Awkward – The SNP miss Mundell’s Open Goal.

David Mundell MP offered the SNP a massive open goal when he challenged them to outline what changes they’d make to the welfare system if given the opportunity. Any other party would have leapt at the chance to outline their plans to help people back to work and support society’s most vulnerable. Instead, the SNP’s Dr Whiteford was left mumbling about the need for more powers with no idea of how they would be used.

Similarly, on Monday Ian Murray MP gave the SNP an opportunity to have their Full Fiscal Autonomy policy evaluated by a truly independent panel of experts. The backing of such a group would have made Full Fiscal Autonomy all but certain. Rather than backing the proposal, however, the SNP group in Westminster chose to work “hand in glove” with the Tories to block Murray’s amendment. Stuart Hosie MP, the SNP Deputy Leader, had to fall back on nationalist rhetoric to distract his core support –  questioning SNP policy in such a way was “talking Scotland down”.

Both these episodes show that the SNP group in Westminster has no real aim other than to manufacture grievances in order to bring Scotland closer to a second decisive referendum.   Is this the stronger voice for Scotland we were promised?

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Widening access to Scottish universities.

As somebody who grew up in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, I welcome any measure which gives students from poor background a fairer chance of accessing university. Indeed, as somebody who works in a Scottish university and runs one of the UK’s top engineering programmes I know the challenges students from poor backgrounds face.

The problem universities face, however, is that schools serving deprived areas are simply not producing enough students to enable universities to meet the aspirations of SNP Government. A situation which is set to worsen if the real drop in literacy and numeracy standards in Scotland is evidenced in S5 and S6 exams results.

Universities have responded to this in three ways. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who have 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 to below the minimum acceptable. This approach has had some success, but access to university in Scotland still lags far behind the rest of the UK and the drop-out rate is a challenge.

Whilst Universities Scotland has announced a welcome enhancement to this approach, it does not address the real problem – schools in deprived areas are not producing sufficient numbers of students which meet the entry criteria.

The real solution is obvious – we must invest in our most vulnerable communities. In the short-term, the SNP Government’s significant cuts to the grant for poor students must be reversed. Above all else, however, we must reverse SNP Government’s 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.

Tolerance, pluralism and respect guides the politics of the SNP grassroots.

I welcome Nicola Sturgeon’s recognition that some of her party members are abusive and intolerant. As somebody who is politically active, I have seen this abuse first hand.

The very first referendum event I took part in involved distributing leaflets at Waverley station with 10-15 other people ranging from students to senior citizens. We quite quickly discovered that a pro-independence website  had asked its nationalist readership to photograph us.

My next brush with the ugly face of nationalism came when I was in the audience of a TV debate. During the show I was given the opportunity to ask John Swinney about the poor record of the SNP in funding the NHS. Within 24 hours a pro-independence website had dedicated a page to me – including details of where I work and my contact details. Almost immediately, I was being emailed abuse by “cybernats”, with some even asking my employer to sack me.

My story is not unusual. The final months of the referendum campaign saw many people like me being attacked simply for daring to express an opinion, with those perpetrating the attacks often hiding behind anonymous internet accounts.

The intimidation of those who dare to question the SNP did not end with the referendum. I saw this first hand when I attended a Labour rally in Glasgow. Outside the venue there was a nationalist mob, at least some of whom were SNP party members. Intimidation was their tactic. They angrily waved saltires, screamed “Red Tories Out” and swore in the faces of those attending the event. One protester took a close-up picture of every single person who entered the venue – men, women and children.

My most recent encounter with cybernats came during a BBC debate in Edinburgh where I had a chance to make a legitimate point to Nicola Sturgeon about her party voting against the living wage. Almost instantly I was being attacked online as a “Labour Nazi” and “henchman” who had been “planted in the audience”. Not one of the dozens of comments mentioned the living wage.

These experiences tell me that Ms Sturgeon must do more to control her support and ensure tolerance, pluralism and respect guides the politics of the SNP grassroots.

Let’s make local authority taxation a test for Scottish Labour.

