Monday, 30 March 2015

"Stark choice": no choice

David Cameron is reported in today's carefully balanced BBC news as saying that voters face a "stark choice" between him and Ed Miliband in the General Election on 7th May.

Last week I stayed with friends in London. I asked them which way they would vote: of the five people in the room at the time (three 19-22 year olds and two parents) only one had decided how to vote. For the others there was no choice, no discernible difference between the main parties in England. At other friends in Sussex a couple of months ago there was a palpable sense of frustration that there was no serious contender for voters offering anything other than a diet of further cuts and more neoliberalism.

Democracy in England is not well. It is sclerotic - full of the fatty acids of Eton and Oxbridge so that the only voices one hears are those of the well-to-do. It is geriatric - with a House of Lords that should long ago have been sent down to Bournemouth (pity Bournemouth) and a South Coast retirement home. It is pale and male - with far too few voices from the many communities that live in the British isles, and far too few women. Its main parties suffer from lockjaw - their mouths fixed around one word, one idea, that we must continue to cut, cut and cut Government spending. An idea now so widely refuted by economists that it is extraordinary that any party can continue to support it.

So no, Mr Cameron, voters in England do not face a "stark choice."  If only they did. Voters face no choice in a democracy that needs urgent care and repair. Care and repair that neither you nor Mr Miliband are able to offer.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

50:1 Poor

It's dry statistics, and stuff that we all know, but if you think about the women, children and families behind the numbers it is a horrible way to run a society.

It's Tuesday's report from the Scottish Government - Wealth and Assets in Scotland 2006-2012 - and it is packed with 59 pages of data. The sentence that stands out is:

"The least wealthy half of households owned less than 1% of financial wealth, less than 3% of pension wealth, 6% of property wealth, and 20% of physical wealth."

Yes, you read that right. The least wealthy HALF. 50% of the people of Scotland hold 1% of financial wealth. Half of the population have virtually nothing saved in the bank. Half of the people of Scotland hold just 6% of property wealth. Most of that half are working, most live in houses...and those houses are right at the bottom of the ladder. Half. So the person sitting next to you on the 94 bus is likely to be in that half. So is the woman behind the counter in WH Smiths. And the guy who cleans your office. And the bus driver, her husband and kids. This issue is an epidemic. Not just a question of a few folk at the top and the bottom of the pile. Half the folk in the pile.

And Westminster knows this. And yet its policies keep on squeezing the poor.

It is immoral, stupid, and expensive. 

Time, past time, for Scotland to show the world that another model is possible. That redistribution of wealth is possible (just as possible in Scotland as it is in Scandinavia). That the neoliberalism, the neo-Thatcherism of the three old political parties has to be stopped.

Time for Scotland to care for the people of Scotland.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Council Homes: The Economics, Stupid

This is the news:

-- Westminster council spends £20m buying back Right To Buy homes -

We have come full circle. The Conservatives sold them off. Poor people still needed a roof over their heads and so were thrown into the hands of private landlords - something I saw in Edinburgh during the Referendum campaign. Now one council, and irony of ironies (this election campaign is full of them) it is Westminster, has had to start buying them back.

This is so stupid. It's the economics, stupid.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Terrifying Together

In London today The Times headlines are about Alex Salmond "holding Labour to ransom" and his "threat" that the SNP would control the next Parliament. He is quoted as saying on the Andrew Marr show that "if you hold the balance, you hold the power." Anna Soubry, the Tory defense minister, said on the same show that the prospect was "terrifying."

The irony from Scotland's point of view could hardly be greater. People we did not elect holding the balance of power? True all the way through Conservative and Coalition governments since WWII. In Scotland we have lived with a Conservative Westminster government that was not elected by us in 22 of the years since 1970.

The effects of the Tory, and later Red Tory, governments have been truly terrifying. Terrifying if you are poor and needed a Council house (Thatcher sold them off). Terrifying if your son or daughter was sent off to one of Westminster's horrible wars. Terrifying if like a million people in Scotland you live downwind of Europe's biggest nuclear arsenal at Faslane.

