Archive for category Governance

We can fund politics

Thanks for your donation!Last week our friend Andrew Smith did a guest post about the problem of party funding at Holyrood, specifically citing the proportion of the SNP’s funding which comes from Brian Souter. Egregious donors to the larger parties abound, though, and Soutar is just the closest example to home.

Take Michael Brown, who handed the Lib Dems £2.4m he’d acquired through fraud. Last year he started a seven year sentence after being captured in the Dominican Republic: the stolen assets, which the Lib Dems received, have never been returned.

Labour’s examples are less shocking, perhaps – well, almost all the other examples are less shocking – but they’re substantial too. David Abrahams used “three employees as fronts to fund the Labour party nearly £600,000“. Bernie Ecclestone handed over (then withdrew) a £1m donation amidst accusations that the money was tied to an exemption for his pet business, Formula One.

The Tories, well, it’s harder to tell with the Tories, given how central to their purpose it is to skew the rules in favour of big business at our expense. Their policy really does seem to be for sale to the highest bidder.

However, political parties have to be funded. Capping donations and just taking smaller donations from members is one route, but it also limits parties and doesn’t give them an incentive to appeal beyond their base.

At the end of Andrew’s piece he says he doesn’t think anyone is considering public funding, and that he’d opt out if it might fund UKIP (a position he comes back from a bit in the comments).

So what might the alternative be? Why not consider it a tax rebate instead, and add a second form below the existing ballot paper which gives people the opportunity to allocate a pound from their taxes to the party they voted for, or indeed to any other party standing? Or to opt out and have that pound stay with the Treasury if they prefer?

Andrew Rawnsley argued yesterday that the parties would have to become mass organisations again, which is admirable but sounds a bit optimistic. Might this rebate idea not be one small way to rebuild connections (in both directions) between the wider non-joining public and the parties? Might the public feel a bit more invested, and the parties feel a bit more pressure to appeal beyond their base?

The cost would be minimal – even if no-one opted out, the “rebate” from Holyrood 2011 would amount to less than £2m – the turnout was 1,991,051. For a comparison (assuming a final cost of £1.6bn and a road distance of 6.7km), the total cost of this entire scheme for Scotland would be less than the price of ten metres of the unnecessary additional Forth Road Bridge. Yes: the bridge and its roads will cost more than a quarter of a million pounds per metre. Sorry to get sidetracked.

And this kind of sum would be on a convenient scale to fund an election campaign. Take the 2010 UK General Election. 29,687,604 votes cast: £31.5m spent (see 2.3 of the Electoral Commission’s report). Sure, some people would give their “rebate” to parties you or I might find unpleasant, but unpleasant people fund unpleasant parties already, and typically with much larger sums.

Alongside a £5000 cap on donations, this would turn politics over to the public, or at least the electorate (if you don’t vote, your “rebate” goes back to the Treasury, sorry). In a marginal seat where someone’s voting tactically, perhaps they’d donate their £1 to the party they’d really like to see win, and that way that party would be marginally more likely to win next time. It’s no substitute for proportional representation, but it might help ameliorate some of the worst winner-takes-all effects of the current system. Power to the people!

Would we rather the SNP be sensible or knee-jerk nationalist on welfare?

I do sometimes feel sorry for the SNP. They spend all their time being pilloried by the Scotsman and the opposition benches about not having any vision of how an independent Scotland would work, and when they do try and give a practical answer it is so willfully misconstrued that they probably wish they had done the easy thing and not bothered coming up with a more detailed insight.

The idea that Scotland and the United Kingdom might share welfare administration for a period after independence makes perfect sense. In fact, to the credit of the sections of the SNP who can be fairly absolutist about such things, it is an extremely sensible step.

Independence inevitably means the establishment of separate Scottish structures for the provision of public services in the same way that the country already enjoys control of the healthcare and education systsems. Nobody has suggested that that will not ultimately be the case.

