Archive for category Parties

The Westminster Party – what’s their record?

4159787227_1513c4f155Scotland’s vote in a year’s time is too important to be decided by who looks likely to win the UK General Election the year after. This isn’t about party politics, it’s about the broad sweep of history, and it’s about the institutions we vote for and which then rule over us.

Anarchists are fond of the phrase “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always get in”, which is what makes the referendum such a rare and fascinating thing. For the first and probably last time in my life I’ll have a vote on whether I want the Westminster government as a whole in my life or not. So let’s put party to one side, or rather, let’s take a look at Westminster’s record as if it were a single political party, the good and bad.

The Westminster Party, for want of a better name, has been in power all my life. In fact they have (for the purposes of this argument) ruled without a break since the mid-19th century. So let’s go back a bit, rather than just looking at the last five or ten years: perhaps the last 40-50 years? What have they delivered over that period? I’ll do my best to be fair and pick a few areas to consider.

Democratic reform: Progress here has been limited at best, with the highlights being the Scottish Parliament itself and the other devolved assemblies. On the minus side the Westminster Party has defended its own interests over the decades by retaining an electoral system that’s non-proportional, outdated, and frankly favours the party’s own self-interest. The only time they’ve offered us a choice on replacing it, the alternative on offer was the smallest tweak possible, still non-proportional, and not something any of the party’s factions has ever even supported. Despite the cautious removal of some of the hereditaries from the House of Lords, we are still ruled in broadly the same way we were back in the 1860s. Oh, and the Westminster Party looks unlikely ever to offer us the option of an elected head of state. Compare to the Holyrood Party – the only level of democracy they could reform under the Scotland Act was local government, so they acted, and we now have a properly fair electoral system for our Councillors. The flaws in the Westminster Party’s record this area shouldn’t be regarded as something just of interest to wonks, either – it’s the foundation for all the policy issues below.

The economy: There’s no nice way to say this. Boom and bust, plus inequality: those are the Westminster Party’s trademarks. The booms have been unsustainable and delivered most of the benefits to the already better-off, to the city, and to London and the south-east, while the busts have been at the expense of the poorest, of manufacturing, and of the North of England in particular. It’s almost as if the Westminster Party’s policies over the last forty years have been designed to deliver instability and ever-widening inequality. Key public services have been handed over to the City, too, and so public money goes to support the lifestyles those who own the companies, rather than the services we use.

Health: If you go back a bit further than 50 years, you’d see perhaps the Westminster Party’s most shining achievement in this or any other area: the NHS. However, over the last 20 years, despite the massive popularity of a publicly-owned and publicly-run health service, the Westminster Party has chipped away at it, brought in private competition, charged for built new hospitals through dire PFI contracts, and weakened it perhaps permanently. They still charge for prescriptions and eye tests, for goodness sake. Fortunately, Scotland has missed the worst of this: the Holyrood Party, in power here since the start of devolution, has protected the NHS in Scotland from the worst excesses of this marketisation.

Education: You could almost say the primary policy of the Westminster Party here has been change for its own sake (another feature of their NHS policy): endless reorganisations, often without a clear purpose in mind. Having said that, the 1990s saw a period of significant investment at the primary and secondary level, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, at the same time the principle that higher education should be based on ability rather than bank balances was first threatened. Now the English university sector is effectively unaffordable for those who aren’t from wealthy backgrounds or prepared to get deep in debt, a principle which the Holyrood Party also ended in 2007.

Defence: This should really be billed as Interference. Or perhaps Profligacy. Defence is the only part of public spending that never gets challenged by the Westminster Party, who have also been committed to nuclear weapons for as long as nuclear weapons have existed. They never saw a military boondoggle they didn’t want to waste money on, and there’s hardly an American-led war (notable exception: Vietnam) they didn’t support or even actively take part in. Some of those interventions (e.g. Sierra Leone) have gone better than others (two recent disasters hardly need to be named), but the record here is pretty brutal, to say the least.

The environment: Despite an unexpectedly early expression of interest in the late 1980s, it’s been all coal and new motorways and business as usual. The Westminster Party leadership knows it needs to talk as if it cares about the environment, and set some meaningless targets to miss (a flaw it shares with the Holyrood Party, to be fair), but they have achieved literally nothing substantial that might protect the environment either here in the UK or internationally.

