Tuesday, August 31, 2010
"In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.
"It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.
"The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.
From William Hague today:
"We must harness Britain's generosity and compassion to help the rest of the world"
Kenny was vilified by many, including Tories, for the former and his supposed claim that Scotland has a monopoly on compassion. Note that this is a separate issue to whether Megrahi being released was appropriate or not, it is focussing on whether our leaders should project a positive view of the nations they represent and the hypocrisy that can exist therein.
I look forward to William receiving the same derision that Kenny received.
Update - On a not entirely unrelated topic, this welcome post from Newsnet Scotland is well worth a read.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Too many leadership contests of late have involved picking the least worst candidate so it is to Labour's credit that they have a decision before them which will end with 'the most best' individual winning through.
I would say, with all due respect to the man, that it is only Ed Balls who has made a less than substantive contribution to the contest, with the other four candidates helping to widen the debate and ensure the next chapter in the party's future is as cathartic as possible. Perhaps it should have been the other MP in the Balls household putting their name forward.
Anyway, the debate seems to be moving towards where Labour needs to be in relation to other parties rather than where it wants to plant its feet. For a party that is supposedly searching for its soul, this is a strange way to go about achieving that objective.
Peter Mandelson warns against 'lurching to the left' and David Miliband talks of 'pivoting our Politics forwards', presumably both against Ed Miliband's recklessly liberal anti-war, anti-nuclear stance, (despite these being historically Labour ideals of course). To be fair to Mandelson, New Labour must have emanated from Old Labour for a reason so to go back from New to Old deserves strong consideration of the risks involved.
David Miliband is the current frontrunner but he represents a timid choice with his current strategy seemingly being to clamp down on rival challengers rather than clearly communicate his own vision. Indeed, the main reason I can see for voting for the older Miliband is that he is rightwing enough to win Middle England but left enough of Cameron to hold onto the base. It seems to be the classic New Labour error of power for power's sake all over again. The Greens certainly want David to win to ensure they can make the resultant mouthwateringly massive gap to the left their own. Cameron wants David to lose as the Prime Minister doesn't want another 'heir to Blair' on his patch.
Don't get me wrong, I'm very impressed with both Milibands, they seem bright, articulate, personable, fair and, most crucially, genuine. Either name would get my vote ahead of Clegg or Cameron as things currently stand.
However, Ed Miliband has that extra level of enthusiasm, that extra edge of radicalism, those extra green credentials and that extra bag of policies against his name. This adds up to momentum and a lightning rod for a liberal, progressive, lefty coalition that between the SNP, the Greens and the disenchanted Lib Dems, can ensure that the coalition will, somewhat belatedly, be held to account adequately.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
"the list tells us some important things about the world. For starters, smaller is often better. While there's no denying the vitality of emerging-market giants like China or Brazil or Turkey, they are often bested by tiny nations like Slovenia or Estonia, according to the data, simply because it takes less effort for these countries to improve their overall wellbeing.
In a Sunday Express interview, First Minister Alex Salmond has vowed that "the people can take the decision to force the issue (of an independence referendum)" as the SNP continues its bid to join the ranks of successful small countries across Europe.
The Newsweek overall rankings had Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands and Norway in the top ten and the supposedly stronger together and weaker apart United States, Germany, United Kingdom and France in the 11-20 spots. Superpowers, clearly, ain't what they used to be.
With the news of more oil than expected in the North Sea, Cairn Energy leading the exploration charge in the Arctic, Joseph Stiglitz surmising that UK wasted prior oil reserves and the banking crisis now settling down thanks to strong growth figures, now may be the right time for the Nationalists to up the stakes in the game of referendum brinksmanship.
Certainly Tavish Scott continues to sound distinctly flaky on this issue, no more so than in today's Scotland on Sunday article when he says the "the country has moved on" from considering independence and the "modern" Scottish Lib Dems don't give "two hoots" about a referendum. Tavish is entitled to state the latter opinion categorically as he leads the party, regardless of how incorrect the assertion may be. The former opinion, surely, can only be stated categorically after a referendum so it will be interesting to see whether, and how much, Tavish's views change as the election campaign progresses.
Either way, this is a welcome shot in the arm for Holyrood '11. It's heartening to see Alex Salmond intent on leaving it all out on the field for something he strongly believes in, and it's nice to see that Newsweek, indirectly at least, has the First Minister's back.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Let's start with this tweet from the Scottish Liberal Democrats official feed:
scotlibdems: Strathclyde’s recruitment freeze undermines SNP police promise says Robert Brown MSP http://bit.ly/b7BFfM
Fair enough, there was a manifesto comitment by the SNP to increase police officers by 1,000 so if this isn't met then scrutiny is required. However, it was fair to assume back in 2007 that the Scottish Executive would enjoy an ever increasing budget so said scrutiny shouldn't go much beyond acknowledging that there is less money in today's pot and future pots.
Furthermore, the debate, not just surrounding police numbers but effectively all devolved issues, should focus on 'the marginal pound'. That is, if we spend money on more police, if that is the best use of a certain part of the budget, then what will we not pay for, what is less worthy of that money? We simply can't debate the best use of budgets without looking at both sides of the trial balance, you can't call for a debit without admitting where the credit will fall, simple as that.
Needless to say, the Lib Dem press release makes no mention of what the party would like to see cut from the existing budget to fund extra police. The one-way debate serves to attack the SNP without contributing ideas of a preferred approach to the status quo.
So then we look at the UK as a whole and note that police numbers are dropping in England and Wales through recruitment freezes, similar to what is happening in Scotland. Furthermore, police numbers were reported to be dropping back in January 2010 so Labour's catcalls that the extra police policy is being "torpedoed by SNP cuts" is surely a low blow and more than a little two-faced.
The SNP, to its credit, has already achieved its manifesto commitment of 1,000 police officers early in order to tick that box and will no doubt strive to keep the numbers as high as possible before May. However, it seems unlikely that it will adopt the reckless approach of funding extra police just to insulate itself from political attack before the next elections.
It is another example of Governments, both Scottish and UK, doing the best they can with the resources available but when Lib Dems denounce falling police numbers when they are effectively presiding over the same state of affairs at Westminster and Labour continues its mock-outrage at cuts that it helped create through the credit crunch, then one can only shake one's head in dismay.
On current evidence it is going to be a truly abysmal election campaign in advance of May 2011 and I just hope that most Scots ignore the headline-grabbing rhetoric and simply vote for the party that treats them least like an idiot.
Many will say 'that's Politics' in an effort to excuse the above approaches but I maintain that other countries do not dumb down this low in order to capture the public's attention and, indeed, imagination.
We have good people representing good parties filled with good intentions, it's just a shame we somehow lack the all-important good debate that should come with it.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
A group of eight super-posh friends are sitting around the impressively filled dining table. Landowners, property investors, fund accountants, stock market speculators, it doesn't really matter. This is the hoi polloi and the food miles in front of them could get to the moon and back.
A question pierces the general chatter, to noone in particular - "So, have you had a good budget or a bad budget?". The pause is brief before the rib-tickling, back-slapping, caviar-spilling, slightly horsey laughter begins.
"Good one Jeremy but stop being a pillock and pass me some more ham."
Inverted snobbery on my part? The classic Scottish trait of looking down on success? Perhaps, but I hope and think not.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has described George Osborne's budget as "clearly regressive" despite assurances from both of the coalition's party leaders that they would be a progressive force.
It is perhaps unfair to single out the Lib Dems for special blame but, as the Guardian picks up on today, Nick Clegg stated that June's budget would mean that "the richest are paying the most... as a proportion of their income". I'm sure there is a lot of good in this budget but a Robin Hood redistribution it clearly isn't and the coalition's defence is particularly telling.
1 - The loudest rebuttal to today's headlines is that it's yesterday's news and a rehashed narrative. Yes, without a hint of irony or indeed shame, Lib Dems and Tories are complaining (in alarming harmony) that this has been reported before so is, presumably, invalid.
