Scotland needs a Who

Since the Spending Review was announced last week, we have had the usual suspects and interest groups jockeying for position and headlines, generally crying foul.

COSLA pronounced in capital letters, no less, that it was “VERY DISAPPOINTED WITH LEVEL OF SPIN PUT ON FIGURES”.  It calculated that over the next three years, it was going to be down by 15% when cuts and new demand for services was taken into account.  “That can only mean one thing”, the local government body’s press release said in sonorous tones, “a significant reduction in local services and local spend”.  To hammer home its view, it put up Cllr Jim McCabe from North Lanarkshire council for the discussion panel on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday night.  So armed was he with statistics that he not only managed to bamboozle the audience but flummox himself.  Fulminating against the council tax freeze, he was asked what he would put it up to.  He wouldn’t, he said, not in an election year.  Which gave the game away – it isn’t about economics, it’s about politics.  In fact, it’s not even that lofty:  it’s simply about getting elected.

We’ve also had business chipping in.  CBI Scotland considered it “alarming that the Scottish Government is proposing two business tax rises…”, referring to the public health levy and the review on empty property relief.  It also accused the SNP Government of being “in denial with regard to the dire state of the UK public finances.”  It then goes on to make a point in this regard which made little sense to me, so I won’t trouble you with it here.  The Federation of Small Business in Scotland was much more considered in its response, but even it felt compelled to warn that “public sector bodies must not use their local business communities as a pot from which to draw additional income”.

Then came the unions.  The PCS representative on Newsnight Scotland’s panel seemed to indicate that job losses would be fine but that a pay freeze would not.  Uh huh.  The union denounced the ongoing pay freeze as “an attack on Scottish workers”.  Apparently, the extension of the pay freeze “by our own government and employer will provoke anger as never seen before” and just to emphasise the point, “Scottish public servants will be very angry that they are facing this double whammy from Westminster and Holyrood”.  Perhaps we should point out to the PCS that their pay will only be frozen once not twice?

The STUC, meanwhile, tried to criticise nicely, but ingrained habits die-hard, and occasional slips allowed the rhetoric to ratchet up.  Thus, “transferring existing revenue spend to capital is less welcome – a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ exercise which will not add to aggregate demand and will further impact on public service provision” and “having praised public service workers yesterday for achieving £2.2 billion in ‘efficiency savings’, he has today imposed a similar requirement for the coming period but offered nothing in return”.  I would have thought a wage, albeit a frozen one, and a job for the foreseeable future might have been reward enough in the current climate?

Finally, the third sector got in on the act.  On the whole, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) was highly positive about the Review and in particular, the shift to preventative spending but it warned that “Scotland cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity of doing things differently by allowing the funds to be hijacked by acute services or local government structural reform.”

So pardon me for asking folks, but if not you, who?  If the Scottish Government is guilty of loading the impact of reduced money to spend on you, who is it you think should bear the pain?  For if not business, big and small, nor councils, nor workers, nor voluntary organisations, should it be pensioners, disabled people, low-income families or unemployed young people?

Oh I know you will all say that by hurting you, the Scottish Government is hurting them.  But a little less rhetoric and a little more reality.  Please.

For in her hour of need, Scotland and her people need a who.  Sectors, agencies and bodies who will accept that we are where we are.  And actually, it is not quite the meltdown that is being portrayed.

No one wants to see budgets going backwards.  But the overall decline in expenditure – in real terms – between this year and next?  1.5%.  The following year, it is 1% – that is a cumulative 2.5%.  Tough but hardly Armageddon.

Moreover, even though the amount of money we have to spend is less next year than this, it is still more than we had to spend five years ago (£28.67 billion) and much more than ten years ago (£20.08 billion).  We managed then, so what has changed now?

Sadly, we are all too Scottish for our own good.  This is a country where the glass is definitely half empty, where Rev I M Jolly embodied our outlook on life, where we never pass up an opportunity for a girn.  We are wedded to a deficit approach to life.  Yet, in these tough times, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear from sectors, agencies and bodies about what they are going to do to get by, how they will use the money they are getting to make a difference?  Instead of focusing on the money being lost, couldn’t everyone focus on the money we have?  And what we might do with it?

There is no doubting we are heading for choppy waters.  But it could be worse.  And what Scotland needs right now is a Who.  People, leaders and organisations who will focus on what we have.  Who will accept the challenge ahead and put their shoulder to the wheel.  Who will find the ways to do better with less.  Who will vow to work together for the common weal.

We all want a Better Way – anyone know what it is yet?