Overall, the Westminster Party’s failures of policy and governance could hardly be more clear. This what we’ve had to put up with over the last 150 years, but if Scotland votes No, it’s also what we’ll face for the next 150 years. I regret the fact that the rest of the UK isn’t being offered an opportunity to vote the whole lot of them out out, especially my friends in England who (outside London) don’t have the benefit of devolution.

But that can’t be helped. We have a chance in Scotland to push a domino over next year. Perhaps others will fall after it.

pic credit

A Niceway To Die


The ’Niceway Code’ is not just about appeasing cyclists – it is typical of a government increasingly tokenistic and out touch with the challenges it faces.

The Scottish Government recently launched a campaign to improve Scotland’s road safety record called ‘The Niceway Code’. You may have missed this due to the fact that it only has a budget of 500,000 pounds and it is so appallingly lame that Transport Minister Keith Brown’s department seem faintly embarrassed about the whole thing.

The campaign aims to reduce the number of road deaths by asking road users to be nice to one another, which is surprising in that the law already compels people to be nice to and not kill one another on the roads.

The fact that the campaign does not even remind motorists or their legal obligations (and in some cases directly contradicts what road markings tell cyclists to do as shown in the picture below) has incensed active and sustainable transport groups. One Holyrood insider even talked of how an panel of interest groups were left dumbfounded when Keith Brown’s team revealed their grand strategy for preventing death and injury on the nation’s streets. The Scottish Government’s own statistics show that 1 in 14 road deaths each year are cyclists, and only in a tiny minority of cases have the cyclists committed even minor infringements to the highway code.

Don’t go left, even though that’s where the cycle lane is.

The SNP seem to want to keep everyone happy, which is why they seem to view cyclists and cycling as an interest group and not as a genuine means of tackling some of the endemic transport and urban problems of contemporary Scotland. They will happily commit three BILLION pounds to doubling the A9 from Perth to Inverness but cannot muster the couple of million pounds it would require to radically reshape Scotland’s urban and suburban spaces to make them more liveable.

Cycling is not just about lycra and weekend hobbyists – harnessed properly it can create safer streets for children and families in particular, cut air pollution and help meet Scotland’s climate goals. It can save the government and taxpayers money, cut health bills and reduce the strain on public transport networks without extra subsidies. If even a crumb of that three billion were spent on redesigning towns and cities to make them more people-friendly the SNP would be a world leader, but for the time being they’ve just got everyone sniggering into the back of their hand. And I’m being nice.


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This is what fear looks like

EXIT LABOURThere’s been a lot of Holyrood-bubble drama around LabourForIndy recently. Who’s that in their photos? When did you join Labour? Is it even real? It might seem like the phoniest of wars, but it’s happening for a reason.

Fear. Specifically Labour fear.

As I’ve said before, if the referendum is to be won, it’ll be won from the left and centre-left. By next September let’s assume 75% of 2011 SNP voters will probably back independence. Die-hard capital-N nationalists, some fairly left-wing, some to the right. They make up about 30-33% of the electorate, and therefore 60-66% of the Yes vote required.

Add in a good slice of Greens and Socialists – not a huge number, although some SNP folk say Patrick Harvie’s messages are persuading voters who are neither nationalist nor Green – plus a fragment of Lib Dems frustrated by the absence of federalism from the ballot, and Yes is still short about a sixth of the vote. That sixth can only come from Labour voters plus increased turnout from the working class ex-Labour abstainers (or lifetime abstainers), the very people for whom Westminster has done next to nothing for generations.

Hence the fuss. LabourForIndy as an organisation may not (yet?) be that substantial, but Labour voters for independence are where the referendum can be won. And there are lots of them already. Take the May Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times, the most recent one up on UK Polling Report, which gives crossbreaks on voting intention and referendum intention.

The results for Q3 there (which should say “constituency”, not region) show that 41% of the undecided are Labour voters. Fewer than 50% of Labour’s supporters from 2011 backed Westminster rule, and 14% are voting Yes. If representative, that’s almost 90,000 people, perhaps seven or eight percent of the total Yes vote required (assuming a turnout of between 2.25m and 2.5m next year). And the Labour-backing referendum-undecideds are twice as many again.

If those undecided Labour voters break for Yes, they can ensure the referendum is won – probably no-one else can – and Labour is right to be afraid of this situation, because it threatens their position in three ways.

