The hounding of Alistair Carmichael

Last week the SNP’s massive membership flexed its muscles. They pulled together and raised over £40,000 in just a few days for use in Alistair Carmichael’s Orkney and Shetland constituency.

The money is not for the food banks there or to support community projects. Instead, it will be used to fund a campaign to hound Mr Carmichael out of office for misleading the public.

Just to be clear, Mr Carmichael didn’t say Scotland was on the brink of a second oil boom or that there were massive secret oil fields off the coast of Shetland – that was the nationalists. Likewise, he did not claim that the west coast of Scotland had huge potential for oil finds – it was the nationalists that claimed the igneous rocks there could bear oil. Nor did Mr Carmichael wrongly claim he had legal advice relating to Scotland’s EU membership – again, that was the nationalists. I could go on.

Mr Carmichael’s error, which is non-trivial, was to claim he had no knowledge of the leaking of a document when in fact he did.

Although the document’s authenticity is not questioned and its publication was arguably in the public interest,  the nationalists have the right to explore the legal routes open to them to have Mr Carmichael’s election result overturned.

What is not acceptable is the vociferous hate campaign being directed at Mr Carmichael online by “cybernats”.

However, of greater concern to me is the intrusion into Mr Carmichael’s private life. Attempts have been made by SNP party members outside the Orkney and Shetland constituency to have Mr Carmichael removed as a Church of Scotland Elder. They made efforts to contact both Mr Carmichael’s Presbytery and his Kirk Session.

They should have looked in the mirror and read Luke 6:37 first: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgive.”

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The Scotland Bill “Veto”

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The Scotland Bill was published by the Scotland Office (UK Government) this week. It is the job of this bill to take The Vow / Smith Commission report and make it reality. Of course, the last thing the SNP want is for The Vow to be delivered in full. They’d rather it fell short. Even if The Vow is delivered in full, the SNP have no interest in accepting that is the case.  They’d rather we talk about process, not policies.

It was therefore no surprise that, almost as soon as it was published, Nicola Sturgeon claimed that the Scotland Bill “falls short in almost every area“. She must have read its 30,375 words at a truly impressive rate.

Never one to knowingly miss an opportunity to mislead people or jump on a bandwagon, Wings Over Scotland (a Bath based cybernat website) claimed the Scotland Bill gave the Scotland Office a veto over decisions democratically reached in Holyrood. This is based around the notion that the Scotland Bill places a duty on Holyrood Ministers to “consult” the Scotland Office as part of their law making process.

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This is misleading as:

  1. Consultation does not imply consent. Indeed,  the Scottish Government has a number of consultationsopen right now – it does not need to take on board everything the respondents offer. This is even the case where they are “Statutory Consultees”.
  2. If Wings Over Scotland had been honest enough to provide a full screenshot of the Scotland Bill section, it would have been clear that the Scotland Office must also consult Holyrood Minsters (see below). This means that if consultation offers the Scotland Office a veto over Holyrood  the opposite is also true.

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Having debunked the Wings Over Scotland consultation veto myth, let’s look at points in the Scotland Bill were “agreement” is required.

Holyrood must reach agreement with the UK Government regarding:

  1. technical matters related to the UK wide energy market;
  2. any change to the UK voter registration system; and,
  3. when (not if) changes to the universal credit can be implemented.

The UK Government must reach agreement with Holyrood before:

  1. UK or EU elections are held in Scotland if they clash with Scottish elections; and,
  2. any transfer of Crown Estate functions.

These appear not to be vetoes, but checks that should be made about the practicability of Scottish / UK Government policy which has cross-border implications (e.g. the use of shared infrastructure). For example, if the SNP want to cut/increase the universal credit surely it is correct that they should ask about how quickly the change can be implemented?

If Scotland had voted for independence, the SNP would have had to seek agreement on much bigger issues – currency, DVLA, the benefit system and energy provision. Would rUK have had a veto on Scottish sovereignty?

Does the Scotland Bill fully encompass The Vow? I don’t know, but the Law Society of Scotland says it does. Is The Vow the right mix of powers to ensure Scotland has autonomy whilst being able to pool and share resources within the UK? I don’t know, but Scotland voted for it. Let’s try to make it work. If there are problems with the mix of powers, I’ll be the first to demand a remedy.

