Kitchen-gate

In truth, it wasn’t the magenta bus that bothered me. I might not have chosen to sally forth in an emblazoned, bright pink people carrier, but actually, Labour’s initiative to engage woman-o to woman-o in the general election isn’t the worst idea they’ve ever had. After all, they pinched it from Women for Independence.

Getting out and engaging women in spaces they feel comfortable in is something Women for Indy’s thousands of female supporters did to considerable effect during the referendum campaign. Here in Edinburgh, we did school gates, drop-ins in cafes, at homes, wee socials and my favourite, outside bingo halls (with Yes bingo dabbers, no less) because we went to where women were, rather than expect them to come to us.

My problem with the wheeze was it being styled as the “kitchen table” tour. Why? According to Lucy Powell, one of its shiny, bright young things in its election team, Labour was taking its message [to] women voters because “they wanted to have a conversation about the kitchen table, around the kitchen table” rather than “having an economy that just reaches the boardroom”. Shades of eat your cereal all round.

Suddenly, those shots of Ed and Justine in their kitchen make sense.

Ed and Justine in the “kitchen”

Except as we now know, it wasn’t their kitchen.  It was the second kitchen, the one off the living room where tea and snacks are prepared. But take a close look.  Does this look like any kitchen or even, snack-preparation-area you know?  Where’s the clutter?  The personality?  The photos of family, the letters from school, the fruit bowl?  There’s not even a half-full laundry basket, never mind an actual kitchen table.

As an attempt to portray Ed as just a regular family guy, it fails miserably. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. He looks like he never even knew the room existed (as it might not).  And who has two kitchens in their house anyway?

That’ll be a man who lives in a great big pile in a des res part of London, far from where his constituency is, incidentally, in scandal-laden Doncaster (one of the increasing number of longstanding Labour councils up north with serious issues in terms of its track record on protecting children).

I read the big, glossy interview with Ed in that week’s Guardian, where he was shadowed by a reporter around the country.  I read it twice, in fact, keen to glean details that might bring me to like the man.  I left disliking him more than ever.

And the only conclusion I can reach is that the man is a phoney.  A professional politician who has spent all his adult life in the Westminster bubble preparing for power. All that empathising with the audience, using first names?  A longstanding technique which can be learned. It’s well documented that his brother did so. He posited soundbites – I worry about not seeing my kids enough (who were otherwise largely absent from the piece); stamina being a challenge, but with twisted logic, relishing the 16 hour days – and if it was all to make him seem human, well, bits did, but the overall impression was of a team crafting a set piece for the delectation of the intellectual Left. I found it curious that the tour didn’t bother to call in on his constituency: does he go there at all, or is it just a place to weigh the votes?

But I got no sense of a man with a plan, other than to get to Number 10. He may be willing to stand up to vested interests. In fact, I applaud him for doing so, but will he as a Prime Minister un-vest them?  I think not.  The Milibands’ wee turn on the inheritance of the family home might not be tax avoidance on the scale that attracts headlines, but it still smacks of the entitled few entitling themselves in a way the rest of us can’t.

No, Ed Miliband is establishment Labour personified.  And if voters elsewhere aren’t turned off by the prospect of him and his party leading us, then here in Scotland, the electorate is making clear what it thinks.  They are turning away in their droves, because they have a better, more grounded, more real alternative to vote for.

Kitchen-gate speaks to all of this and exposes the “kitchen table” tour in all its condescending gory.  As our own First Minister is demonstrating, women are more than capable of dealing with the economy as an issue at boardroom level.  They are not just concerned with economics as they affect what they put on their kitchen table, but with how the state of our nation’s finances impact on everyone’s prospects, especially future generations.

What these gimmicks suggest is that Labour is the modern day equivalent of the Wizard of Oz.  For sure, there is a man behind the curtain, pulling levers, wowing the headline writers and the news makers – think Jim Murphy here – but take a peek and the charade is exposed.  There is no substance.  No one knows what Labour stands for, as I have written ad nauseum on this blog for years now.

The Labour President of COSLA, Councillor David O’Neill, tries to resurrect Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing” narrative which castigates universalism, only to be slapped down almost before he’s finished his speech by Jim Murphy, who restates Scottish Labour’s recent re-conversion to many of the policies it introduced while in government in the first place.

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s work and pensions spokesperson, gets herself in a total fankle trying to explain what Labour would do about the rise of foodbanks if in power. “Labour are a party of working people, formed by and for working people”. Helpfully, Kate Green MP took to Twitter to interpret her remarks, differently from how John McTernan, now installed in Jim Murphy’s team, did so.

If Labour doesn’t know what it stands for, how can the rest of us?  If Labour doesn’t say what it means clearly, or mean what it say, why should voters believe it and trust it with their votes? Meaningless gestures like “kitchen table” tours and toe-curling photo opps in empty, colourless rooms pretending to be the heart of the home expose all of Labour woes.