First, independence, and the Labour voters supporting it, jeopardises their chances of getting back into power at a UK level. Although Westminster elections aren’t commonly close enough for the Scottish block to make any difference (other than imposing Blairite reforms on the rest of the UK), it might well happen next time given the state of the polls. They want the buffer provided by right-wing MPs like Tom Harris. Pure self interest: they want him and his ilk to keep being sent to Westminster to help prop up future Labour administrations there.

Second, and this is where they should see opportunities rather than threats, it makes a return to office at Holyrood even less likely. Losing a referendum on which they have staked everything would be a massive blow to their institutional power and their credibility, especially when it’ll be clear so many of their own supporters have ignored their advice in favour of, ironically, the prospect of a Labour-led government for an independent Scotland. It’s not just their supporters and members, either. Why wouldn’t some potential Scottish Labour Ministers feel the same? One former senior Labour Minister told a friend he was privately in favour of independence so long as “the bloody Nats don’t get to run it” (no, it wasn’t Henry).

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, it’s an ideological threat. Labour have redefined their primary purpose as defence of the Union, in large part as self-interest. Like Scottish Lib Dem MPs, they’re amongst its main institutional beneficiaries. It’s also partly because they haven’t any other ideas. Ask yourself: what else do Labour at Holyrood want to achieve? Can you name a single radical thing? I can’t, and I follow politics pretty closely.

There’s no principled basis for boxing themselves in like this. Unless a party is established with a constitutional purpose at its heart, like the SNP, their supporters are likely to disagree on whether Holyrood or Westminster is best able to get them to their other political objectives. A third of Greens at conference regularly vote against independence, although none yet seem to want to work with the Tories as part of Better Together. It’s normal. I’m not scared by it, in the way Labour are terrified of Labour voters for independence. Rather than social justice or even Blairite aspiration, Labour have become obsessed with one arbitrary answer to this tactical question – will our objectives be better met at Westminster or at Holyrood? It’s a fragile new base to have chosen.

Their response to this trend not only threatens Labour’s future shots at governance, therefore, it also weakens their power over their voters too. That Labour Yes vote is likely to be centre-left types who find the SNP too economically right-wing, people who’ve stuck with Labour so far but who are increasingly desperate to be shot of a Tory-led Westminster. When they watch the Labour leadership line up with Tories and Lib Dems over the next year to ensure Scotland remains run by the bedroom taxing, fracking, poor-hating, immigrant-abusing Westminster they increasingly loathe, the risk has to be that that sight will put them off Labour too, and that those Labour voters for Yes will become SNP, Green or Socialist voters for Yes. I can’t be the only person who’s gone off Labour and off Westminster essentially in parallel.

It’s too late for them ever to win me back, but Labour didn’t need to be in this mess, especially if they’d put forward a credible “more powers” offer. Now, though, even as someone who still wants to see a better Labour Party, I now can’t see a way out of the uncomfortable corner they’ve painted themselves into. The harder they try to retain their grip, the weaker their position becomes. No wonder they’re afraid.

What it would have taken for me to be against independence.

Neil KinnockI keep telling people I’m a non-nationalist for independence, but they don’t believe me. It’s true, though. I never grew up dreaming of independence, nor was it something that I particularly thought about when I first started getting into politics.

My political obsessions were much as they are now: social and economic justice, civil liberties, decarbonising our economy and protecting biodiversity, plus radical political reform.

Over the period I’ve been politically aware, I’ve lived under two eye-wateringly hard-right Tory administrations, one with Lib Dem help, separated by a period of centre-right New Labour rule (your definition of left and right may vary from mine, of course). Each of these governments was unpleasant at its core, although each one achieved at least one good thing. No, really.

Thatcher set up Channel Four: I do think that’s it for her merit column. Tony Blair brought in devolution, a limited minimum wage, and Freedom of Information. Cameron abolished Labour’s plans for ID cards and for a third runway at Heathrow. Major and Blair should share credit for moves to peace in Northern Ireland. Beyond that I’m drawing a blank. You can add you “what have the Romans ever done for us?” comments below.

Anyway, before 1994 my party politics were pretty simple, if naive. You could choose Labour or the Tories, so I thought, and that was an easy choice. Years of Tory rule would come to an end one day, and then it’d all be okay. My Labour vote in 1992 was therefore uncritical and optimistic, and I even remember exactly how depressed Basildon made me. Then the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader in 1994 radicalised me, electorally. It was obvious from the leadership campaign that he was not going to lead a Labour Party of the sort I’d waited for. I also remember being baffled by those who got disappointed after 1997: he did what he said he would do, broadly, and it bore little relation to the Labour values I remembered. I got my disappointment in early.

