Posts Tagged #sp4

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Harris, calling all parties to the unionist cause

In yet another exclusive guestpost for Better Nation, Labour leadership contender, Tom Harris MP, responds to Pete Wishart’s call with one of his own – and he doesn’t pull his punches. 

What are the chances of an all-party campaign for “No to Independence”?

Well practically zilch, if we are to listen to Pete Wishart, writing on this site on Friday.

It would seem that he and the SNP have set themselves up in a bizarre contest to be the keenest defenders of separatism, and in that defence they will be steadfast. But why have they allowed themselves to be so entrenched on the nationalist side of the debate, and is there any prospect whatsoever of them even entertaining the notion of Scotland continuing as part of the UK…?

You get the idea. Such is the arrogance of the SNP post their impressive Holyrood victory in May, that they are filled with scorn for anyone so dim-witted as to disagree with the central driving force within Pete’s own party.

Labour, writes Pete in that patronising tone that might have well been patented by the SNP, has a “proud tradition” when it comes to constitutional change. Well, that’s nice of him, eh? Scottish Labour Action was an excellent example of “free thinking” on Scotland’s constitutional future, he writes, patting Wendy Alexander and Jack McConnell on the head and offering them a lump of sugar. So why the poverty of thinking on the issue now?

Well, Pete, I have the answer to that one: it’s because SLA achieved their aim. Remember that? Remember when the Scottish Parliament was opened in 1999? Come on, it must at least ring a bell!

In calling for Labour Party members to support a pro-independence campaign, Pete ignores the fact that there are many, many more SNP voters who support the Union than there are Labour voters who support independence. And yes, Pete, you’re right that no-one joined the Labour Party to protect the Union; they’re a bit more concerned about the economy, poverty, inequality and progress – you know, important stuff. None of these issues is at the top of SNP members’ list of priorities – without their obsession on constitutional issues, they have no guiding mission.

That’s the difference between the politics of identity and the politics of progress.

Labour and all the other unionist parties, says Pete, risk irrelevance in a “new Independent Scotland” (although he doesn’t quite explain what is “new” about turning the political clock back 300 years, but I’ll let that one go) by not getting on board the independence bus now.

Do you see what he’s doing here? In the week that the SNP government were obliged to talk about what they’re most uncomfortable talking about – budgets, services, the economy – Pete wants us all to move back on to the nationalists’ ground – the constitution. Just as the media and much of Scottish business are beginning to suspect that the future being shaped by Alex Salmond isn’t quite as rosy as they had been led to believe, Pete wants us all to close our eyes, click our heels together three times and imagine that he was right all along to talk about the “inevitability” of independence. I wonder why?

To Pete (and, I assume, his attitude is entirely typical of his fellow SNP members), everyone of all parties and of none accepts that independence is as right as it is inevitable, but that only the SNP are honest enough to admit it.  Nationalists are true and honourable, unionists are dishonourable and base.  We’re all nationalists, if only we were brave enough to look inside ourselves and admit it.

The alternative – that some Scots genuinely believe that we’re better off in the UK than out of it – isn’t even considered by him as a possible alternative.

Memo to Pete: you’re wrong. Prepare for a fight.

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Salmond’s Santa will bear legislative gifts

So they’re back.  The Holyrood faithful are returning from the recess, fighting fit and raring to go.  All the newbies have had the summer to practise writing MSP after their name, some of them might even have managed to work out why there are different lifts for different floors in the Parliament and the Cabinet has discovered parts of Scotland it never knew existed during its summer tour.

First up, the business and legislative programme and expect a very different approach from the last SNP Government.  No longer cowed by the lack of a parliamentary majority and having learned that you can ask the public sector nicely to do stuff but without the weight of law behind it, they can stick two fingers up at you, this second SNP Government will be embarrassing us with legislative riches.  What might we expect to see in the First Minister’s announcement on Wednesday?