It is reassuring to hear that the Council Tax freeze featured in the Scottish Labour Leadership hustings in Edinburgh between Kezia Dugdale and Ken McIntosh.  In the 2010 election campaign the Labour leadership lost the debate on the Council Tax freeze and found itself backing the SNP’s own version of austerity. Now is the time to revisit this.

The impact of the SNP freezing Council Tax since 2007 should not be underestimated. In her recent submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee, Edinburgh University’s Lucy Hunter Blackburn estimated the cost of the SNP Council Tax freeze to be £560m in 2015/16 alone. To put that in context, this cut is more than Scotland spends on free personal care for the elderly or college education. This attack on the services councils provide disproportionately benefits 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 cuts to the services they need.

I live in a Band G property so benefit substantially.  However, I am forced to use the money to pay for school text books councils can no longer provide – 22 in total over a two year period. This is fine for my situation, but where do parents in lower band properties find the money to support their children?

So let’s make local authority taxation a test for Scottish Labour. Let’s see if they continue to follow the SNP’s populist attack on local services or if they are prepared to return to Labour values and make an argument for social justice and local democracy.  Ms Dugdale is absolutely correct that the long-term aim must be to reform Council Tax. However, in the short-term, we must end the freeze for higher band properties and invest the money in public services.

Let’s not let the SNP Government blame any staffing problems in NHS Scotland on the UK government’s immigration policy

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is correct to be concerned about the planned change to UK immigration policy. However, the grievance heavy response from the SNP Government leaves one question goes unasked. Why does Scotland need to import nurses from outside the EU which have been trained at great expense to their own government?

The answer is simple – Nicola Sturgeon cut nurse training in Scotland when she was the Scottish Health Secretary. She cut the number of nurses entering training over three years from 3,600 to just 2,430 in 2012/13 claiming that her cuts reflected “emerging employment trends in NHS Scotland”. Indeed, when challenged by the RCN in 2012, Ms Sturgeon claimed her cuts were the “sensible way forward”.  At the time, the RCN was clear that the cuts would result in a real risk that there would “not be enough professionally qualified nurses graduating” between 2015-18.

Events have shown that Ms Sturgeon should have listened to the RCN. In Scotland 75% of nurses think that wards are understaffed and 10% can’t take time away from their ward to undertake mandatory training. In January we found that stress-related sick days among nurses in Scotland had risen by 34%. We have also see that understaffing is at the core of the failure the A&E service to meet waiting time targets in Scotland.

So let’s not let the SNP Government blame any staffing problems in NHS Scotland on the UK government’s immigration policy. The blame lies on their doorstep.

Sir Edward Leigh – The SNP’s new chum.

The SNP policy on Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA) has come under huge stress this week. Firstly, Ian Murray MP tabled a Scotland Bill amendment asking for an independent study into impact of  FFA on public services in Scotland. Following this, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland have all questioned the SNP’s hesitance on the issue and cited the IFS report which estimated that FFA would result in £10b of cuts.

It is within this context that the SNP have now said, after weeks of indecision, they will put forward a Scotland Bill amendment asking for FFA (report, 11/06/15). Not only have the SNP no independent analysis to show the policy is in Scotland’s interest, key MPs in their ranks have described FFA variously as  “economic suicide”, “a silly thing to do” and a “disaster”.

The next steps will be interesting. It may be that “hand in glove” support for the SNP amendment will come from UKIP and right-wing Tory MPs. Indeed, Sir Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough, said this week “There is a good Conservative case to be made for full fiscal autonomy, because it would breed responsibility.”

There is therefore now a real risk that the SNP could deliver this policy which is not in Scotland’s interest. This Pyrrhic victory would come at huge costs to Scotland’s public services. Even by tabling the amendment, the SNP are confirming that their nationalist ideology must come before reducing inequality and protecting public services in Scotland.

With the SNP at 60% in the polls, Labour must regain the trust of voters to recover.

With the news that support for the SNP in Scotland has risen to 60%, it is beginning to feel that we are part of a social experiment where normal rules do not apply.