Now, perhaps for one short Parliament, Scotland might get a word in edgeways. Tories and Labour wanted us to stay Better Together... so long as we did not offer the terrifying prospect of actually deciding anything.

Now we are Terrifying Together. And it feels GOOD.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Red Box

This week’s Budget is a metaphor for how we are governed. An Oxbridge man in a grey suit opens a red box and tells us how much we will be spending on beer next year.

The Chancellor combines magic, theatre and power. The magic is in the announcements, made so that we focus on the hocus-pocus not on the real stuff. This year’s announcements included the small beer of a penny off a pint off the tepid brown stuff.

This penny off beer is meant to work with the young and with “working people.”  This is theatrical parody – because these ideas fit with our stereotypes of the manual labourer (he is always a man) in the flat cap walking home in some idyllic Hovis-loaf Yorkshire village and stopping off for a pint with his mates in The Prince Edward. It is a theatrical, or better an ad-agency view of how Britain works, reassuring middle England that everything is normal.

The penny is also part of the magician’s show, the distracting handkerchief being waved in your face as the magician palms the Ace of Spades. 

Watch the magic penny!

The maths is simple: the British Beer and Pub Association tells us that we drink 31.5 billion pints a year. A penny off each pint means we will save £315m on our beer. Gosh. That sounds like a lot!

That is the magic. While we focus on the homely image of the smiling working man saving a penny on his after-work pint, Giddy George Osborne has lifted 100 times as much out of our pockets as he has put in. Because in the same budget he announced spending that imply a £30.5 billion cut in total Government spending between 2015 and 2018, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Who will bear the brunt of this? With £13 billion being taken out of welfare expenditure it will be the poor who suffer the most. Our honest working man in the Hovis-loaf village will suffer. So will his wife and his children. And, to step away from the stereotype, so will the single parents, the homeless people, the women working in zero-hour contract jobs, the sick and the lame. To be clear, these cuts are steeper (despite Giddy’s promise of jam sometime around 2019) than in any three year period up to now. If you thought the poor were already suffering, wait until these cuts hit local councils, bus services, pre-school support and social services.

The red box waved in our faces as the grey-suited man leaves number 11 Downing Street is the magician’s handkerchief. It distracts us for a moment, reassures us that we live in a country that does things as they have always been done, where history can repeat itself. And the flourish of a reduction in beer duty is in the same vein, a hypnotic flash of brown that blinds us to the big picture – the drab grey of a Government that will cut another pound of flesh from its poor to feed to its friends in the City.

It is time for Scotland to move away from this parody of a Parliament, to craft budgets that help the poor without the suffocating theatrical tradition of the magical Gladstonian Red Box.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Work Deal

The news today is that there are at least 500,000 people living in extreme poverty in Scotland. With this figure comes more evidence of in- work poverty; people working hard to feed their families, but ending the week, poor. "Work is no longer a guarantee of a life free of poverty" says the report

This is not the deal that capitalism is meant to offer. Work hard and pull yourself out of poverty is the paradigm (politicians repeat the mantra often enough).

But in his various changes to the benefits system, by allowing zero- hours contacts and by failing to bring in a Living Wage, Giddy Osborne has created another new tribe of the deprived - the working poor. This tribe, to follow the Conservative logic, is the polar opposite of the City Finance tribe. Because in the former you persuade them to work by cutting the available wages, whilst in the latter you persuade them to work by increasing them.

This Westminster view is of a broken, tribal Britain. Time we took the Conservatives at their word.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Another Brick in the Wall

Two days before the Referendum I was campaigning on Crew Road North in Pilton, Edinburgh. There was a bunch of us around a wee folding table packed with leaflets, stickers and posters. My job was to catch people walking by. 

A man - auburn hair, mid-40s, upright, wiry build - stepped off a bus and came by. He looked anxious, knew that I would step into his path to ask him a referendum question. Saw the blue sweat top with "YES" emblazoned across it. Knew what I was going to ask him:

"Which way are you going to vote in the Referendum, sir?"

"Oh God. Don't ask me that."

"Why, sir? Are you finding it difficult to make up your mind?"