Whether it’s a kitchen, dining or coffee table, Labour has nothing to put on it but gloss.

 

 

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Jim and Margaret Cuthbert: Why there is no such thing as a Union Dividend

This is an article (previously published on Open Democracy) from Jim and Margaret Cuthbert summarising their detailed research critiquing the concept of a union dividend and effectively blowing out of the water, the UK Government’s analysis of Scotland’s income and wealth. It makes for compelling reading and if you are trying to persuade undecided voters of the economic case for independence, you might want to give them this piece or even the full analysis. It was published by Options for Scotland on 14th August and is available here 

On May 28th, the Treasury produced its report “Scotland analysis: Fiscal policy and sustainability” on the size of the union dividend which every Scot, it was claimed, received as part of the UK. According to the Treasury, over the next twenty years, every man, woman, and child would be £1,400 better off each year for staying in the union. 

One thing we found is that there are large technical flaws in the Treasury analysis and calculations: in particular, the model the Treasury used fails to account for various known features which will inevitably affect the future they are trying to predict. The identified flaws include, among others:

  • the Treasury’s failure to allow for the Barnett squeeze which, on the Treasury’s own growth assumptions will automatically begin and adversely affect the Scottish government’s funding under a continued union.
  • Failure to recognise that the funding model for the devolved Scottish government has no mechanism for making provision for a significant element for the extra costs associated with Scotland’s relatively ageing population.
  • Failure to allow for the implications of quantitative easing.

However, the problems with the Treasury’s approach go much deeper than these technical flaws. Its failure to model the way the Scottish government is funded under the union, allied to its failure to look at variant scenarios for UK public expenditure growth, means that the Treasury entirely miss the lose/lose situation which Scotland is in under continuation of the union.

On the one hand, if the Treasury’s optimistic growth scenario is realised, then there will be a Barnett squeeze. But on the other hand, in the very likely case of continued austerity, then the Barnett formula would mechanistically deliver increasing levels of per capita expenditure on devolved services to Scotland relative to England: in the face of universal austerity in the UK, this would make the continuation of Barnett politically impossible. Either way, Scotland loses.

The Treasury calculations also fail to allow for the adverse effects which are, in effect, baked into the UK baseline from which the Treasury attempts to measure its “union dividend”. These negatives include:

  • The very serious risks of a UK financial crisis.
  • Having successive Conservative governments which Scotland has not voted for.
  • Illegal wars.
  • Trident, which is based on the doorstep of Scotland’s largest conurbation, and which polls show is anathema to the bulk of the Scottish population.
  • The adverse effects of Scotland’s lack of direct representation in international bodies like the EU and the UN.
  • The inefficiencies in the operation of reserved functions in the UK, which means that Scotland has at times to seek permission to allocate part of its own budget to overcome deficiencies – and is on occasion even penalised for so doing. (A classic example of the latter was free personal care for the elderly, where the Scottish government hoped to use the attendance allowance of those in care homes to help meet the overall costs. The UK government refused to transfer the attendance allowance monies, so Scotland was penalised by over £20 million per annum).
  • The fact that Scotland has to take on board, without any option, divisive UK policies in areas like social security.

In effect, the Treasury approach is fundamentally and implicitly union-centric: so that the present state of the union is inherently regarded as being natural, beneficial, and risk-free. What should have taken place was a proper assessment of the pros and cons of the union, going into the risks and costs attaching to continued membership of that union.

And last, but not least, is the question of the assumption that the Treasury made about the independence scenario – in areas like start-up costs, oil, and debt. These assumptions have, rightly, been strongly challenged by others: see for example oil expert Donald MacKay in the Sunday Times on 6th July. While it is not the primary purpose of this paper to go into these areas in detail, there are good grounds for believing that the Treasury has chosen to be unduly pessimistic.

The Treasury paper is, of course, meant to tell us something about Scottish independence: but actually, what it does do is to indicate something very significant about what has happened to the Treasury itself. The two fundamental failings in the Treasury paper are the failure to take on board in their modelling known, and essential, features of the real world – particularly the funding arrangements for devolution: and the failure to produce a balanced view by addressing the risks attaching to the UK economy. These failings tell us that the once proud Treasury has become a thoroughly politicised organisation, and one where technical standards have badly slipped.

Overall, where does our critique leave the “union dividend”? Is it just a question of reducing the Treasury’s assessed dividend in relation to those technical mistakes that we have identified and which can be quantified? 

Absolutely not. What we argue is that the whole concept of a single figure “union dividend” is nonsense and must be abandoned. The decision that the Scottish people will take on independence involves many factors. To try to boil that decision down to a single monetary amount is basically meaningless: and when the method adopted essentially assumes away all the risks and costs attaching to staying in the union the result is not merely meaningless, it is intrinsically biased.

When the Treasury produced their results, their use of children’s lego men to explain their findings to the simple minded Scots was widely, and rightly, seen as insulting. In fact, the real insult was not in the use of lego men to present the results: but in the fact that the Treasury adopted a flawed and biased methodology in the first place.