So over my political life I’ve seen the three largest parties at Westminster all have a go at power. They’ve left us with hereditary peers still in place, and hardly a whisper of opposition to the idea of a hereditary head of state. Fair voting is further off than ever, largely thanks to the Lib Dems’ unforgivable decision to push for a referendum on a non-proportional voting system. The economy is still built on exploitation and increasing inequality, and it’s still reliant on gas and coal and nukes. Endless road-building and airport expansion are supported by all three parties too (with the Tories desperately looking for a way to do a u-turn on Heathrow). Tuition fees get raised, asylum seekers get demonised, nuclear weapons get retained, and stuff gets privatised: these things are true whichever one of the three wins. All three parties claim the mantle of civil liberties in opposition, and all three have assaulted civil liberties in office like a pack of thugs in a back street. About the only place where Westminster has led at all, relative to Holyrood, is on LGBT rights.

They’ve all three failed, and there’s no-one left to wait for. No knight on a white charger, no principled and admirable opposition. Not even Neil Kinnock. Miliband and Balls are signed up to the “there are problems with immigration” agenda, to austerity, and to the current electoral pseudo-democracy. The left in most parts of the UK is stuck with Labour as merely the lesser evil, playing their part in a depressing politics-as-showbiz charade, where the voters who get pandered to by all three are the editors of the middle-market papers and those in swing seats who read them and fear foreigners: hence Ministers sending vans emblazoned with the old NF slogan “Go Home” to drive around ethnic minority areas. It’s fusty, archaic, unreformable, corrupt, racist, nepotistic, and cynical.

This experience gradually ground down my faith that Westminster could be somewhere things changed. Sure, the Greens got Caroline Lucas elected, which is a massive breakthrough, but I’m too impatient to wait a generation for change.

And that’s when I realised I wanted shot of it all. I knew that there wasn’t a single decision on any issue I cared about that I trusted that hulking façade of democracy to make. And I became absolutely certain that independence was necessary. It was the only way to get Westminster out of my life forever. Not for some great love of the SNP (they share some of the policies objected to above) or because independence will be perfect – although Holyrood’s procedures and elections are centuries ahead of Westminster practice.

If nothing else, because it’ll be a shakeup, a chance to bring power closer to the people and a chance to break the corrupt links between the UK parties and big business. And because there’s no alternative waiting in the wings, no real Labour government of the sort I dreamt about in the early 1990s. If Neil Kinnock had won, I might never have even considered wanting Scottish independence.

Labour’s chance to seize on a radical Holyrood agenda

April Cumming is Vice-Chair of the left-wing think tank the Scottish Fabians. Here she writes for Better Nation about the opportunity for Labour to seize on a progressive agenda and change the way transport works in Scotland.

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

I cycled to my office this morning.  There’s nothing remarkable in this fact, thousands of workers across the country also prefer to take the bike where it is possible rather than its more cumbersome road-fellow.  What is remarkable, however, is the number of times on a weekly basis this activity brings me close to an unpleasant and untimely demise.  It’s not that I’m an unsafe cyclist; I indicate, I use the correct lanes, and I keep a safe distance from the frequently indifferent or incensed cab drivers, vans and buses.  The issue, I believe, is that those who prefer ‘active travel’ as a means of navigating Edinburgh’s streets are still perceived as an awkward inconvenience rather than a road user of equal status.  This is reflected in the lack of any real infrastructure to facilitate safe cycling in the city.  Without the provision of a network of well-maintained cycle routes, cyclist will continue to exist as second class citizens on the roads of our nation’s capital.

