Archive for category Society

The squeezed bottom

21px-Compression_applied.svgOf all of this era’s grim political soundbites, is the worst “the squeezed middle”? This Miliband coinage takes a real problem (yes, middle-class incomes are rising less quickly than costs, privatised utilities are gouging their customers etc) and applies a subtle and divisive dogwhistle to it.

The problem isn’t just that the bottom, the poorest, get neglected every time the focus is on the “squeezed middle”, although that is true. A living wage is a great policy, for example, but it does nothing for you if you don’t get a wage. Similarly, the Lib Dems redistributed upwards with their increase in personal allowances, all the while waving the policy in the air as a supposedly progressive figleaf over the ugly assaults on the poor they have perpetrated with the Tories. A higher personal allowance would be a fine thing, as would a restoration of the 10p tax rate.. if there was any effort to make the poorest, those out of work, significantly better off (which doesn’t mean threatening to take their benefits away unless they find non-existent suitable work), and also to tax the rich a bit more.

No, the worse problem is hidden in the physics. If the middle is being squeezed, logically it’s being squeezed between what’s below it as well as what’s above. This metaphor implies that the poorest are part of the problem, part of the squeeze put on the middle. Presumably this is meant to provide a deniable echo for Labour’s long-standing distaste for those right at the bottom of society, the “scroungers” and the like.

The reality is that every time benefits are cut or things like the bedroom tax imposed, that’s a squeeze on the bottom, and it’s accompanied by bungs for the better-off: cheap housing to restart the bubble, boosts to personal allowances, and on top of it all, fiddles like non-dom status for the top. The middle may be under pressure, but it’s all from the top. And the bottom bears the weight of both.

Disorganised, hypocritical and pointless: Labour MPs

Labour brought a vote yesterday at Westminster on the bedroom tax, calling for its abolition. Great: let’s end this stain on British politics, this attack on the poorest and the most vulnerable, yet another personal cut especially targeted at people with disabilities.

On the night only two Lib Dems dared to back Labour – Tim Farron, their next leader, desperate to find the right amount of distance from his own party, plus Andrew George. But with some abstentions, the coalition only secured 252 votes for the bedroom tax. With 257 Labour MPs in the Commons, plus the backing in this case of the SNP, Plaid, Greens and more, this should have been a historic victory over a key bit of Coalition savagery.

Unfortunately Labour didn’t turn up. That would have been sufficient. Simply to turn up. Not even all of them, necessarily, although if the poor and vulnerable matter to them, this might take precedence over, well, anything else they might be doing (pairing would have been fine). But no, there were sufficient Labour absentees to save the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ skins.

Yesterday Labour were criticising IDS for not turning up to the vote. Oh, the irony. Oh, the hypocrisy. What, seriously, is the point of an opposition that works like this?

But it gets worse. For some reason I get Labour spam, and I received this shameless email from Rachel Reeves this morning. If she signed this dishonest missive off herself she doesn’t belong in politics.

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Update: the full list of those voting is here (h/t). If it turns out I’m wrong and it’s all pairing, I’ll take some of it back. But I wouldn’t have let the Coalition pair on this, on reflection.

The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

The problem with Scotland’s press… in an American newspaper.

The journalist Peter Geoghegan has written an excellent summary of some of the issues surrounding the press and the independence referendum. Its basic points are a lesson to people on both side of the debate and sum up much of what is problematic about the contemporary Scottish media scene.

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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