Top billing goes to the minimum alcohol pricing bill.  No messing this time, the bill will be short and to the point and the Government will hope to create a landmark with its first piece of legislation of its second term in office.  The Lib Dems will support it this time round, the Tories will still oppose and who knows what Labour will do.  Hopefully they will.  And soon.

Children are going straight to the top of the agenda.  Music to the burdz ears.  The SNP manifesto promised an early years bill and the Scottish Government has already said that it will be published in the New Year.  But this week, it also announced intentions to embed children’s rights in legislation as part of a wider children’s services bill.  This latter one is due later in the parliament.  Work has already begun to shape a national parenting strategy and the needs of children should – I hope – feature in new frameworks to support victims and witnesses.  Indeed, we will also get a Victim Rights’ bill this year… I promise never to complain again about no one bothering about children’s needs.  Well, not for a while anyway.

There will also have to be some kind of public services reform bill (though it might not be called that) to give effect to the proposals to do away with multiple police forces and fire services.  There will be a budget bill of course, and that too will progress at breakneck speed, though not until after the Spending Review is announced later this month.  And while it is unlikely to be legislated for, there will be a souped-up Concordat (flagged up before the election) between local and national government, that gives rewards for compliance and fiscal consequences for failure to deliver.  Expect too, for preventative spending to furrow members’ brows at regular intervals during the year, and indeed every year, until they reach another election and can leave a legacy for the next lot that urges them to work out how to implement this most common sense approach to public expenditure without having got around to doing it themselves.

Same-sex marriage may feature but is more likely to proceed at a leisurely consultative pace, with a draft bill appearing perhaps at the end of this parliamentary term, unless of course an MSP loses patience and slaps down a member’s bill.  A review of the law on damages will commence this autumn – how knotty, complex and controversial the proposals are will determine if we get a bill this year or next.  Measures tightening up procedure and process in rape cases has also been promised – if it does not require further consultation, this might well feature in Wednesday’s announcement.  Of course, a bill promising to amend the existing Freedom of Information Act “to add clarity and strength to the legislation” instantly makes us all suspicious that the aim is to dilute and to weaken it.

Anyone looking for a big education bill is likely to be disappointed:  there will be amending legislation covering rural schools’ closures but everything else will be delivered through guidelines, frameworks, toolkits and strategies.  Expect the outcome of the McCormac review to dominate parliamentary proceedings and media headlines for a considerable period.  There will, however, be legislation on higher education to increase access from poorer communities and a review of college provision which may result in legislation at some point in the future.

The Scottish Government promised to introduce a living wage for government employees, which may or may not require legislation – if it does, Ministers might settle for allowing John Park MSP to do all the hard work and preparation, then assume his bill as their own.  It worked for Jack McConnell and the smoking ban…. It may be too early in the parliamentary term for the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal bill which will enable communities to assume ownership of under-used assets.  It sounds simple but working out how to give it legislative effect might prove more complex.

Finally, the piece de resistance, the icing on the Scottish Government’s dense legislative cake – a bill to tackle high hedges‘ disputes.  I seem to recall this issue pre-occupying then Justice Minister, Jim Wallace MSP, without a legislative solution ever being put forward.  Roseanna Cunningham MSP may succeed where mere men have tried and failed.

And if this little lot doesn’t keep our MSPs out of mischief this parliamentary year and next, I’m not sure what will.  Oh yes, some local government elections next May and of course, constituents, surgeries, local issues and events….


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100 Days have come and gone

Belated congratulations are in order as the SNP marked another significant milestone in reaching 100 days, not of its first term in office, but its second running the government of Scotland.  Self-congratulation appears to be off the agenda though – nothing on the SNP website, nowt from the Scottish Government either.

Right on cue, though, a trio of disparaging and dispiriting articles in the Scotsman – a political one, an almost identical analysis, and in case we hadn’t got the message, a down in the mouth leader that ponders these last 100 days and concludes, clunkily, that the SNP Government hadn’t hit the ground running but jogging.