The SNP won 50% of the General Election vote in Scotland after running a campaign based on one person’s personality and policies everyone accepts were stolen from Scottish Labour. Since then their new cohort of MPs have rightly received a great deal of positive coverage and public expectations remain high.

Whilst this honeymoon period may explain a rise in the polls, the recent performance of the SNP Government in Scotland does not. In recent weeks in Scotland we have seen that the SNP run education system is under real stress. Childcare is failing parents. Literacy is falling. There have been problems with exams and students from poor areas are failing to get proper access to university.

In addition to the problems in Education, this week we found that the SNP have missed their own A&E waiting time targets for 295 weeks and this comes despite reports that at least one health board is manipulating the data. Further to this we have seen real problems in Police Scotland and our local authorities.

So the question must be why is support growing for the SNP when so much of what they control is failing? Why do normal rules do not apply? One could blame the media or accuse the SNP blaming others for their problems. However, I feat the other political parties in Scotland must accept some of the blame.

At least some of the support the SNP have gained must be due to the fact that the electorate does not trust the opposition parties in general and Labour specifically.

How can Labour recover trust? Firstly, it must be proud of what it has achieved. It must remind Scots that it doubled NHS funding, took 200,000 people out of poverty and introduced the minimum wage. Secondly, it must built a policy platform around social justice and do all it can, including accepting support from the SNP, to deliver it.

Full Fiscal Autonomy (again)

Scotland spends more than it earns and has done so for 19 of the past 20 years. On average, Scotland’s deficit has been bigger than the rest of the UK for at least 10 years.  These are incontrovertible facts that can’t be found  in any SNP manifesto.

This fiscal position is why Labour  argued against the SNP policy of Full Fiscal Autonomy. It also explains why the SNP is now so cool on the policy. By distancing themselves from Full Fiscal Autonomy the SNP are confirming that independence would have had a brutal impact on public services in Scotland. They are signalling that they accept that it is in Scotland’s benefit to pool and share resources with the rest of the UK.

Indeed, Full Fiscal Autonomy is increasingly looking like a policy designed to placate hard-core nationalists who believe that more powers must be attained any cost to health, education and welfare in Scotland.

Whether this is correct or not, Full Fiscal Autonomy did dominate the SNP election campaign. As such, the SNP have a duty to seek to deliver it via the Scotland Bill and win support from the Tory benches. The Tories may jump at the chance of cutting the deficit by £10b and, if so, the SNP will have won a pyrrhic victory for their hard-core supporters.

Local democracy is key to tackling Scotland’s problems

Lesley Riddoch makes many good points in The Scotsman today, but she is wrong to suggest that the size of our local authorities is their key flaw. The issue is inadequate resources and powers. The current SNP Government has disregarded local democracy and taken  the centralisation of powers to the extent that our local authorities no longer even set their own budgets. The SNP Government have slashed council budgets and left our hard working councillors only with the power to decide which services must be cut. The SNP Government then blame local authorities for out failing schools, potholed roads and closed libraries.

As Ms Riddoch suggests, we must use the Holyrood 2016 elections as an opportunity to rebalance the relationship between our communities, local authorities and Holyrood. Our hard working councillors must be given the power to make a difference. They know where investment in housebuilding and job creation is best targeted better than any SNP Minister with a centralising  “one size fits all” mentality which often turns out to be “one size fits none”.

There is hope. In recent weeks Labour’s Ian Murray MP has outlined two key areas where powers should move straight from Westminster  to our local authorities.  He wants to see the devolution of the Work Programme from Westminster to Scottish local authorities as they, not SNP or Tory Ministers, are best placed to target the support needed by people in our communities who are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed.

Further to this, Mr Murray has outlined how Labour will also propose that Housing Benefit be included in the Scotland Bill. By giving this £1.9b budget to local authorities they can start moving money from the pockets of private landlords and invest it in social housing.