Let’s start talking positively about what Holyrood can achieve.

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David Cameron is correct. It is time for the political debate in Scotland to move on. It is time to stop talking about the constitution and begin the work of considering what can be achieved with the Smith Commission powers.

Already this week we have seen a plan from Scottish Labour to fund real reductions in educational inequality via the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate in Scotland on annual income above £150,000. I have also been encouraged by debate within the Labour movement regarding how the Smith Commission powers can be used to fund a sustainable house building programme.

On the right, the Scottish Conservatives are clearly positioning themselves to have a 2016 manifesto constructed around a tax cutting agenda.

From the SNP we have seen nothing. Like nationalists around the world, not least UKIP, Ms Sturgeon wants to blame others for Scotland’s problems.

Rather than outline how Holyrood can deal with the challenges we face in health, education and inequality the SNP want to pretend that “more powers” are the key. Like a dragon hoards gold, it is beginning to appear that the SNP covet powers despite having no use for them. Nationalism is indeed a malign ideology.

Let’s start talking positively about what Holyrood can achieve. Lets start talking about how the life chances of Scots can be improved and, importantly,  how that benefits everyone.  Let’s get Ms Sturgeon to stop grandstanding and get her back to running the Scottish Government.

A desire to remain part of UK should not define Scottish Labour.

The blog below has a history. It started as a comment on a Labour Hame post announcing Kezia Dugdale was standing for the Labour leadership. I then edited it slightly and The Scotsman published it as a letter. I expanded on a few points and Labour Hame published it as a blog. I then tweeked it a little and passed it on to The Daily Record. They suggested I added content relating to my background – this is the version below. The Daily Record edited it, with my consent, and published it today… with a tabloid headline which is certainly eye-catching.

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Scottish voters are not thick. They recognise that the SNP want independence more than anything else. Scottish Labour must be careful not to allow itself to be portrayed as a party which puts “The Union” before all else. Within this context, Kezia Dugdale is correct to say that Labour should focus on its values if it is to recover in Scotland.  Indeed, even Gerry Hassan’s recent overview of the Scottish political landscape in in the Sunday Mail suggested that Scots want the political class to deliver on these values.

The first aim of the SNP, as outlined in its constitution, is “Independence for Scotland”. Secondary to this is “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”. There is nothing about ensuring “wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few” or  being certain “high-quality public services are either owned by the public or accountable to them”. These are Labour’s values. Its constitution also ensures Labour will deliver “people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power”.

This is important to me. I grew up in a single parent family in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland during the Thatcher years. A sound state provided education and support of a loving family was what enabled me to now lead a relatively comfortable life.

As was the case for many Scots, the independence referendum forced me to think carefully about my values and what kind of country would ensure young working class Scots had the same opportunities I had.

Last year when I looked at the SNP’s record in government, particularly on education, and the economic basis of their argument for independence, I could not conclude that what they offered would improve the lives of ordinary working class Scots. For that reason, I volunteered to support the Better Together campaign. When the referendum was over I joined Scottish Labour and campaigned tirelessly for Ian Murray in Edinburgh South because he was absolutely committed to delivering social justice in Scotland.

It breaks my heart to see people being attacked in Scotland for promoting social justice. I have been attacked online by cybernats just for asking Nicola Sturgeon on a live TV programme about why her government voted against the living wage 5 times.  I did this not to oppose the SNP, but to play my part in ensuring every young Scot has the chance to reach their full potential.

This is non-trivial. Labour exists to deliver social justice. To tackle poverty. To redistribute wealth and opportunity. It does not exist to oppose the Tories, to hold the SNP to account or to ensure Scotland remains in the UK. These activities should only be important when they enable Labour to help deliver social justice.

One of the SNP’s great successes over the past year has been its ability to label Scottish Labour as a “unionist party”. It uses this term in a divisive and negative way. In their eyes, Scots must be nationalists or unionists. We must be for Scotland or against it.

As Gerry Hassan has outlined, the debate is centred around the question: “whose side are you on, and who do you trust to look after Scotland? Other questions about democracy, the environment, sustainable economic growth, and how we run public services are lost in this divide, as is any space for radical progressive politics.”