"It's just's just that I work in the finance sector. I would like to vote Yes, but I cannot bear to have all those lost jobs on my conscious. I've got friends at work who are single parents, people who just get by on the wage they earn. I can't be responsible for throwing them out of a job."

I tried to persuade him that it was propaganda, that Project Fear was running a concerted campaign using the banks and finance sector as allies to frighten us into voting No by threatening our jobs. To no avail. He would not take the risk.

And now we learn, thanks to Sunday's Herald, that a press release announcing that the Royal Bank of Scotland would move to London came direct from the Treasury written by "...Robert Mackie, the son of Catherine MacLeod, who was a special adviser to Better Together leader Alistair Darling."

Robert Mackie's boss is Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Sir Nicholas - there is a certain inevitability about this - was educated at Eton, and Balliol College, Oxford.

This was just one wee email. Another brick in the wall.  The wall that keeps things in Britain as they are - comfortable, safe, normal, calm. You don't want to live in a place where the system changes all the time - it is very disconcerting to wake up in the morning to martial music on the radio and another new General in charge. But do you want to live in a place that is the opposite, where the system is unmovable? Where a tiny elite trained in the walls of Eton, Windsor, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, keep Britain on the straight road despite the whims of the electorate?

That elite was part of a system that ensured that my auburn-haired financial sector worker voted No. Voted No so that Scotland remained in stasis, locked into a system that keeps society stable. Which would be fine if society was functioning for all of its members. But it is not. The system keeps the poor, poor (and the rich, rich). It fails to look after the society it governs.

This single email did not change the voting minds of 55% of Scots. But the story illustrates how and why the UK has to change. Scotland must take back the power held by the hypnotists from Eton and Oxbridge. Scotland must make itself independent of that rotting system.

Memo to Robert Mackie and Sir Nicholas Macpherson: 

We don't need no thought control.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Price of Everything

How can we value our governments? What is the value of running the country one way, or another?

Since Margaret Thatcher came into power in 1979 we have been running the country one way. Her way was neoliberalism, the belief shared by Labour and Liberal parties that by allowing the rich to get richer the wealth would 'trickle-down' to the poor.

It probably sounded good at the time - free markets and privatisation, after years of planned and before that rationed economy. Across the Thatcher reign 1979-1990 GDP grew from £3,000 to £3,097 per person, inflation adjusted. The economy looked OK, and economics - the science that knows the price of everything - was supportive of neoliberalism.

But while the suited economists in Whitehall were celebrating, the woman on the Craigneuk omnibus was finding it harder and harder to find her fare. Because over that same period the poor were getting poorer. At the start of her reign, one in five people in the UK was poor [1]. By the end it was one in three.

And now, 36 years later we discover that while economics knows the price it does not know the value. The OECD report Focus on Inequality and Growth that Nicola Sturgeon pointed to when she launched Scotland's economic strategy last week shows that letting the rich get richer means that all of us get poorer - in OECD words "income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on medium-term growth." Specifically, the UK lost 9% of growth because of inequality. Why? Mainly because inequality makes it harder for poor people to get a decent education.

So the neoliberalism that Thatcher imposed and that David Cameron and Giddy Osborne still favour made us all poorer.

And now it might be about to cost Westminster a whole lot more.

Imagine (it's not hard) that the revitalised SNP wins this election in Scotland, and the next. It cannot be long until we get a second go at a Referendum on independence. If Scotland were to vote Yes next time, Westminster would lose about to one tenth of the people under its dominion, one third of its land area, the launch platform for its horrible WMD and its oily cash cow.

What then is the value of neoliberalism? It made a few people very wealthy. Nice for them. It has left one in three Britons living in poverty.

Why could economists not tell us that in 1979? Why could they not say 'Watch out Britain! You are being hypnotised, and robbed?'

What use, finally, is economics? 

OECDstats don't perfectly match the period - but in 1975 the poverty rate - the number of people earning less than 50% of the median wage - was 18% and by 1990 it was 29%.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Craigneuk's Story

Siobhan from Craigneuk wanted to work. But she could not get low-cost childcare that would enable her to travel to a job in a call centre.