No we haven’t witnessed 100 days of dynamic action, as we did in 2007.  But then there are fewer quick fixes to be found.  And this time, where’s the hurry?  The SNP has a whole extra year to work with – pace is going to be everything this time round.

Moreover, with three opposition parties in disarray, floundering and leaderless, there has been no one snapping at their heels;  indeed, some of the Scottish Government’s poor headlines have been of their own making (or rather the media’s, seeing it as their collective national and noble duty to offer some kind of scrutiny).  This administration will last the course – the previous minority one did not know when its number might be called – and indeed, unless Labour gets its act together might even enjoy a third term.  Who needs a hundred days when there are thousands in which to make your mark?

In any event, many of the SNP’s manifesto commitments either involve no change at all – continued council tax freeze, free personal care, free tuition fees etc – or ambitious, sweeping change – new capital investment programmes, innovative legislation, a living wage, a real shift to localism.  Such measures are hard to fashion into immediate actions and ready soundbites.

These kind of reforms take time.  As the First Minister found out, in a rare lesson in humility, with the harried anti-sectarianism bill, sometimes the old proverbs really are the best:  less haste, more speed.  Our patience is likely to be rewarded with a number of “big bills” to be announced when the Scottish Parliament returns the week after next.

The only show in town, as far as the SNP is concerned, has been the opportunity presented by the Scotland bill to maximise devolution.  Its parliamentary timetable at Westminster demanded that the Scottish Government focused its attention on securing as many additional powers as possible;  indeed, one of the most vibrant and busy committees of the next 100 days is likely to be that set up to explore, scrutinise and make the case for all the powers the First Minister has put on his shopping list.  The prospect of items being crossed off that list is highly unlikely given the dominance of the SNP on the committee and in the chamber.

But it was not just the Government which eased itself gently into this session;  the Parliament too did not exactly spring into action.  Weeks went by with minimal parliamentary activity;  committees took an age to appoint convenors;  in the seven weeks before shutting up shop for the summer, the Parliament did not even open officially.  But with a very different shape and size to parliamentary groups, as well as a whole host of new parliamentarians, the logistics of getting the show on the road this time round were harder to achieve.  And crucially, everyone seemed exhausted from the efforts expended in the election – no one had much appetite for bounding Tigger-like into this session.

Now they’ve all had the summer to recover and recuperate, to rejoin and renew, there can be no excuses.  Yet, while the press appears to have rolled its eyes and declared the summer to have been “boring”, it has largely ignored the fact that the Scottish Government has been very busy indeed.  In fact, most of the Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers have had little more than a week off.  Not only has the Scottish Cabinet been on tour around Scotland, visiting far flung places like Stranraer, Fort William and even Kirkcaldy,  its members have been on other tours and trips, immersing themselves in their portfolios in different parts of the country.  Inbetween times, some of them have even managed to find time for some constituency work and pop home for tea with the family.  There are no five holiday Cameronians in this bunch.

And yes, it might make for few headlines.  It might seem – to some – to amount to aimless wandering, but it actually purports to serve a much needed purpose.  To make clear that Holyrood is not Edinburgh’s Parliament but Scotland’s, that this SNP Government belongs to and governs for all of the country, reminding everyone that it takes its new-found responsibility as the National Party of Scotland seriously.

Taken together, it might not amount to an action-packed, thrill a minute hundred days of glory.  But if it ensures thousands more days in government, and thousands more yes votes in the independence referendum, the SNP will consider it time well spent indeed.

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Ruth Davidson will be the next Scottish Tory leader

At the risk of giving the Scottish Conservatives far more ether-coverage than they are used to, or they deserve, another blogpost from me on their leadership contest.

So far there isn’t actually a contest, what with Jackson Carlaw MSP, the only one to show his hand. But you read it here first. Ruth Davidson will win.

Reliable sources, as they say, advise that she will stand and that she is garnering support from some of the party’s big guns. Apparently, the constituency party with the most members, Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire (John Lamont MSP’s seat), will vote for her. So too will David Mundell MP’s seat, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. Ditto John Scott MSP’s Ayr.