2 - A Lib Dem activist on Twitter today mentioned that the budget was juggling the need to put a roof over peoples' heads with "making work pay". I would have been surprised if that was a Conservative line but from a Lib Dem that is remarkable. When did the basic right of having a home become a flexible 'nice to have'? I do think political students for decades to come will study these days as an example of how power can corrupt principles.
3 - There has also been a focus on the fact that under Labour the gap between rich and poor grew over the past 13 years. I would rather have hoped that this would instil an urgency to reverse that direction of travel rather than sustain it.
Indeed, on that urgency, I do hope that Labour looks seriously at the recently suggested policy of a one-off tax on wealth. £4000bn of Britain's £9000bn total wealth is owned by only 10% of Brits. A one-off tax of 20% would repay the national debt and bring down the deficit.
Sounds like a policy worthy of deep consideration to me. Just a shame that the party that until recently would have been most likely to adopt it is facing the other way and enjoying dining at the top table too much.
More ham Nick?
Sunday, August 22, 2010
However, there have been two polls in the past week that sees the SNP drawing almost level with their main challengers:
Labour - 36%
SNP - 35%
Conservative - 14%
Lib Dems - 12%
Greens - ?
Labour - 37%
SNP - 34%
Conservative - 11%
Lib Dems - 13%
Greens - ?
I don't know if any of the papers picked the above results up in their Sunday spreads but it's clear the ping-pong polling game has begun in earnest.
Friday, August 20, 2010
The Government's call to Libya not to celebrate the first anniversary of the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, illustrates the feebleness of ministers' position.
In truth, they have no power over how Libya treats al-Megrahi, jailed in 2001 for his role in the 1988 bombing.
Well, which is it, is it being feeble or is it powerless? Either the UK Goverment has power to act and is acting feebly in doing so or it is powerless and consequently denied the opportunity to interject, feebly or otherwise. (The answer is, of course, the latter)
The Prime Minister has made clear that he believes al-Megrahi's release last year on compassionate grounds, because of terminal cancer, was a mistake. That is not cutting much ice with US senators now investigating the release.
The Prime Minister has stated that the release was a mistake but that would suggest an oversight, an error or a misjudgement. There has been none of these things and while Cameron is within his rights to disagree with MacAskill's decision, which was taken in good faith and for the right reasons, he does not have the right to unequivocally label a meticulously undertaken decision something that that it patently is not.
The decision by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release al-Megrahi was extraordinary.
It was not extraordinary, far from it. It was a straightforward decision, in line with Scots Law that many a Justice Secretary has taken before and many will take again in the future.
There is scarcely a British precedent for early release on any grounds of a prisoner convicted of such serious crimes: 270 people were killed.
Has there ever been any UK prisoner that has been accused of killing so many people? What comparison can one reasonably make here?
But what the affair really illustrates is the oddness of Britain's devolution settlement, and the inability of a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to see how ludicrous it looks to the rest of the world.
Devolution is odd? Interesting. Two in three Scots are in favour of it you know. Do go on.
Any decision on al-Megrahi was clearly a matter of national security, both because he was an international terrorist and because his case was of major interest to our most important ally (most of those who died were American).
How on earth, if Libya and the UK are now friendly nations, can the release of a solitary dying man be "clearly a matter of national security". And to suggest that American interests should have played a part in the Justice Secretary's decision-making process displays a grotesque misunderstanding of how due process should unfold.
For ministers to argue that it was nothing to do with them, because they had handed over power to a few toytown Scottish politicians, was incomprehensible to the Obama administration.
Toytown politicians? Such a sneering condescension from this Tory rag of a paper barely merits a response.
As for "handed over power" to Holyrood, the Evening Standard clearly doesn't even understand that, had this decision been required pre-devolution, then it still would've been taken under Scots Law and north of the border. Schoolboy error.
That Mr Brown could not see how frankly silly his excuses looked is testimony to his and the Labour Party's long and disproportionate obsession with Scottish issues.
There is little that the Government can now do about the affair, beyond Mr Cameron's sympathetic noises in Washington last month. Ministers should, however, consider whether devolved powers as they now stand risk embarrassing and weakening the UK again in future.
There we go, Scotland is embarrassing the rest of the UK for having the nerve to make its own decisions for itself. Threatening to remove devolved powers that don't even apply in this instance just sums it up for me - the jaw-dropping misunderstanding and contempt that Scotland is held with by many of those south of the border.
I've held this back from the blog for a while now but I've had a few so fuck it. In the short space of time that I've been down here in London, to everyone that's mentioned Jockland or deep frying everything or 'Oh, how weird, I can understand you' or 'you Scotch should know your place' (as the Evening Standard is effectively saying here), do me a favour and shove it up your arse.
Right. Up. Your. Arse.
Note - For those who think the Megrahi debacle may harm the SNP's chances at the Holyrood election, hold onto your hats for this weekend as a very good poll for the Nats is in the offing...
What is most interesting about the politics of Sweden is that their mainstream right-wing party is probably, by some distance, to the left of our most left-wing mainstream party (I’ll leave you to decide for yourself which particular UK/Scottish party that may be!)
Sweden, like all other countries, has highs and lows in its politics. The highs include the remarkable integrity shown by a Deputy Prime Minister, Mona Sahlin, who resigned in 1995 after she bought a toblerone bar with her work credit card, an incident that makes our MPs expenses debacle even more ridiculous. (The full detail isn’t quite that flippant, basically she had used her work card to buy 50,000kr of private expenses but had always paid the money back). It didn’t ruin her career though. Mona is the current leader of the challenging Swedish Social Democratic Party and is intent on being the next Prime Minister from next month.
My ‘low’ example from Sweden also includes Mona Sahlin as her party has promised to outspend the ruling Modernitska Party by (I think) £20bn, irrespective of what is promised during the election campaign. A ‘benevolent and reckless bestowing upon my people’ tactic straight out of the Gordon Brown election book if you ask me.
The last election (2006) had the following breakdown:
Social Democrats (very left) – 35%
Moderate Party (quite right) – 26%
Centre Party (Centre, rural, greenish) – 8%
Liberal People’s Party (centre-right) - 7.5%
Christian Democrats (centre-right) – 6.6%
Left Party (Left) – 5.9%
Green Party (Green) – 5.2%
Sweden Democrats (far right) – 2.9%
Result = ‘Alliance for Sweden’ (Moderates, Centre, Liberal People’s, Christian Democrats) ‘won’ with about 49% of the vote and formed the first Government that didn’t involve the Social Democrats for about 70 years.
Current polling has the parties on:
Social Democrats – 30.2%
Moderate Party – 29.3%
Centre Party – 4.2%
Liberal People’s Party – 6.9%
Christian Democrats – 5.5%
Left Party – 5.8%
Green Party – 9.0%
Sweden Democrats – 6.5%
So the ruling Alliance has only 45.9% of the vote and may need to deal with the ‘far right’ Sweden Democrats in order to win power, although one would hope that the Green Party would be a more amenable government partner. (Note that the Greens typically form coalitions with the ‘red’ Social Democrats).
The Swedish Democrats may not quite be the BNP, but they see immigration, Islamization and globalisation as threats to Swedish culture. They believe every child should have “one father and one mother”. Read into that what you will I suppose. Of course the upshot may be that the lefty Social Democrats pick up significant votes from the rightish Moderates to keep out the far-right Swedish Democrats.
So, with me so far? Me neither. Not long to go though till we find out which direction the famously left-wing Sweden will turn next….
The election will be held on Sunday 19th September 2010.
Jag kan inte vänta, men jag måste.
On the question of whether Kenny MacAskill should have allowed Megrahi return home to die, the results were:
Disagreed – 54% (46% prior year)
Agreed – 35% (42% prior year)
So, support for the decision is thinning and I suppose that is to be expected given how unlikely it is for someone to go from being against the decision to being in favour of it just because the man has lived longer than expected.