Mary, a lone parent, found it impossible to return to work: “… I’ve never been so much a financial cripple my whole entire life. If you are going to get people to go back to work, I think the priority is to make sure it’s financially feasible for these people to go back to work.”

Affordable childcare, along with education, health and other social services are part of the welfare state. The idea behind the welfare state is to share the risks amongst us all - "risk pooling" - so that the social risk that one person suffers ill health or financial hardship is shared by all of us.

In a new paper by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a research team from Glasgow Caldeonian University, led by Professor Darinka Asenova has shown that the cut in the block grant to Scotland (11% down in real terms between 2011/12 and 2014-15) has transferred the risk back to the poor. In other words, we are not, now, sharing the risks: we are leaving the poor to suffer. Prof Asenova points out (as did Lesley Riddoch in yesterday's The National) that this has a cost to us all; increased inequality means less economic growth.

We think we have a welfare state. We don't. We have a broken state. We are breaking up, over the poor.

Time, now, finally, for Scotland to take control of welfare, taxation and its economy, so that we can start to mend the wounds we are making.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sir Jeremy has lost £16k

You are Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary. You turn up late this morning for work after celebrating, last night, a reunion for old boys of Hertford College, Oxford.

Your boss, David Cameron, docks one month's wages for your tardiness. That is £16,249.62. Spiteful Cameron added that if Jeremy was late again, he'd dock three years' wages - over half a million pounds.

How would you feel if someone took £16,249.62 out of your wages?

Because that is what is happening, not to poor Sir Jeremy, but to the really poor and destitute in Scotland.

Today's The National reports on a study carried out by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University with the Public and Commercial Services Union - whose members run the benefits offices.  The study reports that an analysis of the most recent Department for Work and Pensions data reveals £355 million in Jobseeker's allowance across the UK was stopped in the year to September 2014. In 2009/2010, £11 million of JSA was sanctioned.

That is a 3,500% increase 2010-2014. Hundreds of thousands more people going without money.

The union says: "We believe this massive rise goes a long way to explaining why sanctions have been so closely linked to the increase in the use of foodbanks."

Across the UK 568,430 people were sanctioned with anything from one month to three years of benefits being stopped. As a proportion, that could mean almost 60,000 people in Scotland.

These cruel sanctions illustrate why we live in a broken state. We should care for our poorest and most destitute people. Not cut them off from even the most basic benefits.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Burning Poor

Scotland has oil, lots of it, contributing around £37 billion to the UK economy, according to the Scottish Government

Map, and figures from

The island of Lewis and Harris is just 100km from the nearest proven reserves (marked with an arrow) and just 400km from the nearest producing field.

So, no problem with fuel for the islanders, then?


As the 2014 Fuel Poverty Report from the Energy Advisory Service makes clear, 71% of islanders are living in fuel poverty. "Fuel poverty" means spending 10% or more of your income on heating. For Gordon Brown, for example, that would mean spending £137,000 a year on coal. He'd keep a Fife coal mine going for that much.

In the Western Isles,  71% are in fuel poverty and 29% are not. In the rest of Scotland the figures are almost reversed, with 27% in fuel poverty and 73% not. There are 12,000 households in the Western Isles - so that is 8,500 households - families - in fuel poverty.

The report shows that it is especially the elderly who are suffering fuel poverty, but it also confirms that in-work poverty is a key issue. For those in work, the Western Isles has one of the lowest household income levels in Scotland, with half of households earning less than £16,500. Two thirds of households spend more than £1,500 on fuel.

As Professor Paul Cairney reminds us in today's The National, UK energy policy is still reserved to Westminster. An independent Scotland would have control of own energy, including those energy resources just 100km from Lewis and Harris.

It is early March in Lewis and Harris. It's cold - snow is forecast today. There are 8,500 families who are suffering because Westminster will not use Scotland's oil wealth to reduce Scotland's poverty. 

It is time that Scotland managed its energy reserves, so that we can deal with fuel poverty properly.

Note: The Energy Advisory Service (TEAS) and Tighean Innse Gall (TIG) are hosting a Fuel Poverty Conference at the An Lanntair Arts Centre, Stornoway on Tuesday, March 24th from 9.30am to 4pm.