And these three constituencies count for big swathes of the party’s membership. It also indicates that not only does Ms Davidson carry the outgoing leader, Annabel Goldie’s, patronage but support from some of the party’s biggest hitters. In a party of 15 MSPs and 1 MP, she has effectively sewn up a quarter of that high level support. No doubt there are others in the wings too. Struan Stevenson MEP touted her leadership qualities when Malc and I caught up with him in Strasbourg in June (as you do) so there’s another of the party’s elected representatives in her court. And Struan’s a popular figure whose opinion will also count.

Anyone with a geography O/standard grade will have worked out that so far Ms Davidson’s support is from the South of Scotland. Murdo Fraser MSP is also likely to stand and no doubt he will pick up most of his support from his North East – ahem – heartlands. Like Jackson Carlaw, though, he’s tainted. While he has bestrode (bestridden?) this part of Scotland like a colossus, traditionally Tory territory has fallen to the Nats. Like snaw off a dyke, as the FM might, and probably did, say.

During his tenure as Depute Tory leader, his patch has been put through the wringer and turned totally yellow. They don’t count SNP votes anymore in these constituencies, they weigh them. Moreover, there appears to be a bit of a move on in the party to keep Murdo out. And anyone who has ever stood for political election, either internally or externally, knows you care little about why people vote for you, you just want them to vote for you. Ms Davidson therefore will accept such anti-Murdo votes with a gracious smile.

Moreover, Ruth Davidson represents the future face of Scottish Conservatism. Too young to be tainted by Thatcher, she might finally make the break with the past and allow the Tories to turn their fortunes around. Or at least that’s the thinking. Whether or not she will manage it remains to be seen – bigger political Tory beasts than her have tried and failed.

If she becomes leader – and she will, or I’ll eat someone’s hat – the Scottish Conservatives will have the youngest party leader, be the only party in Scotland not only to have a woman at the helm but to do it twice and moreover, elect a lesbian to the position. There are so many ironies in this I don’t know where to start. Progressive Torydom. Even in the Shires. Who knew?

For these and many more reasons, hers will be a remarkable election. She’s only been an MSP for a few months. Her rise may have been stratospheric, but she has undoubted qualities. Articulate and media savvy, she will inject something different into our political discourse. Cybernats will no doubt scoff at her prospects against the First Minister every week but I wouldn’t write her off. Going toe to toe with him is bound to end in disaster, but as Annabel has shown many times in recent years, there are other ways to get attention, get your point across and importantly, get under Alex Salmond’s skin.

Ruth Davidson is probably more centred politically than many on the right would like. That will make for an interesting conversation. While the rest of Europe lurches rightwards, including our ain dear UK Parliament, Scotland will have proven definitively that it is on a quite different political course. Her election will undoubtedly make it easier for the Scottish Tories to establish clear blue water from their UK counterparts – and hopefully detoxify their brand from the government’s activities that are not finding favour with Scots voters – but we await clues to see how this might pan out in policy terms.

But the most urgent task at hand is the implementation of the Sanderson review. The party needs overhaul at every level and in every sphere, to bring it out of the 1970s and into the 21st Century. Only when it has achieved this, can it seriously begin to think about political renewal. No doubt Ruth Davidson supports the review’s recommendations but does she have the mettle to push them through?

Such activity requires an attention to detail and a knowledge of what to do and when – qualities that John Swinney demonstrated in abundance during his ill-fated SNP leadership, during which he managed to push through a centralised membership scheme and also one member, one vote in all internal elections. This was no accident: his longterm membership and service in key party roles, particularly as National Secretary, served as a useful apprenticeship to achieving such fundamental structural changes. Does Ruth Davidson have the same organisational skills to bring to the fore?

The Scottish Conservatives have no doubt spent their summer chattering amongst themselves and one hopes garnering an inkling on what the three likely candidates think about stuff. And while these are the only votes that count for now, Ruth Davidson might like to share some of her thoughts on stuff with the rest of us. It would be bizarre indeed to greet a new Tory leader without knowing her views on well, anything.