I still don’t think this issue should, or will, dominate Scotland’s domestic political agenda for the months and years to come.
However, much like the 100 days of the coalition, the arbitrary choice of one year to look back and reflect on Kenny MacAskill's 'right decision for the right reasons' is upon us. The Scotsman leads the way with some Grade A tripe. With an article bizarrely title "Freeing Megrahi 'will cost SNP the election"', the piece goes on a rather pedestrian meander around the story so far, with no mention of any impact on the SNP's electoral chances (so where the apparent quote in the headline comes from is anyone's guess)
I remain baffled as to why this remains big news when there is so little to talk about. Even the underlying message from the media at large that everyone was against this decision is unwarranted. I seem to remember that Scotland was split about 50/50 over whether it was the right decision and, as many readers here will ruefully admit, it's not often the SNP gets close to winning 50% in a poll.
I don't see how anyone has lost out from a man simply living longer than was expected. Last time I checked that was supposed to be a good thing rather than bad. Of course, some relatives of those who died will be angry at this state of affairs, but there's a reason such people are not judge and jury for the cases that impacted upon them.
One year on, and if the strongest reason against the Justice Secretary's decision is that one doesn't like seeing the Saltire waved by Libyans cheering home a convicted terrorist, then my opinion on the matter will remain unchanged.
As for costing the SNP the election, I suspect spending, health, education, crime and, heck, maybe even independence will be higher up the priority list.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
We currently have a collective pension obligation in the UK that is a ticking timebomb and, to add to the looming carnage, it is the public sector pension fund that the Government tends to borrow against to fund current spending. Further to this, an ageing population and the WW2 baby boomers nearing retirement age mean there is little doubt that the rather dry question of how we fund our post-work lives is a critical one.
Most pensions involve the employee paying in x% and the employer paying in y%, both x and y being in the region of 10. What you put in either attracts interests or, if you are very lucky, goes towards your final salary scheme, either of which you realise upon retirement with a lump sum and/or annual payments.
That is all well and good and should probably continue in the same form, particularly the employee contribution as what a person does with his/her salary is their business. However, a potential change could be that the employer contribution goes into one enormous public sector pot and, upon retirement, a flat annual salary (with an appropriate inflationary increase) is paid out across the board regardless of whether the drawee was the Head of the Civil Service or sweeped the streets. It is joyously inflexible, the inflexibility being the guarantee that fairness is realised in the system.
Note, of course, that those enjoying salaries in the range that the Head of the Civil Service enjoys will no doubt have separate pensions that can ensure a more luxurious lifestyle. However, crucially, no employer contribution will have funded such separate pensions. Note also that the above can just as easily apply to private companies.
As a country we believe in the universality of education, we believe in the universality of health provision so shouldn’t we also believe in the universality of adequate pensions? ‘The rat race is for rats’ said Jimmy Reid, who sadly passed away last week. I would add to that famous phrase that peanut pensions are for monkeys.
What if the employer contribution element of Fred Goodwin’s pension was to be spread more evenly? Or the top mandarins in the public sector? Or politicians for that matter? Who would shed a tear? Any employee, public or private, would still be welcome to inflate their pensions with their own salary, and that would still attract tax relief, but in terms of reducing the very top pensions and increasing the very lowest, even just a little bit, this ‘flat pensions’ idea seems to be the radical realignment our pensions problem requires.
They say you get out what you put in and while this is true in terms of effort and, more often than not, love, when the have-nots have nowt to put in, it’s little wonder that the haves continue to skim the financial cream from society’s efforts and the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. After all, which box would this proposal not tick? Social mobility, progressive, a future fair for all, fair is worth fighting for, we’re all in this together?
It’s bulletproof but, sadly, it’s never going to happen. Greed will remain good in the UK for decades to come and too many people prefer their pensions to be fat rather than flat.
I remain optimistic that something can be achieved however. It would take a collective mental leap from the UK but it is a leap in the correct direction. For too long (and I blame Thatcher) it has been every person for themselves, getting yourself ahead, getting yourself on and measuring success and contentment in £ signs. Trample your way to the top.
A flat tax would cement that regressive thinking. A flat pension would reverse it.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
It is a debate that I am sure will grow, perhaps even dominate, during the tenure of the Liberal-Conservative coalition amidst growing speculation that the cuts will come at too high, and too imbalanced, a price. I don’t buy into the easy notion that ‘toffs’ from Eton don’t know how to govern for the benefit for the entirety of the UK but at the same time I am less than convinced by the Prime Minister’s promised respect agenda for Scotland which, presumably, also applies to Labour-dominated areas in the North of England.
In many ways, this Doomsday scenario which is slowly but surely becoming a reality will remain applicable if Labour wins the Holyrood election in 2011. The focus of the divergence will simply subtly switch from constitutional separation to Government’s position in society. That is, the Conservatives wanting Government to step way back from our day to day lives and Labour/SNP wanting the Government to have a greater role.
A perhaps unexplored area in which those north of the border may widen this North-South, left-right divide is through simple perceptions of who their main Government is. With Tony Blair reasonably popular over the entirety of his tenure in office and Gordon Brown unmistakably Scottish (and consequently unmistakably Scotland’s leader), it was easy over the past 13 years to feel governed by Westminster and have that direct link to the decisions that were taken in our name. Now, however, that link to our Prime Minister and UK Cabinet is diluted. There is as little Scottish presence in the Cabinet as there is popularity for it and dwindling reasons to be engaged with the overall process when the majority of discussions (foundation hospitals, free schools etc) do not apply to Scots. There is a risk, some would say an opportunity, that Scotland simply slips away from Westminster, engages deeper into Holyrood and everyday contact with politicians is conducted through MSPs with a clear mindset that the First Minister is the primary leader of the land.
The qualitative political impact this would have on the ‘United Kingdom’ could be enormous.
One other specific area where any North-South divide could foggy inter-UK relations is the choking, coughing elephant in the room – the urgent need to combat Climate Change. It is telling that the UK Government uses the phrase “addressing Climate Change”, as if we just need to pat it on the back and calmly turn it the other way with minimal effort.
The regrettable ambivalence amongst the coalition’s ranks stands in clear contrast to an SNP Government which has grasped the nettle in many key areas, though there is still substantial room for improvement. Either way, it is clear that Holyrood is more serious about playing its part in keeping emissions down and building up a new renewables infrastructure than Westminster is. There is, at least, a substantial ideological difference in whether our nations need a new wave of nuclear power stations. Looking ahead, it is difficult to ascertain how seriously Scottish Labour takes the problem without the party having been in power for four years and the issue only really taking off in that timeframe but it’s probably fair to assume that an Iain Gray-led administration would be more proactive on environmental matters than the Cameron-led administration currently is, particularly with the ranks of Climate Change sceptics that have the PM’s back.
A tipping point for pent-up friction on this issue may well come whenever the next Kyoto/Copenhagen Summit is held, as will surely be necessary in the next year or two. Ed Miliband put in an admirable effort to drive change and he seems to get the problem, though returned home from Denmark pretty much empty-handed. Chris Huhne would be hamstrung by his Tory coalition partners and David Cameron would perhaps even pull rank and lead the UK delegation on such a summit. However, I simply cannot envisage the Prime Minister accepting the tough decisions that will be required to reverse emissions before 2015. The gathering storm over the need for action, merely latent within the UK at the current time, could be unleashed at such a juncture.
The message on the environment from the experts will of course grow starker and starker as our prospects as a planet grow darker and darker. This can only drive the wedge between Holyrood and Westminster deeper, already worlds apart over the size of the state, the workings of the NHS and the universality of state education, amongst numerous other policy areas.