What the Scottish Government have suggested is that welfare administration should be shared until a point is reached at which both the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments feel they can manage their own domestic affairs on home soil. So far, so sensible.

It would be the reverse of the process of German reunification, whereby an initially measured timescale was steamrollered for political reasons with unintended consequences. Whereas the integration of systems in Germany was done far too speedily, the division of something as complex as welfare in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom on the same timescale as the assumption of statehood would be irresponsible for any government to take.

But this does not change the principle of full autonomy for Scotland in the long term. The discussions of aspects such as pensions are often used as a stick to beat the very idea of an independent state, including some mischief making from the Better Together campaign about Scotland’s status as a subsidy junky, but it is at the end of the day a practical detail to be worked out.

The Forces Together campaign launched by Alistair Darling at The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s conference in Stirling goes to town on this, asking how our brave troops would be paid their defence pensions if they were living in a foreign country, and whether Scotland could afford to pay them. Britain has years of experience paying military personnel resident in foreign countries for years at a time and living abroad does not exclude former personnel from being the responsibility of the British military pensions scheme, as shown by the Irish citizens who choose to fight in the British army even today.

There is a fair deal the SNP are wrong about in terms of the details of independence, but for once let us congratulate them for actually being honest and practical about how Scotland would best engineer a smooth transition which made sure that all of its citizens were well looked after.

Scottish politics’ Old Firm

A few things have happened to me in the last few weeks which have reminded me of the importance of community to every aspect of our lives, and how this can be a wonderful thing.

Last Sunday I joined tens of thousands of other Hibs fans at the Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow. To see half the stadium singing Sunshine on Leith – a crowd made up of people who you recognised from bars and shops and the local swimming pool – underlined what a powerful thing community can be. Hibs went down 3-0 to a Celtic side with a global fanbase and several times more money composed of players from across the globe.  A defeat, but one which cemented the feeling that Leith is a very special place with a very specific identity and community.

A few days later came another defeat dished out by the big boys, but this time it was Edinburgh and not Glasgow putting an end to a long and hard fought campaign. The City of Edinburgh council’s Labour/SNP administration made the decision to sell the local fun pool to a private developer instead of the preferred community option that it should be taken over by a community organisation and run on a non-profit basis with a public subsidy. The council have opted to sell it to a property developer with plans for a generic indoor play zone, despite the area already having indoor play facilities.

Now, to return to the question of Hibernian FC, it has a fine tradition of producing footballers who are then purchased for apparently irresistible  money by Glasgow teams, the rationale being that the payoff is too good to refuse and that it will help the team build and move on in the long term.

As long as I have been a supporter of Hibernian FC this has demonstrably failed to happen, and I am worried that the same will be true of the Leith Waterworld saga. Were that one million pounds ploughed directly back into the local area it would be welcome, but it won’t be. That one million pounds could cover the whole of Leith in safe cycle and walking projects to keep kids fit, or it could be used for community startups or form the basis of a cooperative energy company which would more or less print money for the community to reinvest. Hell, it could even pay for a few metres of the tram line down Leith Walk, which we are in far greater need of than the poverty-stricken residents of Edinburgh Airport are (on this note it is also worth pointing out the council masterplan to develop the greenbelt land around the tram line by the airport when we have a huge number of brownfield sites which are either underdeveloped, underused or contain housing so bad it should probably be torn down anyway).

Leith is not a suburb of Edinburgh – it is a cosmopolitan place in its own right full of wonderful people. We have been let down by decision makers who do not know what the needs and desires of the local community are, in a failure of both democracy and common sense. The decision has cemented people’s dissatisfaction with structures of governance which view our assets as belonging to the city chambers and not to the people of our communities. We may not to be able to afford Leigh Griffiths, but we can definitely afford to invest in our collective resources.

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Diverse In Action

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The independence movement is just that; a movement. It is not a retailer of one narrative, or one coalescent ideology. It is a broad church peopled by persons of many political creeds, and none.