Labour must change Scotland’s political narrative by sticking to its values. It must promote itself as the party of social justice. The party which fights inequality and defends public services. Sure it wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term.  Staying in the UK is not the objective. It is, quite frankly, a means to an end. In this context, Scottish Labour is not a unionist party.

The arguments for Scotland staying in the UK are legion. They range from a shared history to a common culture and a collective love of a good curry. These arguments of the heart, and many others like them, have great resonance for many Scots.  However, Scottish Labour’s argument must be about standing in solidarity with the rest of the UK.  It must be about pooling and sharing resources – an easy argument when Scotland’s per capita deficit exceeds that of the rest of the UK.

In the run-up to the independence referendum the SNP had no interest in discussing the utility of the Scotland Act (2012) powers. Today they have even less interest in discussing how the Smith Commission tax and borrowing powers can be used to mitigate the impact of a Tory government in Westminster. The SNP narrative is one of more powers – incremental steps towards independence. Indeed, even David Mundell recently said that the SNP use demands for more powers as a “smoke-screen to hide the fact” that they do not use the ones Holyrood already holds.

Within this context, Scottish Labour’s narrative must be of how Holyrood’s powers can be used to deliver social justice. Sun Tzu said two thousand years ago in his seminal “The Art of War” that being able to choose the battlefield was key to victory. Social justice, not the constitution, must be Labour’s battlefield. Scottish Labour must dominate it.

Social justice must be Labour’s argument. Social justice first and second. Let the SNP obsess about the constitution. Their obsession should not matter to Labour unless it helps deliver social justice.

In opposition in Holyrood, Labour’s job will be to hold the SNP to account. It will be to ensure wealth and opportunity is redistributed in Scotland. This will not be a battle of left versus right or working class versus middle class, but about convincing everyone in Scotland that social justice is in their interest.

In the run-up the Holyrood 2016 election, Labour must outline how it will use the Smith Commission powers to tackle inequality and protect public services. If there are gaps in these powers, Labour must work with others to ensure this is remedied.

Holding the SNP to account must also mean working in solidarity with them in Westminster and Holyrood where their aims coincide with Labour values.  As Labour did in Holyrood last week, it must offer progressive ideas to solve persistent problems  such as the attainment gap. In Westminster, it can seek support from the SNP to oppose the repeal of the Hunting Act, to protect the Human Rights Act and to oppose welfare cuts – votes where some Tory dissent can be expected.

With some hard work, Scots will see that voting is not about unionism versus nationalism. They will see that every Scottish Labour elected member wants to be a stronger voice for social justice in their constituency and in Scotland. They will see that they have a choice between the ideology of nationalism, the Tory small-state philosophy and Scottish Labour’s promise of a fairer Scotland. I know what I’d vote for.

Are Scottish universities turning away students from deprived backgrounds?

“While more youngsters from our least well-off communities are now going to university, the numbers are still far too low.” – Nicola Sturgeon 

Students from the 40% most deprived areas (SIMD40) in Scotland account for only 30% of the total student population. Only 14% come from the 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20). Despite there being no tuition fees in Scotland, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has indicated that Scotland has the lowest level of university access from vulnerable communities in the UK.

In 2012 St Andrews University claimed only 2-3% of school-leavers from our most deprived areas get good enough grades to win places at elite universities. They’d know, in 2011 they admitted only 14 students (yes, 14!) from SIMD20 areas. In 2012, the SNP Government accepted the target St Andrews set themselves to improve on this – an extra 6 students (yes, 6!).

The analysis provided to the SNP Government by St Andrews University is quite insightful:  “In publishing a new target to increase its annual intake of students from SIMD20 areas by 45%, St Andrews said that it had faced a stark choice – lower its academic standards significantly or live with continuing criticism for slow but steady progress to recruit more students from the most deprived areas.”.

What was the SNP Government doing? Keep in mind that all the data showed that a lack of suitably qualified students coming from deprived areas was the problem. The logical response would perhaps have been to invest in education from pre-school to high school? Nope, instead the SNP mandated universities to accept more students from deprived areas. Those that failed to do this, despite the lack of supply of students, would suffer “financial penalties where insufficient progress is made“.

