Archive for category Governance

A category mistake

JamesMcEnaneyHeadshotThe Sunday Herald had a striking story yesterday about the Information Commissioner’s office declaring they would not make a decision during the election period. RISE candidate James McEnaney (left) had put in an FOI relating to the standardised tests agenda, and the response included this line:

Although it does not affect the Scottish Information Commissioner directly, she has decided not to issue any decisions which might put forward a critical view of the Ministers. In discussion with the Head of Enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after 5 May 2016.

Now, no-one should want the Information Commissioner’s office to be partisan or to look partisan. But unfortunately that’s how they’ve just positioned themselves. The key problem here is the phrase “put forward a critical view of the Ministers“.

Do they mean “require to be published information which is itself damaging to Ministers”? Or do they mean “overrule an inappropriate Ministerial decision to withhold information”? It’s not clear, but neither of these is an acceptable reason to work around the provisions of FOI legislation. And in both cases, if the information should legitimately be published, it’s partisan to withhold it just because there’s an election on.

The email to James McEnaney also discusses purdah rules at some length. This is also a misdirection. Purdah restricts the activities of Ministers and civil servants. It does not protect them from embarrassing stories based on their historic activities. With this inept decision the Commissioner’s office have put themselves in the inappropriate position of protecting Ministers during an election. They have also undermined their own credibility and neutrality, and prevented the electorate from knowing something they have a right in law to know – it may be big a deal, it may not be, but that’s for the public to decide, not the Commissioner.

National or Northern? One is far healthier than the other

There was, for a space of about six months between the release of the White Paper on Independence and the Easter break, a huge upsurge in interest in the Nordic aspects of Scotland’s independence movement. Assorted documentaries on TV and Radio, some SNP rhetoric on ‘Nordic’ childcare and a plethora of newspaper columns ranging from the meticulously informed to the blatantly phoned-in all sought to either support or criticise the idea of Scotland’s Nordic dream.

But then silence.

Criticism of the Nordic Way (a regular and quite conscious trope of the Nordic Council) has come in from the unionist side with their talk of massive tax hikes and from the far left who see the Nordic model as a Faustian pact with capitalism hiding under a friendly veneer of Moomin and mid-century furniture. One of the big problems is that nobody is quite sure what Nordic means. If you’re a political scientist the it refers very specifically to a unique system of tax-based growth economy ploughing profits back into human capital. If you’re of a more cultural bent it is mid-century classicism and nice cakes and Carl Malmsten chairs, or on a more dubious level a perceived heritage shared by Scotland. If, like me, you occupy the that third space between the policy wonks and economists and people munching on Kanelbullar in the West End and going to crayfish parties, it is a useful tool in Scotland’s political lexicon.

What you see most of all is how Nordicness allows Scotland to articulate its own better self, and the apparent waning of interest in Northern Scotland is slightly worrying. Irrespective of how genuine Nordic Scotland is, the referendum campaign appears to be in danger of slipping back into a fight over family silver and half-truths. The Northern dream has briefly allowed Scotland to glimpse an alternative to welfare cuts and Taylor Wimpey homes, daring to speculate on a new aesthetic without recourse to nationalist shibboleths.

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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.