So, can a left-wing devolved Government keep pushing for its preferred policies while a right-wing coalition reduces its funding and focuses investment in the South? It seems a tough ask. To that end, particularly keeping differing opinions on the environment in mind, it will be interesting to see where the proposed £2bn Green Investment Bank is located, something that could prove to be a totemic decision by the UK Government. I agree with Rob Gibson MSP that Scotland is the ideal place to house such an entity given the massive commitment of resource in wave, tidal and wind energy from the public and private sector, north of the border. However, whenever the decision is made, if the coalition’s idea of a non-London base is somewhere in Cornwall or Kent then it will perhaps be further evidence that this new North-South, left-right divide really isn’t going to work out. Certainly the business case for wherever the Green Investment Bank ends up deserves close scrutiny.
So what is the answer? At the very least it is surely full fiscal autonomy for a nation that sees the world in a different way to its Governmental superiors. A policy that has all the hallmarks of Cameron’s Big Society, of Clegg’s Fairness and of Conservatives free markets, allowing Scotland to spend the money it raises (with a recharge to Westminster for ‘shared services’) is the only way to bring the UK back together again and allow left and right to happily coexist on these same shared islands.
Otherwise, the top-heavy structure to our country, whichever of the SNP or Labour factions heads up Holyrood, will topple over and prove unsustainable.
There’s a real problem here and it needs a real solution. So far the coalition appears to be falling way short and, if it’s not careful, it will fall through this north-south, left-right divide that it has helped to create.
One final thought – a clear difference in how the North wants to live and be governed with how the South wants to live and be governed could prove a difficult juggling act for Scottish Labour if it were to win next year’s Scottish Parliament elections, through either a Minority Government or in coalition with Greens/Lib Dems. Labour’s visceral loathing of countenancing any sort of mature debate on the merits of independence would sit awkwardly against an obvious imbalance in Scotland’s constitutional arrangement, with or without the relatively weak Calman proposals having been implemented. How would First Minister Iain Gray play it? Would Labour become more radical and side with the SNP on certain issues against the Conservatives or would they try to hold onto the Union at whatever cost and have to defend coalition decisions from time to time. It is a tremendously tricky strategic decision the party potentially faces, though of course the SNP may have the decency to deny them that difficulty by winning through in the elections next year.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Joe Fitzpatrick defended a continued freeze on Newsnight Scotland last night and the SNP have bolstered their defence by attacking Iain Gray’s calls as a “smash and grab raid on the public’s pockets”. That exaggerated rhetoric betrays the desperation of the SNP’s stance and lack of options that the party has left itself with. The blame game is riddled all over the latest press release, brandishing council cuts as Labour’s, yet they are SNP cuts at a national level and Tory/Lib Dem cuts at a UK level. This merry-go-round of mud slinging and ‘which cuts are whose’ cannot be political debate at its best, surely.
We only have to look at the recent BAA resolution for evidence that a compromise is required and the SNP will have to back down in some way. BAA workers, much like local councils, are receiving less in real terms. It is an unsustainable direction of travel. You can’t perennially freeze income and allow costs to increase through VAT rises and inflation, inflation which is already higher than expected. Middle ground (necessary before a vote on next year’s budget) will either involve allowing Council Tax to increase or providing more money to councils to plug the gaps.
As the Government is steadfastly against the former, the SNP can only get out of this hole with the latter. It’s going to cost them and it may well be money that John Swinney shouldn’t, but politically can’t-not, spend.
Iain Gray is correct though, local councils should be making local decisions surrounding what Council Tax should be now that the three-year concordat is over. It’s time to share the pain. Buying your way into a more palatable election campaigning position is not what good Government should be about.
So I read with his interest his reasons for joining the Labour party and, with equal intrigue, his reasons for not joining any other party.
Joining Labour was the obvious choice. Joining the Libdems was not an option; the Tories stand for everything I’m against and the Libdems are unfortunately enabling the Tories to carry out a ruinous agenda. The Greens are too ideologically pure for me.
Ideologically pure? I found this a remarkable phrase to use not to mention decision not to join a party, particularly as I've just joined the Greens. To fully understand Sunny's meaning I got to thinking what an ideologically impure party would involve, a situation which is presumably preferable. U-turns, broken promises, no-one ever really believing what your party says and factions riven throughout the team. I found it odd that a blogger who discusses ideology so freely and openly would then use it as a negative.
A debate can be characterised as pragmatism vs dogma but equally it can be held up as doing the right thing vs selling out your ideals. However, that is typically on specific policies, when it coming to joining a party it is surely the 'dogma', the ideals, the doing the right thing and the ideology holds sway?
My unavoidable suspicion is that Sunny, like many other lefties out there, is in favour of the vast majority of Green Party policies but feels the party's current size doesn't match his lofty ambitions. Which is fine of course, it is in many ways akin to a football supporter selecting only one of Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Arsenal to support because they wish to wear their scarves while watching the Champions League.
However, it is surely ideological impurity itself to dismiss a party due to how principled it is rather than on what it's actual policies are.
In joining the Labour Party, Sunny Hundal has made his first compromise. Let's hope it's his last.
Monday, August 16, 2010
The uber-consensual approach to Government is a well used strategy to unbalance the distinctly partisan Opposition. The SNP certainly used it to great effect earlier in this term when they accepted the will of the Parliament and (grudgingly) took on the Edinburgh Trams project, not to mention voting in favour of a budget amendment by Labour only for Labour, so surprised by the lack of opposition, to vote against their own proposal.
So David Cameron has marked an easy win here. After all, if Milburn's no good, what do Labour care what he does. And if Milburn is good, (1) why didn't they keep him onside longer and (2) he'll surely do a fine job here 'for the greater good'.
Needless to say, the bigger question involving Milburn's social mobility brief is getting drowned out. How can we achieve a more progressive society when there are public sector cuts, a squeezed private sector, anaemic lending from banks and compassion fatigue is the order of the day?
Tough one. Over to you Alan, but please don't let the pantomime boos and hisses put you off...
The political ramifications of all of this are, of course, considerable and it is not surprising that it is Labour-held Glasgow Council that is leading the calls to end the freeze. Breaking the concordat has been a top priority for Labour even since the ink was drying on the agreement. Delivering a Council Tax freeze that is appreciated by the entire country and would be campaigning gold for the SNP in the run up to May 2011 was always too much to take for Labour. They tried to break it via questioning school meals funding, they tried to break it through questioning the lack of ring-fencing and now they’re regrouping to try to break it through there just not being enough cash in the various pots.
There are, of course, good reasons for increasing Council Tax, so much so that I think it is now necessary to do so, but the practical logic may well get lost amidst the political positioning from all sides.
Even though a deal’s a deal and the 32 councils that signed up to this concordat have a duty to make it work, the recession was an unexpected body blow so flexibility is crucial to ensure some councils don’t simply collapse. That flexibility includes innovative cost-cutting ideas to deliver existing budgets but it should also extend to squeezing a little bit of extra income from the local area to ease the pressure, where all sides agree.
I don’t have the data but a simple calculation comparing the expected increase in Council Tax had there been no freeze with the extra £70m councils received from the Scottish Government as part of the concordat should show what increase may be required in the coming year. That is, (and to put it very crudely), council tax rises in the past few years may have raised £250m (say) and councils have only received £210m from the concordat so an extra £40m will be required next year, over and above any annual increase that may be necessary.
Ideally it should be left to individual areas to decide. Some areas may wish to pay a little bit more to be confident their bins will be collected, recycling continues and all other local services are as efficient as possible. Alternatively, some areas may prefer cash to be in their own pockets and will put up with any problems that a cash-poor council may come up against. It is, of course, difficult and indeed nigh on impossible to gauge what each local area wants to happen next.
Further to that, John Swinney may crunch the numbers and decide that councils have enough money to make it through the bottleneck, which of course would result in the SNP making it through to May 2011 with the concordat still intact.
The upshot of all of this is, much like the last contest, is that this coming Holyrood election battle will be fought on local taxation which in itself means we’re all four years older and no further forward.