And while the prospect of such a vibrant, youthful unknown leading one of Scotland’s main parties provides a frisson of excitement, I wonder if Ruth Davidson might just be peaking too soon? The Tories are in transition and such leadership stipends rarely last long enough to reap gains from any reforms enacted or attempted. Ask the afore-mentioned John Swinney. And Wendy Alexander.

Which makes John Lamont’s decision to sit out this round of musical chairs, and instead, throw his hat (and constituency votes) behind the most likely contender to defeat his shot at the next leadership election seem very shrewd indeed.

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What’s happening on the jobs front – part two

Continuing my look at recent data on unemployment in Scotland, you can catch part one over at the ither place. And the briefing covering a wide range of employment-related issues is available at the Scottish Government’s website.

So which areas of Scotland are suffering the most?  And what is being done to stem the jobless flow?

Unsurprisingly, areas with traditionally high unemployment continue to experience high levels of joblessness.  This table shows the local authority areas in Scotland with above average numbers of people claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA):

Claimant count rate above national average
Total %age %age change since 2010
Scotland 140,557 4.1 5
Clackmannanshire 1,876 5.7 14
Dundee City 5,504 5.9 15
East Ayrshire 4,399 5.6 7
Falkirk 4,617 4.6 15
Fife 10,762 4.6 9
Glasgow City 25,300 6.2 2
Inverclyde 2,674 5.2 10
North Ayrshire 5,451 6.3 7
North Lanarkshire 11,801 5.5 4
Renfrewshire 5,456 4.9 9
South Lanarkshire 8,936 4.4 3
West Dunbartonshire 3,610 6.0 12
South Ayrshire 2,757 4.0 6
West Lothian 4,533 4.0 -6

So far so predictable.  But what about the areas experiencing increased unemployment – which local authority areas in Scotland are losing jobs the fastest?

Local authority Biggest %age change since 2010
Orkney Islands 24
Falkirk 15
Dundee City 15
Clackmannanshire 14
Aberdeenshire 13
West Dunbartonshire 12
Argyll & Bute 11
Perth & Kinross 11
Stirling 10
Inverclyde 10
Dumfries & Galloway 9
Fife 9
Renfrewshire 9
Shetland Islands -7
West Lothian -6

The table shows that as well as some of the usual suspects, like Dundee, Clackmannashire, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire,  other parts of Scotland are struggling to hold on to jobs.  Those “enjoying” the double whammy of high unemployment and also rapidly increasing unemployment are highlighted in yellow.  We will return to them in a moment.

Orkney has shown the biggest increase in numbers out of work in the last year, and while those numbers are relatively small compared to the numbers of jobless in Glasgow, the impact on the local economy and communities will be huge.  Other areas experiencing fast growing unemployment are predominantly rural and only two local authority areas in Scotland have seen the numbers claiming JSA come down in the last year.

But why are some areas of high unemployment appearing to fare better than others.  Why, for example, has the claimant count in Glasgow grown by only 2% compared to 15% in Falkirk?  Why lower numbers coming onto the dole in both Lanarkshires than in West Dunbartonshire?

The answer may lie – partly – in where new jobs are being created and existing jobs safeguarded.  Regional Selective Assistance (RSA) is the main national scheme providing financial assistance to industry.  Managed by Scottish Enterprise, grants are awarded to investment projects that will create and safeguard employment in designated Assisted Areas.  These are the areas which qualify for regional aid under European Community law.  Other grants are available under “Tier 3” which can be made in other designated areas to small and medium sized enterprises.

Looking at grants offered and accepted throughout 2010-11 and in the first quarter of 2011-12, there is some evidence of intervention working to limit the impact of the recession in areas where unemployment is high.  The table below sets out how many new jobs were created and the number of existing jobs safeguarded through the award of RSA grants and in which local authority areas these jobs were located.