So where would universities find these students? Keep in mind that Scottish students from deprived areas who do achieve university entry-level qualifications at school are more likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers – 37%-40% of all pupils that satisfy entry criteria from SIMD20 areas go on to university compared to an equivalent figure of only 30%-33% of all pupils from the most advantaged areas.

Universities did three things. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who had the entry qualifications.  Secondly, they now work harder to get more students from deprived areas to consider a university education. Thirdly, universities have lowered their intake scores for deprived areas. In some cases students are accepted on to courses where they did not meet the entry standard.

What’s the result? The number of students attending university from SIMD20 backgrounds increased by 0.7% last year (yes, 0.7%!) to 14%, but the improvement since 2011 is just under 5%. Not good enough.

To make serious progress, we must do what we should always have done –  invest in education from pre-school to high school. Back in 2012 St Andrews university told the SNP Government what we all know to be true: “Scotland now needs a wide societal effort to build a much more resilient culture of attainment, beginning in the nursery years, and it is time to stop demonising higher education for poor progression rates“.

We must  invest in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, we must reverse SNP cuts to teacher numbers and education spending. Only by doing this can we reverse the decline in literacy and numeracy we have seen in Scotland’s schools. This will give the next generation of Scots the grades they need to get to university and ensure they reach their full potential.

It is time for action. As Kezia Dugdale said last week: The SNP have spent the last eight years tapping their pencil and staring into space on educational inequality. Parents are anxious, teachers are over-worked and stressed. Students are losing out.

I am not a unionist.

Scottish voters are not thick. They recognise that the SNP want independence more than anything else. Labour must be careful not to allow itself to be portrayed as a party which puts “The Union” before all else. Within this context, Kezia Dugdale is correct to say that Labour should focus on its values if it is to recover in Scotland.

The first aim of the SNP, as outlined in its constitution, is “Independence for Scotland”. Secondary to this is “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”. There is nothing about ensuring “wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few” or  delivering “people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power”. These are Labour’s values. These are Scotland’s values.

This is non-trivial. Labour exists to deliver social justice. To tackle poverty. To redistribute opportunity. It does not exist to oppose the Tories and the SNP, or to ensure Scotland remains in the UK. These activities should only be important when they enable Labour to help deliver social justice.

One of the SNP’s great successes over the past year has been its ability to label Scottish Labour as a “unionist party”. It uses this term in a divisive and negative way. In their eyes, Scots must be nationalists or unionists. We must be for Scotland or against it.

Labour must shake this off by sticking to its values. It must promote itself as the party of social justice. The party which fights inequality and defends public services. Sure it wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term.  Staying in the UK is not the objective. It is, quite frankly, a means to an end.

With some hard work, Scots will see that voting is not about unionism versus nationalism. They will see that they have a choice between the ideology of nationalism, the Tory small-state philosophy and Labour’s promise of a fairer Scotland. I know what I’d vote for.

Team EU: The George and Alex Show

We live in interesting times. Alex Salmond wants to campaign hand-in-glove with George Osborne to save the union. Of course, “the union” in question is the European Union.

Mr Salmond finds it unacceptable for Labour to work with the Tories on any issue – even when it reflects the settled will of the Scottish people. However, Mr Salmond deems he can work with the Tories to govern Scots (2007-11) or campaign to stay in the EU. Hypocritical, but perhaps not surprising.

I look forward to hearing Mr Salmond making a positive case for remaining in the EU whilst, no doubt, simultaneously arguing Scotland leaves the UK. Arguments about trade links, pooling resources and shared sovereignty will be fine for the EU, but not for the UK. Hypocritical, but perhaps not surprising.

Any government which has a plan to tackle the attainment gap deserves our support.

Any government which has a plan to tackle inequality by reducing the attainment gap in our education system deserves our support. However, on reading Angela Constance’s thoughts on the issue I am not exactly sure what she plans. Given that her SNP Government has had full control of education in Scotland at all levels since 2007, this is quite concerning.

The context is grim. The authoritative “2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy” found that attainment in Scottish schools has dropped in recent years. Worse than that, the attainment gap between the least and most deprived students has increased in both relative and absolute terms.