Disagreements about post-independence policy are inevitable, and welcome. This is one of the Yes campaign’s strengths. Any attempt to convince the public that we all agree wholesale on every aspect of post-independence direction would be completely disingenuous, and the public wouldn’t buy it.

The SNP have been very successful in recent years because they appeal to the centrists in the voting population. The electorate from large swathes of the centre centre left and centre right can all look to the SNP and identify policies which appeal. The SNP have been able to bridge ideological positions because the SNP itself is fairly reflective of public voting demography; made up as it is of people who can compromise on policy in pursuit of independence. That the SNP have cross-section appeal is no coincidence, but neither is it simply a construct to garner public support. It simply is because the SNP has to reflect the views of its membership, and we are a fairly diverse bunch.

It is no secret that I disagree with the SNP on NATO membership. The majority of Scots in any competent polling have expressed anti-Trident, and anti-Trident replacement preference, and I obviously welcome the SNPs commitment to the removal of nuclear weapons post-independence if it is in the SNPs gift to do so, but I will be campaigning for removal from NATO after that yes vote.

Similarly, I am a republican and I disagree with the current SNP narrative on a continuing monarchy. I say narrative because I am not aware of a vote in which the party have had an opportunity to express any preference for this new position.

I also have a preference for an independent Scottish currency, and agree with Professor John Kay that this is the best possible position for a post-independence Scottish Government to consider. However, I also agree that continued use of Sterling in the interim, as a short to mid-term stability measure is a rational and sound proposal. We will be using sterling on the day we become independent and any transition to a new currency would inevitably take time, but I also agree with The Sun’s Andrew Nicholl that locking a post-independence Scotland in to perpetuity of economic reliance on rates set by rUK isn’t much like my idea of independence either. That said, Sterling is ours too, and any attempt by Osborne to try persuading Scots that we will be excluded from using it is as ridiculous as it is offensive.

I am comfortable that I can be in the SNP and not agree with all of its policies. It isn’t a shock, horror moment that I don’t, instead it is a valuable lesson about the art of compromise because for every policy I disagree with, there are ten that I do agree with, and I can live with that. Post independence it is up to me, and people like me and the public to make our case to the Scottish people about what shape our independence takes.

Independence does not belong to the SNP, nor does it belong to Alex Salmond. Independence is about opportunity and democracy. It isn’t about policy. The SNP are quite right to set out their position on post-independence policy, and as the leading party in the independence movement, it is inevitable that the public expect them to. However, it is important that the public know that independence and the SNP are not interchangeable and the press are partly responsible for this. It suits their narrow reporting of the independence movement to conflate SNP policy with post-independence reality.

That said, the SNP are also not responsible to the independence movement. If Patrick Harvie wants to present an argument for a Scottish currency, then his vehicle to do that is his political party. If those on the radical left want bolder vision for post-independence policy, let them sell it to the public. If they call on the SNP to do these things, they are just as guilty as the media of conflating independence with the SNP. Diversity is strength, if those on the Yes side are bold enough to sell it.

The risk for those on the Yes side is that, while welcome, all the groups which have been set up to campaign for independence risk being consumed by navel gazing and endless posturing on post-independence policy. All the policy in the world doesn’t matter a damn if there is no yes vote.

The SNP are a campaigning party. James Mitchell’s study in to levels of activism in political parties evidences that the SNP has the most motivated membership and the membership of the SNP are used to campaigning, and campaigning hard. The SNP membership knows that to win elections it is all very well to have a national strategy, but when it comes right down to it, it is the areas where the highest levels of activism take place that garner the best results.

This campaign will be won on the doorsteps. It won’t be won on social media – or even in the national media. It won’t be won spending innumerable hours creating socialist utopian ideas in rooms with like-minded people. It won’t be won at rallies preaching to the converted. We don’t have to preach to the converted, we have to convince other voters that independence offers opportunity.

It is a frustration that people in political parties have known since the dawn of time: those that talk the loudest, or tweet the loudest, or speechify the loudest don’t necessarily work the hardest. It is all very well to talk about what you want from independence, and that is a valuable enterprise, but it must be accompanied by action, not just narrative.