Given that, I’m not so sure how persuasive a call for a Local Income Tax will sound the second time around when it wasn’t pushed particularly hard when the SNP had its opportunity in the past four years. The good news is, Labour don’t seem to have advanced their position any further either.
Maybe we should give the Greens’ Land Value Tax idea a run for its money?
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
- a First Minister that looked and sounded tired of his job
- moving away from Privaced Financed Initiative schemes to a more balanced (and on Balance Sheet) approach
- implementing free school meals for p1 to p3 kids at schools
- ensuring no new nuclear power stations were opened in Scotland
- freshening up the youthful devolution 'adventure' by ensuring that a new party brought some new ideas to Government
- increased investment in renewable energy
Now I live in England and the SNP won't be on any ballot slips that I hold in my hand in the near to medium future. I also see joining political parties as a community decision that feeds up the chain from street to area to city to county to country rather than a gesture that can cross borders. Put another way, being a member of the SNP would now be as pointless as being a member of the US Democratic party or Swedish Modernitska party or the German Social Democrats, however much I may admire their successes and potential.
So now I am looking around at the options in my new home of Camden, looking for which party to join here. I reckon it is important for democracy that all political parties are vibrant bodies with many members so I can back that belief by joining up with the party active in the local area that most closely fits my beliefs.
The Conservatives are out as I am pretty much diametrically-opposed to most of their policies. The Labour party is not an option until they've decided whether they are dropping 'New Labour' (not to mention the dropping of another generation of Trident as a policy). And the Liberal Democrats are not an option as, honestly, I just don't trust them to hold a consistent position on any given issue other than civil liberties, irrespective of the necessary and understandable compromises that come with coalition Government.
Not that the Green Party was fourth choice in a process of elimination. Taking my reasons for voting SNP in 2007 and noting that the UK is opening up new nuclear power stations, thinks PFI is good value for money and isn't doing enough to ensure kids have a nutritious and food-informed start to life, there was only one party that was getting a look-in for my £5/month once I decided that getting involved with another party was on my to-do list.
Would I have joined the Scottish Green Party if I had stayed in Edinburgh, knowing now what I didn't know about them back in May 2007? The answer to that is somewhere between 'possibly' and 'probably'. Tactical voting is less attractive as you grow older I suppose so chances of winning a constituency take a back seat to the principles at stake. I was happily prepared to help vote the Green Westminster candidate into 4th place here in London if I had been allowed to vote on May 6th and I could have done the same on May 5th 2011.
So with tactical voting out as an option and a member of a different party, 'SNP Tactical Voting' must come to an end, at least in some way. I've always insisted that if you run a party blog then you have a duty to that party to treat it with the utmost respect. This blog, rightly or wrongly, would of course always be seen as an SNP blog so that link must be broken for the requisite respect to be honoured. I'll remain interested in Scottish politics of course, even if I am not part of that street->Government sliding scale.
So changes are on their way for this site, not that I yet know what form they will take. I look forward to being a Green party member though, in whatever capacity I 'blog' going forward. It looks like a fun party to be a part of and, over and above the big issues of the day that leaders must grapple with and solve, being a part of any political party should always be good fun.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Ok, first up I'm not sure if that title works on any of the levels that I'm aiming for but I'm sticking with it.
Anyway, the Liberal Democrats hold their Conference next month. It will be a fascinating affair for both those on the inside and those on the outside. Can the party correct the identity crisis that it seems to be experiencing? How will the left-right internal discussion play out?
In one way, it serves up a delicious opportunity for another Westminster party. Not Labour, but the Green party.
So many long-term members of the Lib Dems are of the classic muesli-munching, sandal-wearing, peace and love desiring bent. And proud of that they should be too.
However, genuine questions can be asked as to which party is the rightful spiritual home of such a demographic.
I reckon that several Green party activists standing outside the Liberal Democrat Conference with 'Join us' and 'You know you want to' placards, including contact details, could reap a remarkable return.
And, if hiving off the organic left-wing of the Lib Dems is successful, what is remaining would be a curious beast involving free marketeers and civil liberty campaigners who could fit right into the Tory party seamlessly.
With Labour always having to lean right to win elections, is it too early to start preparing oneself for the Green party as the chief, consistent party of the left in England and Wales?
Thursday, August 12, 2010
For a start, I have to admit to being surprised to hear not only that Alyn Smith had challenged for the PPC role in this constituency but that he was defeated. Granted, Alyn was up against ex-leader of the local council and eventual winner of the selection contest, David Berry, but I would have hoped (without any particular constituency in mind) that any move from European Parliament to the Scottish one would be a smooth one for the party heavyweight.
And why should I be surprised that a move has been made? The leap from MEP to domestic politics is a fairly well-trodden one with Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne having made the crossing. One could argue that Alyn Smith's considerable talents should not be showered on Brussels for too much longer. I seem to be tossing the accolade like candy today but, well, future party leader? Indeed, I am even wondering if it is worth having a relatively weaker (or younger) tranche of candidates competing for the EU spots and making sure Ian Hudghton and Alan Smyth are in Holyrood where the greatest contribution from the party's strongest performers can be made. Let's be honest, as things stand the SNP can only really expect to win 2 MEPs anyway regardless of who is on the ballot slip, such is our nation's under-representation at the European Parliament.
Also in the frame for East Lothian is Derek Brownlee, possibly the Scottish Conservatives' most effective performer over the past few parliamentary terms, perhaps even vying with Patrick Harvie for the Scottish Parliament's most effective MSP (for my money at least). I would expect that Derek will be by no means an 'also ran' in this seat as so many of his colleagues will be in other seats across the country.
For Labour, of course, there is leader of the group Iain Gray standing to defend his seat and 2,448 majority. While Iain will be the favourite, one can't help but wonder whether his pantomime performances in FMQs will be a hindrance rather than a help to his election chances. His fortunes will rely heavily on his appearances on leader debates in the run up to May and, well, a few car crash performances can't be ruled out, though equally of course he may also blow the opposition out of the park. Once again, I warn of a media-fuelled 'Gray-mania' to exacerbate any Salmond-slide.
This is all not to mention the Lib Dems who are yet to select a candidate and have put in considerable effort into this area recently so will fancy their chances of a surprise win, or at least being the kingmakers (it is, after all, an all-male field thus far). This case may be overstated though as Lib Dem attention, not to mention resources, may well turn to Edinburgh North & Leith and Edinburgh Central.
So MEPs, party leaders, Tories with a chance of winning for a change and ex-council leaders all in the melting pot in East Lothian. This is not even considering the furore that the local Labour party experienced over the past year or two.
If only a fifth party could field a candidate in their old Westminster stomping ground to give the 'blogosphere' the inside skinny on how it pans out. Any takers?
Annabel Goldie remains in the frame, having contested the old West Renfrewshire seat in each prior contest since 1999.
Labour has selected "rising star" Stuart Clark who will take over the reins from the retiring Trish Godman. Young, competent, a teaching background. I'm sure it wouldn't be long before Stuart was tipped as a future leader, were he to win through here in May.
For the SNP, local council leader and rising star himself Derek Mackay will stand. Indeed, it is Derek's name on the ballot list that, for me, cements this as a key constituency. I saw several Conference speeches that he gave at the two such events I made it to when living in Scotland and each time I thought he was sheer class, a mark of quality amongst an already talented field. Speeches included urging the delegates to back off on prioritising free school meals for primary children but his case was highly persuasive.
I daresay each of the candidates will see it as an excruciating battle, one that none of them has any intention of losing.
I don't know what impact the boundary changes will have but in 2007 the result was:
Godman MSP (Lab) - 35.9%
Goldie MSP (Con) - 28.5%
Wilson MSP (SNP) - 28.0%
Of course, for all that 2011 will be a tight battle, we may well come away with a result of 3MSPs from this constituency anyway, 1 via FPTP and 2 via the regional list.