RSA Grants 2011-12 RSA Grants 2010-11
Local authority No. New jobs Jobs safeguarded No. New Jobs Jobs safeguarded
Glasgow 213 Glasgow 2028 337
Lanarkshire 50 49 North Ayrshire 139 225
West Lothian 14 2 Fife 1096 148
East Ayrshire 12 15 Lanarkshire 384 379
West Dunbartonshire 44 82 Renfrewshire 783 41
Dundee 24 Stirling 70 1
Renfrewshire 120 West Dunbartonshire 79 7
Stirling 27 Dundee 228 15
South Ayrshire 18 40 Edinburgh 87 31
Falkirk 200
Highland 127
Inverclyde 200
Aberdeenshire 16
South Ayrshire 205 25
East Ayrshire 27 7
East Lothian 4 12
West Lothian 17
Clackmannanshire 23 200
Angus 12
Scottish Borders 9

All the areas highlighted in green are local authorities with above average JSA claimant count but which did not experience rapid growth in unemployment (relatively speaking) in the past twelve months.  From this perspective, the approach being taken by Scottish Enterprise can be seen to be working in at least slowing down the growth in unemployment in traditional blight areas.  Moreover, the inclusion of two areas just below the national average for claimant count in this exercise – South Ayrshire and West Lothian – has a point.  Both areas have benefitted from jobs growth and safeguarding since April 2010, even though other areas have higher unemployment.  Yet, they can be seen as hub areas – investment in South Ayrshire is just as likely to benefit the jobless in East and North Ayrshire due to the good transport links and relatively short travelling distances.  Investment here then has a potential ripple effect on other unemployment blackspots.  The same can be said to apply to West Lothian, with North and South Lanarkshire, Falkirk, Clackmannanshire and Fife all within easy commuting distance.

Despite this, there are clearly areas that are struggling – all those highlighted in red are managing to gain some new and safeguard other jobs with grant aid, but it is not enough to offset the loss of still more in their areas.  Unemployment remains high and is still growing in West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Fife, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and Clackmannanshire.  And here’s a thought – given that everything we have done since 1999 has failed to “solve” endemic unemployment in these local authorities, isn’t it time we tried something new?  These communities have been blighted by inter-generational joblessness and deprivation since the 1980s and still they suffer the most when we experience economic downturn.

That said, this is nothing these local authorities ain’t seen before:  their resilience at coping will be being tested but it will be there.  What might be more worrying for the Scottish Government in the short term, is that they are being joined by a whole new group of rural local authorities with rapidly growing unemployment.  The ability of their public sector agencies to lead and to cope – to know what to do and how to apply it to weather the storm – is more questionable.  Having been in this situation less recently and intensely, with some of these areas like Stirling, Aberdeenshire and Perth and Kinross, having enjoyed very low levels of unemployment throughout the noughties, how resilient are these communities and populations?

Recovery too might be more difficult, given that some of these areas have historically found it hard to attract investment due to sparsity of population and poor infrastructure.  Also they are heavily reliant on public sector employment – councils and health boards are probably the biggest employers – and job losses are only just starting from this source.  Moreover, a glance at the RSA table shows that few of these local authorities have featured in awards in the last twelve months, mainly because they are not Assisted Areas.  Thus, we have considerable increases in people losing their jobs but no state mechanism to help safeguard existing or create new jobs.  What will the Scottish Government be able to do to stem the jobless flow here?

There are patterns here to be concerned about.   The areas traditionally blighted by unemployment are not being spared this time round and some of them are suffering fast rising unemployment even with state intervention to create jobs.  It is not good in either the short or long term.

And there is a whole new group of local authorities struggling to weather the storm where traditional job-creating methods are largely unavailable because of their relative affluence in the 90s and noughties.  As yet, there seems little that can be done at national level to slow the impact of job losses or foster new employment.   Will these areas manage to bounce back without help from the state?

At the very least, these sorts of statistics should prompt the need for some fresh thinking by the Scottish Government on how to create and safeguard jobs in communities in the future.  What we have in place works but not nearly enough.

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