t have any money to pay for it.  And that’s what voting no in 2014 will deliver.  You might want to live in a country that does all of this and more, but you can only have a chance of doing so in your lifetime by voting yes.

Vote no in 2014 and you get Tory or Labour cuts in 2015.  Vote no in 2014 and you and your family can look forward to years of doing without.  Vote no in 2014 for a dismal future and for our children – your children – to have little to look forward to.

And while we can’t say definitely what voting yes will result in – that will be for us to decide in the first elections after independence – we can assure you of one thing, with absolute certainty and clarity.

That Scotland’s future can be different.  And if you want even the possibility of a different future, that doesn’t involve your family being force fed a diet of austerity by either the Tories or Labour, then vote yes.

Scottish budget: how much money we don’t have

Tomorrow is all about the money.  The money that makes our worlds go round.  When John Swinney will be expected to show us the money and he’ll retort to the Opposition to show us the colour of theirs.

And frankly, it would be just as interesting and a whole lot more enjoyable if MSPs just played their favourite money-themed songs to the nation.

The fact is we kinda know what to expect tomorrow, right down to the speeches and the key messages.  The SNP Government will blame the big bad wolf of Westminster for turning off the taps and having the effrontery to deny what is rightfully ours in any event.  Expect too the usual call that if we only had all the powers of a normal country, control of all the economic levers how different it might all be, only that crucial bit of in what way different will not be spelled out.

Labour will ignore the economic reality of our times and that we are in this mess because their UK government helped get us here and call for more.  More spending on more things and more stuff to make our lives more better.  Oh, and more jobs please.  Without so much as saying how, why and what with, never mind what they’d make less to give us more.

The Lib Dems will ignore their complicity as junior partners in the Westminster coalition, repeat the refrain that if the government stopped dreaming about the supposed never-never and just concentrated on the here and now, we’d be better off.  But they might also pitch a few interesting ideas on how and where to spend the little money we do have.

The Tories will do likewise and if they are true to form, they will posit the most interesting ideas and alternatives to help generate economic growth.   Much of it will be ignored, which is as it should be, seeing as how interesting does not necessarily translate into workable nor desirable.

As for the Greens, well it depends which ones turn up.  Will it be the green Greens who lambast the Scottish Government for its failure to invest in environmental measures, our low carbon ambitions and public transport infrastructure?  Or will it be the social justice Greens who lambast the Scottish Government for its failure to address poverty, inequality and demand a back to the future economic approach?

So, having sorted out the messaging, what about the money?  Helpfully, last year’s Spending Review and draft budget laid a breadcrumb trail and largely, it will be as you were.

Health, benefiting from a manifesto commitment to be protected from cuts, will see its budget increased, with more money destined for health boards – a 3.3% increase, in fact.  Sport, which falls under this portfolio, is a big winner but much of its £47 million increase is for Commonwealth Games delivery.  Finance, employment and sustainable growth will also see a marginal increase in budget, as will infrastructure and capital investment.  Meanwhile, education and lifelong learning will see a near £200 million increase in budget.  That’ll be to pay for no tuition fees then.

The losers are culture and external affairs (down £5 million), rural affairs and the environment (down £19 million on last year) and justice (down £50 million on last year) and local government (down over £200 million on last year).

To add to the fun, the re-alignment of portfolios with the move of the Depute First Minister from health, wellbeing and cities to infrastructure and capital investment will involve some money moving around too.  She took cities and welfare reform with her, so there is likely to be a small budgetary transfer.  Although it would be helpful if the Finance Secretary didn’t forget (again) to make budgetary allowance for mitigating the impact of welfare reform, given that it becomes all too real in the coming financial year.

It will be interesting to see if the cuts in headline budgets proposed last year come to fruition – a dent of £200 million for local government will surely result in considerable cuts to frontline services.  The Finance Secretary might well be tempted to allow those axes to fall.  Those coalition deals which Labour groups cut with minority groupings to keep the SNP out of power in local authorities might not seem quite so clever now.  Who wants to be in power, if power means finding ways of doing more with less and upsetting voters along the way?

Moreover, these are the actual figures and do not reflect the real terms’ position.  They take no account of the “estimated GDP deflators published by HM Treasury“.  The Spending Review applied a deflator of 2.7% to the estimates for 2013-14.  Thus, a supposed Scottish budget of £28.27 billion is worth only £26.86 billion in real terms, which means cuts for everyone. Expect the Finance Secretary to make much of this.

And unless he is proposing to requisition some of the fossil fuel revenues which flow from the North Sea to the Treasury or has discovered a tree which really does grow money, however the Finance Secretary packages it, all spheres of public expenditure are going to have to work out what to spend less on in the coming year.  Which sets us up nicely for the annual game of managing expectations – already begun by North Lanarkshire council.  Only this year, it will be conducted with exceptional vigour, with councils in particular, trying to outdo each other on the outrage their initial cuts’ proposals will foment among the populace.

So, there we have it.   You know what lines the parties are likely to take.  You know what messages MSPs are likely to try and impart.  And most importantly, you know enough about the money to understand that we have less to spend – much less – on vital public services that we all need and cherish.

Aren’t you glad I saved you the bother of listening in tomorrow?