Either way, Renfrewshire North and West will be one to watch.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Looking back over the past generation however, can one really point to much “radical” change that has taken place? The NHS has continued in much the same manner, working more efficiently than perhaps its reputation suggests. Education has been largely unchanged, save for a dramatic increase in the number of students attending university which is welcome and perhaps radical-lite. Our foreign policy has been radical, radicalising even, but sadly not for the better. Has the economy changed radically? Policing? Local government? Not really I would argue.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing that we have not had so much radical change over the past few decades, maybe it is best for a country to just tick along with not too many shocks and surprises. It doesn’t make for a great election slogan is the problem.
One area where the UK is ticking along, slumbering along even, is in terms of air travel. The buying of an Easyjet or Ryanair flight to fly a mere several hundred miles has become commonplace in a remarkably short space of time. Is this something that needs radical change?
I am attending a discussion tonight focussing on whether we should end domestic flights in this supposed “era of climate emergency”. The speakers are John Stewart of AirportWatch, Dan Glass of Plane Stupid, Anne-Marie Griffin of Fight the Flights and Phil Thornhill of Campaign against Climate Change. I’m reasonably confident that the panel wish to see radical change on this area but I aim to attend with as open a mind as possible.
That said (and I have had so many short-haul flights that I have a ruddy cheek to even say it, two flights this weekend even), it would be a tremendous effort if the UK could find a solution whereby taking the train is the automatic option for any travel within the UK. Comfortable, fast trains with internet connection, newspapers and great food that can outspeed and outprice the Easyjets or the Ryanairs. We’re not even that far off achieving it with the London-Edinburgh service taking 4.5 hours which is comparable to flying time once you take into account the getting to/from airports and security checks etc. £10 or £20 deals are regular enough that it should really be the first choice.
In terms of next steps, a key consideration is what approach should be taken to reduce the number of flights. One option is for a public consensus to have been reached whereby the train will be opted for ahead of domestic flights in order to force change through customer buying power. The other option is for the Government to reduce the supply of short-haul flights, forcing travellers onto the trains. A move boosted by the decision to ditch the third runway at Heathrow.
Neither is ideal but the latter is preferable in my view, particularly if train prices can be kept low either through subsidy or increased taxes on short-haul flights. It is certainly the only process that will curb my shameful but irrepressible appetite for Speedy Boarding my way around the country.
Truly radical action can be taken and it wouldn’t be popular but, to sell the policy, one need only think of those Icelandic ash cloud weeks. How calm it was to have no planes flying overhead for once. That curiously pleasing phenomenon could be the long-term status quo if we take domestic transport in the direction that it needs to go – out of the clouds and onto the tracks.
I’ll probably write up a review of tonight’s meeting for the blog tomorrow (unless I don’t make it there and watch the tempting Sweden vs Scotland instead of course!)
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
I have a theory as to why they have embarked on this remarkable yellow trail involving twists, surprises and many a u-turn. The Lib Dems are adopting Labour policies to insulate itself from political attack.
Take nuclear power, this week's jaw-dropper of hypocrisy led by Chris Huhne. The Labour party isn't going to attack them for it as Labour is largely pro-nuclear. So who is left? The Greens? Sadly not many people take notice of their eminently sensible ideas so the Lib Dems get away with brazen, shameless deceitfulness.
What about raising VAT? Vehemently opposed by the Lib Dems during the election campaign but now miraculously it's ok as part of the coalition agreement. Of course Labour was going to raise VAT too if they had won power, Darling admitted as much, so the Lib Dems get away with it again thanks to Labour already carrying the can.
On AV, dismissed by Clegg as a "miserable compromise", Labour campaigned hard on holding a referendum on the issue so the Lib Dems will have felt bullet-proof (if a little short-changed) when they came out of coalition talks with a promise of a referendum. Labour of course has now switched sides and are pulling out of their promise for an AV referendum to leave the Lib Dems isolated. Smart politics but a lousy way to treat the electorate, on all sides.
And what about the cuts? The biggest change to public spending since WW2? Nick Clegg warned that cutting the Tory way would take us down a path already travelled by Greece and Ireland. The Lib Dems are now gambling that Labour, having caused the recession and the massive deficit and promising cuts themselves, won't get away with opposing these cuts too easily. So once again the Lib Dems manage to vacate their principles while using Labour as a protective shield.
And Trident? What about Trident! Clegg-mania was built upon the refreshing sight of a top politician stepping away from the status quo and, unlike Brown and Cameron, bravely suggesting that perhaps we don't need a new wave of nuclear weapons after all. However, when the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens proposed including Trident in the Strategic Defence Review, the Lib Dems voted against and Nick Clegg in particular was found wanting. Again, it is only the regrettable position of the Labour party, to spend tens of billions on bombs that will never be fired, that allows the Lib Dems to get away with it.
We live in desperate times. So many wrong decisions are being taken while the Labour bloc of MPs are distracted by their leadership election and hamstrung by policies from the doomed New Labour era, delaying their renewal. Only a handful of MPs are providing appropriate opposition but they struggle to make the headlines and get their arguments across into the public domain.
I personally have a policy that it is always best to tell the truth as it's the easiest way to remember your position on anything. It is something I think the Liberal Democrats need to take on board as it surely won't be long, in this five-year parliamentary term, before one of their number is asked what their position is on a certain policy is and they genuinely won't be able to remember whether they are in favour or against.
Through naked self-interest, the Lib Dem leadership has borrowed Labour's clothes in order to play dress-up with the Tories. As a result and as a leftie, I don't think I've ever felt so under-represented before in my adult life.
The result of the Labour leadership and a review of the Labour party's policies simply can't come quickly enough to end the current charade.
Monday, August 9, 2010
On his own website, 9th May 2006, under the heading Energy efficiency not nuclear is the answer to energy needs:
“No private sector investor has built a nuclear power station anywhere in the world without lashings of government subsidy since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The World Bank refuses to lend on nuclear projects because of the long history of overruns.
“Our message is clear, No to nuclear, as it is not a short cut, but a dead end. Yes to energy saving, yes to renewables, and yes to a sustainable energy future.”
"We are on course to make sure that the first new nuclear power station opens on time in 2018," Mr Huhne told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"There are a number of sites that have been identified around the country and those are generally on sites where we have previously had, for example, nuclear power stations and where the local people are very keen that there should be new nuclear build.
"What we have to do - we have eight years now before I hope that the first one will come making a contribution to the grid - and we have to get through all of the prior arrangements, like, for example, the national planning statements, like making sure that investors have got their applications formally in and approved, and then of course building can commence."
Excellent, thanks for that Chris. We look forward to your building that nice big “dead end” for us with these new nuclear power stations then.
Principle, it seems, is expendable in coalition politics.
In response to the tragedy, Labour MSP Duncan McNeil made the following remarks:
“Any inquiry should try to determine whether the home-schooling of the Riggi children led to any delays in the authorities picking up on the danger they were in.
“Whether it was a factor in this case or not, parents who educate their children in this way have to be accountable. Work has been carried out in England as part of the Badman review to tighten up home-schooling laws, and if there is a perception that the Scottish system is weaker than the English one then we must act.
“So I was disappointed by the complacent response from Schools Minister Keith Brown, when I raised concerns about home-schooling six months ago, and I would hope he would look again to see if we can make our system more robust.”
Fair enough, processes and structures surrounding home schooling should be as robust and adequate as possible I suppose (not that I know much about it) but there is something distasteful regarding the clear attempt to score political points so soon after such an unfortunate incident as this, particularly when home schooling seemed incidental to the issue at hand.
It does beg the question, is this what the Labour party is now for? The leveraging of premature deaths and usage of tenuous connections to nobble further the Government? It’s rather tawdry if you ask me and I daresay not becoming of what many of us want a model Scottish Parliament and a model MSP to be.
It seems the Fife-based charity SchoolHouse agrees, labelling Duncan McNeil’s comments as “deeply disturbing” and “tantamount to grave robbing”. A formal complaint to the Scottish Parliament is being prepared.