All roads point south this morning as thousands of hardy souls cram trains and charabancs to descend on London for the TUC’s March for the Alternative

Here’s hoping everyone arrives and returns home in one piece, though it isn’t a given, for the Met Police are already counting on there being trouble which they will need to contain.  Helpfully, they have revised their approach to kettling and insist they won’t keep anyone with children or with “frailties” any longer than is necessary.  Good of them to be so considerate.

The burd thought about going but other things got in the way.  Had I been free, I still would have hesitated for a number of reasons.

Call me a hoary old parochialist but I don’t totally get the point of us all trailing to London to demand an alternative or protest about cuts to services in our communities.  Like the anti-Iraq war protests, wouldn’t it have been better to have had country specific marches all happening on the same day? Everyone congregating in London means the network broadcasters will cover it but Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish channels and newspapers will pay it scant attention: much more effective, surely, would have been a total UK hit in media terms.

This would also have enabled more people to participate: 160,000 from all over the UK isn’t a huge statement out of over 50 million.   But perhaps the model is also at fault.  Why was the tiny Stop the War coalition successful in creating a much bigger response to its key aim?  Because it brought trade unions, churches, political parties, activists and concerned individuals, charities and voluntary organisations in and used their reach to cascade support. 

Today is quite clearly a trade union led and dominated gathering, which in itself puts many people off.   Consequently, opposition to today can stand back and point to the narrowness of the base of their appeal.  It’s all about public sector workers protecting their own jobs at the expense of everyone else, they will chime.  The more inclusive and expansive your coalition, the harder it is for opposing forces to poke holes in its defences.  Most of those marching today will quite clearly be of a leftie bent – takes one to know one, after all – yet there are many people in the centre and on the right in voting terms who would undoubtedly support the idea of an Alternative and are certainly unhappy with the slash and burn approach of the ConDem government.  They just wouldn’t want to associate with the left in order to make that known.

But the main reason I hesitated is the one which has made me pause all along – and fits with the theme of many blog posts in recent months.

We all want a better way but does anyone know what it is yet?

There is much to agree with and commend in the STUC’s platform for a Better Way but reading it, I can’t help seeing at its core, a yearning for a return to the supposedly halcyon days of the 1970s.  Certainly, back in those days, people enjoyed better employment rights, though it could also be interpreted as the unions enjoying disproportionate power.  And yes, we made things, very often big, tangible things that we could all be proud of, but wasn’t our workforce, partly because of entrenched attitudes but also because of cultural mores, much more male dominated then?  As for public services, don’t we actually have more and better now than we ever did then? 

A living wage and fairer taxes are probably something we could all sign up for.  But there is also a gaping big hole on what the “alternative” actually looks like.  The section on jobs is fairly two dimensional and adopts some very big assumptions: if our “modern industrial strategy” was predicated on toxic waste disposal and arms manufacture, would we still want it?

The STUC also supports the Green New Deal – as does the burd – but again, its key tenets are narrow. One of the SNP Government’s biggest triumphs, which it does not trumpet enough in terms that ordinary folk can understand, has been its adoption of and investment in the renewable technologies of the future.  It’s not just about supporting research and development, it’s about training and skilling our young people to benefit from the opportunities that will exist in years to come.   It is coherent but cannot add up to a whole economic strategy:  the approach always prompts me to ask, what about the rest of us? 

There are many other areas requiring investment in innovation and new technologies to future proof our economy and society – the health and care sector is a key one.  We need to find ways to support an elderly population at much less cost, and fast.  The assumption currently – practically everywhere- is that the NHS is required to fix us all well into our 80s and 90s, deploying a top down, producer interest focused approach that disincentivises people to keep well.  Yet we will not be able to afford that kind of NHS and need to be creating the technologies, social care practices, skills and knowledge that will keep ourselves, our economy and society functioning on a more than “good enough” basis.

Yet, you won’t find this kind of Alternative anywhere in the STUC’s platform, nor in any political manifesto this election.  Partly because it requires a huge shift in economic thinking to strategise about a sector that is currently low paid, low skilled and largely female dominated, but mainly because such an Alternative requires acknowledgement that we need wholesale public sector reform and an entirely new way of designing, planning and delivering public services.  When the vast majority of your members are currently employed in that sector, and the two main rivals for government are fighting to secure the vote of these workers, well, you can see why this ain’t anyone’s current idea of a better way.

Of course, there is an Alternative to the ConDem slash and burn approach to public services.  Undoubtedly, there is a Better Way.  But it doesn’t involve going back to the future, nor maintaining the status quo.