 

 

 

 

We need to talk about Labour

If you’ve not read Euan McColm’s piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, I’d recommend that you do.  Though you might want to grab a mug of strong coffee and a pen and paper first.

That’s because he sets out the intricacies of the tangled web of Scottish Labour politics.  And how it really is all about them and not about us.

Euan explores Labour’s current inability to get its story across. He concludes that the party needs a new storyteller, one who can not only craft a narrative the electorate will buy, but also sell that narrative to voters coherently and convincingly: “Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.”

He lays bare the extent and scale of Labour’s problem but fails to highlight the glaringly obvious; that Labour in Scotland is so focused on its own machinations that it cannot see the extent of its problems. The very fact that all this internal manoeuvring and calculating is going on during the most important debate in Scotland’s history shows how far Labour has drifted from its founding principles, values and purpose.

People like Jim Murphy – and even Douglas Alexander and a few others besides – are weighing up the ifs, buts and maybes of outcomes from not only the referendum, but also the 2015 UK election.  For Labour it is all about power for individuals and the party: the fate and the future of Scotland and her people are but pawns on the chessboard.

I’ve listened to a fair number of very decent Labour folk try to articulate why Scotland should vote no in September. They sing yesterday’s song, harking to the past and what was achieved particularly in the postwar years.  Which is fine and I agree with much of what they say.  But this debate isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, Scotland’s future.  And on that, their cupboard is largely bare.  They have a string of soundbites which sound plausible but which go nowhere.  Their arguments fail to frame their opposition to what the independence offer means for families and communities.  Let them talk long enough and they disagree with themselves, ending up far from where they began. I’m not even sure they believe what they are saying half the time.

When their devolution-plus proposals are more timid and offer fewer powers being transferred from Westminster to Scotland than the Conservatives, then the game’s a bogey.  Their Devolution Commission final report offered less than was touted because it was a shoddy compromise, finalised within a framework of hoping to win the UK election in 2015.  What that means is that if Labour is in charge of the UK in the next five years, they’ll be putting precious little Scotland’s way in terms of further devolution.  Because if they’re in power, they don’t want to be handing it over to us.  It really is that simple.

And if they lose, then MPs hoping for UK Ministerial office start to look elsewhere. After years of ignoring Scotland’s wee pretendy parliament and playing with the big boys, some of them might set their sights on Scottish leadership and the possibility of First Ministerial or other Ministerial office in Scotland.  I’m sorry but if Jim Murphy is the answer, then someone, somewhere is asking the wrong question.

Already Labour is working towards winning in 2016: that’s why it has selected most of its parliamentary candidates to run already. Forget the referendum, that’s just a sideshow: the real focus is on regaining what they see as their rightful place in Scottish politics. In power, in control and in charge.

Which is not to say that there are not good and decent Labour people whose hearts and minds are much less calculating than that. Some of them really do believe in the Union. Some of them do believe that what they offer is best for Scotland and her people – the best of both worlds is more than a slogan. I – and many others I know – share common values on fairness and equality in particular.  It’s just that those core beliefs are being obscured by naked ambition, particularly at leadership level.  And yes, I agree that power is needed to put into effect the policies you believe will change people’s lives.

But what are these exactly?  Scotland will get control over housing benefit, the rest will stay at Westminster.  It will get all income tax levers but not the ability to cut tax, only raise it. A UK Labour government will stick to the Tory public spending plans – that’s familiar.  So the £5 billion cut to Scotland’s block grant, putting at risk key public services will go ahead in the next two years.  The freeze on energy prices is good but takes no account of the disproportionate impact of high costs on rural Scotland. Worse, freezing bills for a limited time gives the energy companies a continued opt-out on investing in providing outlying areas with greater choice of cheaper energy. It’s a short term fix.

And in the absence of a positive offer to stay in the Union beyond the notion of family and a shared past and the hint of a Labour government to come, Labour is resorting to the scaremongering tactics so expertly practised by their Tory counterparts in the Better Together coalition. You might not put border controls up but we will, cries Ed Miliband.  Thus, he would treat us differently from a completely foreign, neighbouring country across the water.  I’ll resign if the Treasury allows a currency union, whines Ed Balls.  Who cares, shrugs most of Scotland.

The very fact that Labour is selecting candidates not just for the 2015 UK election but also the 2016 Scottish election tells its own story.  The fact that it is having these internal conversations in dark corners about who is best placed to lead the party in Scotland tells us all we need to know about where the party’s priorities lie.  And it ain’t with the people of Scotland.

It’s why more and more Labour party members and supporters are not just moving from no to yes but also getting involved in the Yes campaign.  They want to talk about the future of us all, not just their party.  They want to be part of this exciting, big conversation that individuals, families and communities are having about their future and their country’s future.  They want to talk about how best to end child poverty, to protect and nurture our NHS, to raise incomes, to create a fairer society for all.

And that’s a narrative we can all get behind.