On a somewhat separate note, the questions raised by McNeil six months ago were as follows:
1 what are the Scottish Government doing about reviewing the English home teaching policy being reviewed
2 what is the minimum number of teaching hours
3 what qualifications needed to be able to teach at home
4 what guidelines exist to inspect arrangements for home teaching
5 how is progress of child monitored
6 what guidelines are given to parents who home teach
7 how many children are there taught in this way in Scotland.
Important questions I am sure but none that would have contributed to the health and safety of any child who is currently being home-schooled as the above is pretty much solely centred upon standards, not social work.
I guess I just can’t fathom how anyone could expect a constituent to read those comments and think ‘yep, that’s my representative speaking up for me’. It’s so disappointingly partisan and while all parties do indulge in such tactics, I do think this is a new low.
After its defeat to the SNP in 2007, a period of soul-searching was embarked upon by the Labour party in Scotland. On this evidence, it seems it has more of that searching to do.
Lab - 46%
SNP - 32%
LD - 11%
Con - 10%
Lab - 42%
SNP - 30%
LD - 12%
Con - 11%
Green - ?
The numbers speak for themselves really but I had personally thought that the Scottish Tories were at their floor limit before and there is enough right-wingery north of the border to keep the blues out of single digits. Apparently not and Goldie's considerable woes grow bigger still.
The Lib Dems are there, but not much more significant than that, not that a lacklustre showing will stop them picking up their second coalition in the space of a year.
Labour's lead over the SNP is to be expected too though I would expect the gap to close as the election date nears, as it did for Brown and McConnell.
The female vote does seem to be a particular problem for the Nats, as mentioned in the article and last week at Lalland's Peat Worrier. However, the battle between Sturgeon's burgeoning prominence, Gray's charisma (or lack of therein), Salmond's considerable contribution, Baker as Justice Secretary in-waiting and the last four years, all things considered, is just getting going.
Poll to poll, the adventure won't be without many a twist and turn.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
The decision by No. 10 to overrule Health Minister Anne Milton and not to scrap the free milk for Under 5s scheme which dats back to the 1940s was a remarkably public move and a welcome one, for more reasons that one.
The proposal was only live for a relatively short space of time, so much so that you could say it was past-your-eyes'd. Most would agree that it was a fairly inefficient decision-making process, in the round.
But what about embarrassing, shambolic, chaotic and bizarre? Not for me. I was even a bit disappointed (but also not a little bit entertained) by the pun-tastic press release from Team SNP talking about 'milk shakes' and policies being 'poured down the sink', interspersed with a more serious tone. I'm not sure they pulled off the balance of banter and mature political pointmaking.
For me, the more open and transparent these decisions regarding cuts end up being the better. We're talking about vast sums of our own money being taken out of society and the economy, we deserve to know what's going on behind the scenes. Presumably Anne Milton had convincing data that concluded that the cost/benefit of free milk for Under 5s was such that scrapping it was a worthwhile move. For political reasons David Cameron decided that he didn't want to be compared to Margaret 'milksnatcher' Thatcher and shut the policy down.
You know what, I'm all for that process being out in the public domain and I don't even mind the Prime Minister deciding that the media, political opponents and public are not ready to accept a policy even if it is the right one to adopt, not that I'm necessarily saying that that is the case here.
Granted though, this one will have to go down as a 'gaffe' because the reality is that politicians and Governments have to work around a reactionary media rather than face up to it and shout it down but even still, I'm not going to pretend that I don't want to know how our future decisions are being made, even these early relatively trifling ones.
There's been a lot of hullaballoo over this decision, but we really shouldn't be crying over spilled milk policies.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
‘Draw?’ ventured the Bad, having kicked every policy chair over and turning the place into a saloon. ‘Not on your nelly’ retorted the Good, ‘we’re taking this all the way till sundown’. Things were about to get Ugly.
And so it has proved with the news that Nicola Sturgeon has offered a ‘sunset clause’ to the minimum pricing plans such that, after a trial period, the policy can be reviewed. This would allow a ‘try before you buy’ opportunity which would help assuage fears that a minimum price for alcohol won’t help reduce the £2bn cost to Scotland each year.
Tavish, Annabel and Iain (the three amigos?) released a joint statement saying that they would prefer a ‘floor price’. It’s not immediately clear what the difference is between a floor and a minimum price and if that difference is trifling then is this not just more opposition for opposition’s sake?
It seems BMA Scotland does believe there is a difference between a floor price and a minimum price, preferring the latter to the former:
BMA Scotland does not believe that banning the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty and VAT (a floor price) will make any real difference in tackling Scotland's problems with alcohol. Under this scheme, many drinks such as supermarket brand vodka and ciders could continue to be sold at ridiculously cheap prices, and in some circumstances could be even cheaper than they are now
Indeed, Labour’s assertion that "The Nationalists have left themselves marginalised and isolated." is surely nonsensical given that the SNP has the BMA, the police, nurses, alcohol support groups and almost every other relevant non-political group on their side.
So it’s over to the reds, are they gonna do something, or just sit there and bleed*
High noon is looming on this issue and someone will have to blink first. By holding on to their horses, I strongly suspect it is the SNP that will be riding off into the sunset.
* nicked from the excellent Tombstone (a rootin’ tootin’ classic)
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
As we are seeing in the news this week, the formerly stricken banks of Northern Rock, Lloyds and RBS are roaring back into the black and share prices are soaring. RBS is up to 52p and Lloyds to 72p. This is above, or certainly hovering around, the break even price for the Government whereby it could sell its considerable stake.
Logic dictates that Chancellor Osborne should cash in his inherited banking portfolio. After all, to continue to hold would mean moving from supporting the banks to speculating on them. Not exactly a core responsibility for our Government.
With a sharp decrease in spending and public sector job losses very much still in the pipeline, it seems odd to have tens of billions of pounds locked up in healthy banks when that money could be working harder for public benefit.
Granted, Osborne selling the entire portfolio in one go would be destabilising to the markets and he needs to be very careful who he sells the shares to. I don't think the RBS of China is part of the economic solution yet.
However, get out while the going is good and sell Osborne should. Or maybe I'm just saying that out of bitterness cos I never got in on RBS at 11p.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
David Cameron and Nick Clegg have formed an impressive coalition thus far. Yes there are ankle-biters like myself who will pick at small things like the date of the AV referendum or misspeaking at PMQs or the shafting of the working classes in order to sustain unnecessarily high salaries and bonuses in the City. You know, the small stuff.
However, the elephant in the room is surely the environment. Aside from the welcome cancellation of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, has either the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister made any truly significant moves towards action to back up their lofty claims on fighting climate change during the election campaign? Not that I have seen. The eye-catching action points in the first three months have been distinctly non-environmental.
And yet, here is a reminder of some of the rhetoric we have had from both men:
Clegg: Sep 2009 “the Parliament they choose will have the last real chance to set Britain's energy use on the right track if we are going to play our part in avoiding catastrophic and irreversible climate change.”
“We believe that the only way to pull ourselves out of recession – and to stay out of it – is by building a new, sustainable economy. That means prioritising investment in the green technologies of the future, like zero-carbon construction, renewable energy and green infrastructure.”
"So my message is this: don’t settle for a Labour party that has had 13 years to deliver on the environment and has failed. Don’t settle for a Conservative party that talks the talk on green issues, only to align themselves with climate change deniers in the European Parliament. And don’t give your vote to a Green Party that cannot make a difference in Westminster."
Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world and we must have a much greater sense of urgency about tackling it.
What we need is a binding annual target that commits us to real progress and a carbon audit office to make sure that we are achieving it.
This will either be the warmest or the second warmest year since records began and no amount of media hysteria over trifling errors in the proof of climate change as a clear and present danger will change the fact that we’re cooking our planet.