These policies show that Labour, in the spirit of John Smith and Donald Dewar, is committed to strong local government with real powers to deliver social justice in our communities. The Lib-Dems and the Greens support this philosophy, but we have work to do before May 2016 convincing SNP and the Tories that local democracy is key to tackling Scotland’s problems.

The Ugly Face of Nationalism in Scotland

I grew up in a single parent family in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland during the Thatcher years. 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 will 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.

The very first event I took part in involved distributing leaflets at Waverley station with 10-15 other people ranging from students to senior citizens. We quite quickly discovered the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland had asked its nationalist readership to photograph us. Although this was not illegal, many of the volunteers did find it intimidating.

My next brush with the ugly side of nationalism came when I was in the audience of a TV debate. During the show I was given the opportunity to ask John Swinney about the poor record of the SNP in funding and managing the NHS. Within 24 hours Wings Over Scotland had dedicated a page to me – including details of where I work, my email address and telephone number. Almost immediately, I was being emailed abuse by “cybernats”, with some even asking my employer to sack me.

The article on Wings Over Scotland was fantasy. It ranged from saying I had been planted in the audience to claiming I had tried to pass myself off to the BBC as an undecided voter. As these arguments fell apart the content was removed, but I received no apology. Eventually all that remained is text suggesting that I had sinister motives for openly having 3 Twitter accounts (work, personal & referendum). I can’t set the record straight on this as Wings Over Scotland offers no right of reply.

My story is not unusual. The final six months of the referendum campaign saw many people like me being attacked simply for daring to express an opinion. Just as with me, the attacks are hate filled and often simply designed to humiliate and intimidate, with those perpetrating the attacks often hiding behind anonymous internet accounts. Sad.

The intimidation of those who dare to question the SNP did not end with the referendum. I saw this first hand when I attended a Labour rally in Glasgow last month where Jim Murphy was due to speak alongside Ed Miliband, Margaret Curran and Kezia Dugdale. Outside the leisure centre where the event was taking place a sizeable mob of nationalist protesters, at least some of whom were SNP party members, had formed to welcome those attending the event.

Intimidation was their tactic. They angrily waved saltires, screamed “Red Tories Out” and swore in the faces of those attending the event and families intending to use the swimming pool. One protester took a close-up picture of every single person who entered the venue – men, women and children. Worst of all, I saw one nationalist make a sexual gesture towards a young female Labour Party supporter.

The irony of chanting “Red Tories Out” when Labour is not actually in power in Westminster or Holyrood was clearly lost on this humourless bunch. Likewise, the fact that the SNP apparently wants to work with Labour.

Inside the venue most people were bemused by the protest and grateful for the sizeable police presence. However, some people were clearly shaken and fearful. Children were crying. Personally, I felt a little disappointed that a group driven by hatred and bitterness, not a love for Scotland, were intimidating people whilst waving my country’s flag.

My most recent encounter with cybernats came on Sunday. During the BBC debate in Edinburgh I had a chance to make a legitimate point to Nicola Sturgeon about her party voting against the living wage five times. Almost instantly I was being attacked online as a “Labour Nazi” and “henchman” who had been “planted in the audience”. Not one of the dozens of comments mentioned the living wage.

I fundamentally believe in freedom of speech. I also have no problem with politicians being heckled where they are avoiding questions or misleading people – it is part of our political culture. However, there is a stark contrast between heckling and shouting people down. Furthermore, the type of personal abuse we are increasingly seeing directed at ordinary Scots by nationalists is sickening. I absolutely accept that the SNP do not organise these attacks on our streets or online, but I also believe that Nicola Sturgeon could do more to stop them. The SNP’s involvement in the attacks against Charlie Kennedy should have been a trigger for action by Nicola Sturgeon.  The same could also be said about the comments made by and Michelle Mone.

Even in my own constituency of Edinburgh South the choice in the General Election was between Labour’s Ian Murray, who was attacked by Wings Over Scotland after he mentioned his office was vandalised by nationalists, and an SNP candidate personally endorsed by Nicola Sturgeon who was exposed as using an anonymous internet account to insult people. You can guess who I voted for.