A few weeks ago when David Cameron came to Scotland, around 50 people gathered to protest against him, the Conservatives and Trident in Govan. How many of these people then translated that protest in to proper affirmative action by actively campaigning for independence in Govan that week? Almost none, I can confirm. Protesting has its own value, but it certainly isn’t productive in convincing the public of the benefits of independence.

So, “splits in the Yes campaign” isn’t something to be feared. It is a necessary part of democracy that different views are represented. However, what we need to fear is inaction.

Those campaigners in the SNP will be campaigning on the doorsteps and in the streets for independence. If other groups and organisations in the Yes campaign don’t want the SNP to set the agenda, they have to ensure that they are out there campaigning right alongside them. The parties and bodies which make up Yes Scotland may have different opinions, priorities and opinions, but are united in seeking a yes vote.  The yes campaign’s breadth is its strength, but the public will only believe that if they see it.

We can live without the “keyboard warriors”, but we can’t carry the campaign without the support of active campaigners.

We have just over 500 days until the referndum, it is time to step away from the computers, end the obsession with minutiae and get our bahookies in gear. This referendum ain’t going to win itself.

Over your cities Green grass will grow

The Labour party have looked about them, taken stock of the post-Blair wasteland and identified the enemy. which apparently is those well-known destroyers of democracy and oppressors of the common people in the Scottish Green Party.

At Scottish Labour Conference in Inverness this weekend there will be a fringe event entitled ‘Green Splinters’, staged with the express aim of finding out why some people have realised that they would rather vote Green instead of Labour.

Labour peer Lord Bassam, who I am told by Sooth Folk has a flatteringly obsessive distaste for the Greens, tweeted: ‘In Inverness to discuss countering the Green threat to progressive politics.’. It is hard to think of a more obtuse statement given the situation that many people in England find themselves in. I have no idea how much Lord Bassam knows about Scottish politics or the Scottish Green Party, but I would wager that it is significantly less than he thinks.

The Green vote is not a strictly socialist vote, and it is not an anti-Labour vote. The Green vote is a vote for people actually doing their jobs with competence and enthusiasm, and for an ability to bring new ideas into an intellectually moribund arena. Green politics is socialist in certain aspects, normatively seen it embodies the values and aims of social democracy, but it is marked above all by its ability and tendency to challenge institutions from a citizen-based democratic perspective.

Green politics in Germany is a case in point. The German Green Party as it now exists was born from a coalition of environmental and democratic organisations instrumental in the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, combined with the West German Green Party. After first breaking into German regional parliaments, in the late 1990s it provided crucial support to an SDP government looking to form a parliamentary majority.

In Sweden too the Greens have been able to pick up votes from the intellectual middle class and disillusioned former supporters of agrarian and socially liberal parties where those parties have drifted to the right. They often get a hard time from the officially socialist and social-democratic parties respectively, but for the maths to work it is actually in the interests of the red left to work with the Green left in order to form workable governments, rather than expend resources trying to exterminate them and claim 45 per cent of the vote and a lifetime in opposition.

Now the fact that this event is even taking place caused a squeal of delight amongst many in the SGP because it means that the Greens have gone from being a party nobody in politics cared about to one which is obviously threatening the hegemonies enjoyed by institutionalised Labour and unimaginative nationalism.

It would, however, be sad if the Labour party were to decide that keeping the Greens at bay were more important than trying to build workable alternative governments at Westminster and Holyrood.

There is also the crucial matter of Labour failing to embrace either electoral reform or the environment to any significant degree. And devolution, childcare reform, progressive taxation and urban planning. We need a future democracy which looks quite different from today, and all tomorrow’s parties should try to work together to make it happen. The Greens have the ideas and they need viable partners to make it happen.

We’d rather be friends than enemies, but if Labour want to be enemies they should consider the fact that it is a civil war they might well lose.