2015 is the year that we need the planet to start cooling down and it is also the year that the coalition will put its record to the public vote in the next General Election. Don’t get me wrong, it is not all bad. We at least have the right party (Lib Dems), the right Minister (Chris Huhne) and some of the right policies (rolling out of smart meters in the home/cut down on energy use) but we are still on course to fall short.
This “urgency” that Cameron promised needs to kick in now so let’s hope that an early focus on the economy from his Government was in order to free up time for the bigger task in hand. It is not enough that the public and even his own party are not clamouring for painful green taxes and/or massive investment in green energy and sustainable living, the Prime Minister knows what needs to be done and he needs to act on it.
Monday, August 2, 2010
I’m now going to take the rather bizarre position of disagreeing with Labour’s disagreement with the proposed AV referendum despite my own personal disagreement with the proposals. I think (I hope) that my logic will stack up or my clouded allegations of Labour’s disagreement for disagreement’s sake will look rather hypocritical.
My goodness, that’s a lot of “disagreement” for one paragraph, there must be an election on the horizon.
Anyway, first and foremost, my reason for not wanting to have this particular referendum is simple – it is a barrier to true change.
My personal litmus test for a change to the voting system is whether it sufficiently assists parties outwith the top 3. That is, if we brought in AV, how many extra seats would the Green Party and UKIP win given they already command a share of the vote that should give them tens of MPs. Similarly, specifically within Scotland, the SNP and the Conservatives should have more representation than they currently do. Would the new system incorporate that?
The answer is a resounding no. AV would keep the Greens, UKIP, SNP and Scottish Tories unfairly frozen out and not really return a proportionate result. Furthermore, changing the system now would make it more difficult to have another referendum in the near future so what end game do those Lib Dems who wish to see PR envisage deep down?
It is a simple question and one I would really like to see put to Nick Clegg – If AV is only a small improvement, how long do you wish to see it in place before making a more meaningful move to the Single Transferable Vote or AV Plus?
However, those objections are entirely separate to those put forward by the Labour party and specifically Kezia in today’s article. Lest we forget, it was an AV referendum that Labour proposed in its manifesto, not a vote on the truly progressive STV.
Specific reservations are as follows:
Scottish voters may have to travel to two polling stations
Holyrood and Westminster boundaries are not co-terminus
Disruption to the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day
Boundary review should be conducted alongside the 2011 census data
Constituencies do not currently include all potential voters
These are perfectly valid problems that are worth raising but are in no way insurmountable. Indeed, the majority of them can be easily mitigated by simply having the referendum on a different day. As for the problem of unregistered voters, I would suggest that this is a separate, longstanding issue that requires a separate solution. If it doesn’t stand in the way of holding elections then it shouldn’t stand in the way of voting on a minor improvement to our voting system.
Labour’s awkward positioning on this really is quite simple to sum up. If Labour believes that the detail of the AV referendum is the stumbling block rather than the principle itself, then they should vote in favour of this Bill so that they can argue their case in Parliament. We already know that they are in favour of the principle as this policy was in their manifesto so one can only come to the conclusion that kicking Nick Clegg’s proposals out at the first opportunity an avoiding arguing for the detail that they claimed to wish to see only a few months means that all Labour really want to do is serve up a crisis for the coalition.
That’s fine, but I just wish they would be honest about it.
A proposal has been put forward by the Lord Sanderson commission that a party leadership contest should be held every four years, perhaps even immediately after elections.
For me, this could be a long-term self-inflicted wound borne out of a short-term frustation at the current lack of progress for the party. The media and opposition parties could easily undermine the current incumbent during an election campaign by speculating on who might challenge, destabilising the Tory leader and compromising their message. After all, why would you vote for likeable, dependable Annabel if a few weeks later you're choice might be overturned by her colleagues and someone much less preferable gets in?
And let's be honest there's candidates agogo. Yes, agogo.
Murdo Fraser must surely want to have a shot at the leadership. He is well-placed to make a play for it if May 2011 doesn't go well but I can't help but imagine that he would take the party backwards, as difficult as that is to imagine given the Tories' current slumped position. Well, slouched at least.
A return of David McLetchie would rubberstamp the lack of strength in depth on the blue benches and a fasttrack of Derek Brownlee or Gavin Brown into the top job would probably ensure that the party doesn't get to enjoy either man's full potential and star quality.
I'm running out of options somewhat too, I can't imagine Jackson Carlaw or Jamie McGrigor would drive the party on too far so if Goldie is to face a challenge next year my top tip would be something of a dark horse.
Liz Smith may not even want the job but she's intelligent, a great speaker, consensual and not immediately obviously a Conservative, a perhaps crucial factor for the leader if the party is to break through the 20% mark.
However, guaranteed re-election contests even when the party is on the up seems counter-productive. Whatever happened to the carve up, the smoke-lit rooms, the strawman candidate, the political dagger in the back or the briefing against the leader?
Honestly, if you ask me, the Tories just aren't trying hard enough any more.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
So it was with significant scepticism that I read the Scotland on Sunday's main article 'SNP target water to raise £1bn' where a proposal from the Scottish Government seems to be (subject to my understanding) to transfer control of the body from the Government to a public board which would allow finance to be raised in the private markets and freeing up capital spend for other projects within Scotland's decreasing future budgets.
This proposal for Scottish Water does fall short of full privatisation which is to be welcomed but if finance is to be provided by a private bank then there will be competitive terms and conditions attached to any such deal and that cost will be passed on to the consumer in some way. It is worth noting that the banks are expected to all return back to profit, considerable profit, when they announce their half-year results this week and these profits stem from stiff financing and refinancing their customers, which Scottish Water would become one of thousands of. There would be no special discount just because it is run by some sort of 'public interest' board.
The key question is whether the benefits of the £billions that the Scottish Government would realise in the short term can outweigh the extra costs attached to this deal. Another question is whether this is an example of short-termism that Governments of all hues and all locations indulge in when all they want to do is get through the next election.
One issue that has been raised is that, in order for banks to realise an adequate return on their investment, the majority of work involved for Scottish Water is outsourced to make savings. For example, as per this article albeit from 2007, Welsh Water outsourced 85% of its functions and there seems to be significant outsourcing and change of ownership. Scottish Water is not the same as Welsh Water but we should heed the warnings of those who have made similar moves before and decide in advance if it is a road we wish to go down.
Furthermore, that bastion of social democrat common sense, Sweden, has seen no need to privatise its water in any way in its recent history. Are we throwing one of our most important babies out with the drinking water? Even if it is to a 'public interest' board, is that just the beginning of the end?
One other point (that I noted on the New Right blog) is that there is a risk that any financial consideration in this transfer may be treated as income and frittered away amidst the public spending. Money raised from an efficient solution in an inefficient way would exacerbate the considerable financial problems that Scotland faces and even if the money is spent on capital projects (suggestions include the new Forth Road Bridge and/or the new Southern General) then there is a risk that the knock-on effect of those savings still equates to a loosening of the working capital that is necessary for sensible accounting.
And hey, the Scottish Government is effectively indirectly financing itself from the private sector which isn't so far a cry from the objections raised over PFI/PPP.
All of that said, for me this is a worthwhile move. A few sacred cows will have to be sacrificed and the main attraction of this deal is that Scottish Water will effectively remain in public hands and there would surely be an option to pull the body back within the direct control of the Scottish Government in the future, as it is currently. There's no reason to assume that full privatisation will necessarily follow given that the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats will be swapping control of the decision-making over the decades to come.
Indeed, the cross-party consensus on this matter is heartening. The Conservatives have of course been in favour of this move for a long time but the Liberal Democrats and Labour are so far resisting jumping on the Scottish Government for at least considering the move and are making positive sounds that they will vote in favour of the final plan.
With an election just months away when the budget for 2011/12 is debated and voted on, this will still be a very tough needle to thread but with an innovative solution and goodwill from all sides, this could be a giant step forward for the Scottish Parliament and Scotland in general as it steadies the nation in the face of the painful cuts that are to come.