But why is it that as a country that invests so heavily in roads and large scale public sector infrastructure projects we continue to fall behind our more pro-active European neighbours in investing in relatively inexpensive but hugely effective active travel networks?  We appear to be besotted by the idea of the extravagant glamour project, for example HS2 and the Forth Bridge Replacement project; these are the status builds that mark the era of an ambitious government.  However, ambitious projects do not always a wise investment make, and in this time of stretched budgets we must look at expenditure choices that cover a wide range of policy objectives.  Active travel infrastructure in Scotland is not only a necessary facility for allowing citizens of all backgrounds to transport themselves and their families on short to mid-range journeys.  It is a vital mechanism for reducing our carbon emissions and vastly improving the health and wellbeing of our nation.  Effective town planning can vastly improve the living standards of urban residents, bringing diverse communities closer and acting as a social leveller; this is no less the case with active travel infrastructure as with housing and public spaces.  As a resident of Leith the capacity for good transport networks to create a more coherent flow between city centres and respective limbs of Edinburgh is not lost on me.  However, this does not simply mean catering to the needs of drivers above all others.  Short trips need to be made by alternative means, for the good of every Edinburgh resident and to achieve the long-term goal of an improved, accessible and human-friendly city.  Only central policy that pushes local authorities into action can ensure this is achieved, with adequate budgets put in place now to start that long-term modal shift.  Spend the money now and reap the rewards in future.  For a government whose focus has long been on endorsing a model of preventative spend this should not be rocket science.  As a case in point, a study in Copenhagen showed that when the health benefits, time saved and reduction in congestion and car crashes are taken into account, society makes a net profit of 1.22 Danish kroner (around 13p) for every kilometre cycled by one of its citizens.

This is a process that starts with good policy at the centre, and encourages local government to bring forward plans for action that meets the needs and characteristics of specific localities.  The case for active transport networks was argued vociferously in the transport and infrastructure committee and through the forum of the cycling CPG, with bodies like Sustrans and Spokes highlighting that a more hands-on approach was necessary. But to this point the rhetoric of successive governments with regard to building the infrastructure and vigorously promoting healthy and active travel options has fallen far short of the actions taken.

We live in a time where household budgets are being stretched and the cost of maintaining and running a car has become gradually less affordable.  At the same time a growing number of issues relating to health inequalities are yet to be tackled, and the infrastructure of our major urban hubs has been left in dire need of repair.  Most importantly, for the second year running we have failed to meet our emissions reduction targets.  The Scottish Government has set laudable and challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050.  The need for a more resilient and accessible active transport network, linked in with our local public transport routes, has become glaringly obvious and yet we are still to see the kind of focused attention on bringing forward a workable and practical plan that we see in other pioneering countries like Denmark.  This is a country whose government has tapped into the psyche of cyclists, has understood the specific needs and problems faced by travellers and has reacted with innovative technologies that not only assist but promote active travel.  Trains have entire carriages that may be adapted to accommodate cyclists.  Points of cultural interest have stations where bikes may be left and public transport hubs have facilities to hire bicycles to explore the city further or get to work.  There are even resting curbs specifically designed for cyclists at traffic junctions.   One third of journeys are made by bicycle, while car usage is falling. A quarter of two-children families own a cargo-style bike to get around the busy streets, encouraged to use the 346km (215 miles) of segregated cycle lanes, maintained by the relatively low budget of €10 million (£8 million) per year.

Current central and local government policy advocates investment in active travel (walking and cycling) over the private car, due to the multiple benefits it brings to society. The Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CA PS) has a vision that “by 2020, 10% of all journeys taken in Scotland will be by bike.”  However, to date only 1% of journeys could be classified as “active” and Scotland’s current transport funding decisions, which largely prioritise major schemes such as the Forth road bridge, promote delivery mechanisms that fail to make the most of our capacity to lead on small-scale, local active travel initiatives.

I believe that in the absence of real progress the onus is on opposition parties, namely Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens, to come forward with a logical and achievable pathway to real, sustainable change.  This means looking at the models adopted elsewhere and realising that this is an investment worth making.

As a regular attendee of events run by the think tank Nordic Horizons, I am a great advocate of looking to examples of best practice from other shores that may help us to bring forward policy suggestions based on evidence; such an approach allows more ambitious, innovative planning.  There are other cities in the Nordic region that have succeeded in not only creating the necessary infrastructure for modal shift but also lauding the practise of active travel and giving it an immense sense of social worth.  The communal aspect of walking and cycling is seen as something of real cultural value; it is a leveller that provides the individual with the ability to transport themselves and their family across the urban space, regardless of wealth or class background. As such it is not only a practical necessity but also serves as part of the fabric of that nation’s social makeup.  Recognising the need to challenge imbedded cultural attitudes to active travel and promote a shift away from our national vehicular fettish will be part in forcing the hand of central government.  Key to this is emphasising the benefit changes to our infrastructure will have on policy objectives across the board: reducing obesity, achieving carbon reduction targets, promoting social integration, opening up our city centres, making roads safer, and more generally enhancing our personal and collective well-being.  We stand to gain so much and yet have achieved so little.

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