Further to this, last year the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSA) noted with concern that the SNP Government was withdrawing Scotland from two key international benchmark studies: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and Trends in International Maths and Science Survey. It remains part of a third study, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which the RSE concluded was of “limited value to an evaluation of a curricular reform” such as we have seen in Scotland. These moves carry all the hallmarks of a government which has no confidence in its own education system.

Indeed, in her speech Ms Constance said “Every school and every local authority must own its attainment gap and take action”. Closing the attainment gap is therefore now the responsibility of our cash-strapped Local Authorities, not her Scottish Government – although I am sure she will take the credit for any success.

To close the attainment gap Ms Constance must invest in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, she must reverse her government’s cuts to teacher numbers and education spending.

It is time for action. As Kezia Dugdale said this week: The SNP have spent the last eight years tapping their pencil and staring into space on educational inequality. Parents are anxious, teachers are over-worked and stressed. Students are losing out.

What does Mhairi Black have to learn from Pete Wishart & Angus Robertson?

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Although I can’t really describe myself as somebody who supports the SNP, I have watched with some interest the exploits of its newly elected MPs. With the support of the SNP press office, they have provided a unique insight into the life of a newly elected MP. Although a sizable minority are career politicians, I don’t doubt the past week has been an adventure for them. One of the defining moments was seeing Mhairi Black enjoy a chip roll (no sauce) on the House of Commons Terrace.

Ms Black enjoys celebrity status due to impolite comments she made in the past which, rightly, were highlighted during the General Election. However, I hope that now that she has been elected she will be given a chance to flourish at Westminster. At only 20 years of age, she has the potential to act as a role model for young people across the UK.

I do, however, wonder about the role models she has been provided with within the SNP group. Yesterday, now that the week of selfies, Irn-Bru and chip rolls is over, we saw two quite unsavoury incidents.

Firstly, in an attempt to occupy a prominent seat, the SNP’s Pete Wishart organised a rota of SNP MPs to prevent Dennis Skinner taking up his normal place. This smacked of an overgrown schoolboy who had nothing better to do with his time. If the SNP want to oppose the Tories, they should work with Dennis Skinner not against him.

Secondly, it was remarkable that during the debate regarding the election of the Speaker all but one of those who spoke exuded good humour, self-deprecation and respect for their political opponents. The exception was the SNP’s Angus Robertson – he was happier being triumphalist and making points at the expense of others whilst repeating election rhetoric.

If Ms Black is to do well, and I am sure she will, she should select her role models carefully.

A note to Mr McCluskey

Len McCluskey has threatened that his union, Unite, could take their funding from Labour to another political party. Picture: Getty Images

Unite’s Len McCluskey deserves great credit for his support of the working class in these islands. However, his threat to move support from Scottish Labour to the SNP can’t be classed as part of that.

To understand his folly, Mr McCluskey need look no further than UNISON’s “The Cuts Don’t Work” report. It outlines how the SNP have cut £2.5b from public sector funding via the Council Tax freeze. This attack on the services councils provide has disproportionately benefitted the wealthy – Scots in Band H homes save on average £441 per year while those in the cheapest homes save only £147 a year. Those on welfare don’t benefit at all, but see the services they use cut.

In addition to this, the SNP worked hand in glove with the Tories to block a pay rise for low paid staff in public contracts – they voted against the living wage five times.

The SNP is also not helping the working class get the education they need to demand a good wage in the workplace. Under the SNP Scotland is playing catch-up in early years education, literacy is falling, we have 4000 fewer teachers, college places have been cut and the grant for the poorest students slashed.

Under the SNP, Scotland has seen real terms cuts to both health and education, whilst at the same time the Tories, despite all of their flaws, have increased spending on these key public services in England. Furthermore, the SNP has dramatically increased private sector involvement in the NHS.

The private sector is growing elsewhere – on the 1st of June the Scottish Government will move the Forth Road Bridge out of democratic control and into the hands of an Oxford based company. Jobs are threatened.

Furthermore, Mr McCluskey should remember that it was Labour and Unite that together demanded that the SNP undertake an inquiry into worker blacklisting in Scotland. Not only did the SNP block the request, they awarded contracts to some of the companies involved.

These attacks on the working class and the public services they rely on have been opposed by the Labour movement in Scotland.  One could argue about the effectiveness of that resistance, but it will not be improved if Mr McCluskey gives up the fight and joins the opposition.