Archive for category Westminster

Our Friends In The North: The Nordic dream without the navel gazing

It was with trepidation that I sat down to watch Our Friends in the North, BBC Scotland’s attempt to address the Nordicism that has crept into the independence referendum. It is an important part of the debate and the closest Scotland can get to imagining an alternate reality. Alex Salmond doesn’t really seem to get the Nordic countries in anything other than economistic terms, but as a former oil economist maybe that is to be expected. What Our Friends in the North and its host Alan Little did so well was demand answers to the questions created by the rhetoric. It is very easy to project your dreams onto something you don’t know much about, and is easy to imagine the First Minister sitting at home with a big Norwegian flag on the wall like a teenage boy staring wide eyed at a poster of Che Guevara he’s bought off the internet.

The programme asked a fundamental question: Is the Nordic economic model one Scotland can follow? There was some mention of shared heritage and attempts to problematise Scotland’s position bridging the gap between the British and the Northern, but it was largely an economistic view of events.

The excellent Alan Little began by popping off to Finland to find out about Nokia and childcare. There was an admirable attempt to situate Finland as a post-colonial country like Scotland might become. There was discussion of the economic crash of the early 90s due to dependence on the Soviet Union and a mention of how Scandinavian economies are not that diverse, but parallels could be made with the collapse of the largely London-based UK economy after the last financial crisis – in Finland at least the government had the tools to come up with a policy tailored to the country.

The childcare aspect was a detour into social policies, and these are perhaps the hardest to replicate. It also began a theme for the rest of the show that was never explicitly articulated. Many of the people encountered or interviewed were professional women enjoying high levels of access to both professions and childcare. The integration of educated and working women is one of the things that truly divides Scotland from its easterly neighbours, but as gay marriage so happily proved, that kind of equality is about mindset as much as money. You want it and then you fund it, rather than deciding you have the spare cash for such luxuries.

Next up was Sweden, and Alan Little went to speak to The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. In London. Nelson is a man who knows very little about Sweden and not an awful lot more about contemporary Scotland. He gave the Cameronite line on the country, painting  the Swedish New Moderates and their liberal coalition partners as guardians of a progressive society. He claimed improved economic performance and employment, ignoring the fact that since the Moderates have been in power there have been serious tax cuts and in increase in temporary, lower paid jobs. Youth unemployment has increased and educational reforms, including the Free School concept, have created myriad problems. Stockholm is also suffering from an acute housing shortage due to the refusal of the Moderates to build accessible housing rather than suburban developments.

Alan popped back to Scandinavia to interview Lars Trädgårdh, a Swedish academic who has spent a lot of time in America and become a bit of a talking head for this kind of thing. Lars took Alan up onto the roof of the Higher Education where he works and pointed at the headquarters of the tax authorities. The problem was it isn’t the headquarters of the tax authorities and has not been for quite some time. I know because I used to live in it, but seeing as the tallest building being the tax headquarters is an established narrative trope in any guide to Sweden it seems a shame to get caught up on it.

 There was an assertion that Sweden doesn’t have a generous welfare state, which was a bit of a lie. It has an extremely generous welfare state, but it is built on a more expansive understanding of welfare than state unemployment benefit. This includes paying people to not work when they have young children, wage-linked unemployment funds and more robust attempts at education and retraining than that provided by either the current or previous Westminster governments, or by Britain historically for that matter. Alan Little’s assertion that “This isn’t the Sweden many on the left imagine” is true in part, but it almost seemed like it was too good a discovery to not make a point of. The truth of the matter is that many of the tenets of Scandinavian welfarism find no points of reference in British models or parlance. It isn’t Robin McAlpine’s William Morris inspired consensual welfarism, but neither is it Fraser Nelson’s utopia of hard work and sticks over carrots.

Last up was Norway, though Denmark wasn’t allowed a mention for some reason. Norway is the most prosperous of the Nordic countries, and as Alan strolled around Oslo’s redeveloped waterfront of speedboats and yuppie flats straight into the Nobel Peace Centre everything looked rosy. Norway is undeniably a great place to live, and definitely a much better bet than contemporary Britain by all kinds of measures. He visited a former industrial area reborn through a private business school. At an employment fair members of Norway’s so-called ‘dessert generation’ (because they are young enough to have only turned up for the sweetest part of the country’s journey from poor to rich and are known for wanting to have their cake and eat it) flocked to tables to become investment bankers or recruitment agents. The conclusion though was fairly unambiguous – even a tiny public oil fund would do wonders for Scotland’s economic and social rebirth.

There then came a very important question: why couldn’t Scotland pursue this Nordic model with further devolution? It was a question Little did not try to answer, but looking back over what was said some of the conclusions were self-evident. Could devolution make a Scottish oil fund, help protect Scotland from the economic collapse of a larger neighbour or allow it to radically reform its welfare and monetary policy? Probably not.

The best contribution though came in the show’s final lines. Alan Little is in the privileged position of speaking as a Scot who has gone not just to London but all over the world. He understands the context of change and political evolution, and his final question was the right one to ask. Should we not see the referendum in its broader, European context? Is this cutting Scotland off, or is it a repositioning at the nexus between two sets of neighbours?

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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 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.

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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.