Predatory capitalism has no place in Scotland.

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It is important to note that Michelle Thomson MP appears not to be the focus of the police investigation stemming from irregularities the Scottish Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal may have uncovered (report, 30-09-15). Indeed, Thomson is clear that she has “always acted within the law”.

However, whilst   Ms Thomson’s actions may well have been legal, this does not mean they are morally acceptable. Her company, M&F Property Solutions, targeted people who were desperate and exploited that vulnerability.  In one reported case, a 77 year old pensioner undergoing cancer treatment reluctantly sold her property to Thomson’s business partner for £65,000 – it was sold on the same day for £95,000. In another reported example a pensioner felt “preyed upon” when he found he’d sold his property for £25,000 less than it was worth. Thomson bragged online about buying properties at “hugely discounted rates”.

Vulnerable people need to be supported, not exploited. That’s the way society works. The kind of predatory capitalism Michelle Thomson has been involved in may well be legal, but it has no place in Scotland.

These are clearly serious allegations about an SNP MP who leads business policy decision making in the party. Are we really to believe that the people of Edinburgh West would have voted from Michelle Thomson if they had known about how her business had been operated? Can she now credibly support constituents with mortgage problems given her history?

We need full disclosure from the people at the very top of the SNP about who knew what and when. If the SNP are serious about delivering social justice in Scotland they must also now permanently remove her from the party.  This will send a clear message that predatory capitalism has no place in Scotland.

Sign the petition to have Michelle Thomson stand down.  

Really – Flags Don’t Build Houses.

JC House

It looks like Labour has a UK leader that understands Scotland and, judging by the response, Scotland understands him. By distancing himself from the SNP’s shallow class politics, Jeremy Corbyn is showing he understands that Labour’s recovery will not be about rich versus poor, but that it is about convincing everyone that social justice is in their interest.

Corbyn was clear that “flags don’t build houses” and the SNP’s record in government shows he is correct – The last Scottish Labour Government built  5,000 social housing units per year, whereas the SNP have managed just 3,500 annually, but have waved flags a lot.

He was also critical of the SNP’s management of the ScotRail franchise where in 2008 they awarded it to First Group without consultation as doing otherwise would harm their shareholders.  In 2014 the SNP Government refused to delay the franchise allocation by a few months – a move that would have allowed them to bring the service back into public ownership. Eventually, the SNP gave franchise to a company owned by the Dutch government. This was despite an earlier pledge to run ScotRail as a not-for-profit trust.

The Labour leader’s comments on CalMac were also insightful as it took industrial action and a concerted campaign across the Labour Movement  to force the SNP Government to bring the tendering process to a position where the rights of the workforce were properly respected.

So whilst Corbyn’s comments were brief, he has shown he understands the nature of the SNP  Government. Adding to this, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has told his party’s conference that voters in Scotland who are against austerity should “come home to Labour“. These remarks will not have gone unheard amongst former Labour voters and that will be a real concern to the SNP hierarchy.

Indeed, the SNP’s Angus Robertson MP was left to draw upon pre-election SNP rhetoric by pointing out that Labour had signed up to the UK Government’s “Charter for Budget Responsibility” (CBR). He has clearly forgotten that after the election Nicola Sturgeon accepted that the CBR allows the UK Government “flexibility to increase spending over its current plans, while still reducing the deficit” – ie  it is compatible with the SNP economic “plan”.

Perhaps Mr Robertson should have just waved a saltire?

Can Nicola Sturgeon blow the independence whistle loud enough to distract from her party’s record in government?

I have long accepted the fact that women are better at multi-tasking than men. However, even accepting this fact, one has to be impressed by Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to demand that Scottish Labour backs her call for a second independence referendum whilst simultaneously refusing to commit to one in her own party’s manifesto.

Talk of a second referendum is a change for Ms Sturgeon as over the past year she has largely been a moderate nationalist voice who sought simply to run a competent government, whilst her predecessor  was left feeding titbits to the hard-core.

The reason for this is clear – the SNP must blow the independence whistle loudly to distract much of its new left-leaning support from what is happening in Scottish Labour. Under Kezia Dugdale’s leadership, Scottish Labour has at long last got its act together. The party’s confidence in promoting its core values is credible. In addition to this, it is doing a competent job of holding the SNP Government to account over its real failures in healthcare, policing and education.

Just this week Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray MSP put forward a motion calling for Holyrood to commit to additional literacy specialists in schools funded from a 50p tax rate for the very highest earners when power over income tax  becomes devolved. The motion was blocked by the SNP working “hand in glove” with the Tories. Within minutes social media was awash with nationalists expressing incredulity. Labour had forced the SNP’s mask to slip.

Ms Sturgeon knows that this change in Scottish Labour, coupled with Jeremy Corbyn’s election, is showing Scots day-by-day that there is a credible progressive alternative to the regressive centrist platform cloaked in a tartan left wing veneer so loved by the SNP.  The only uncertainty remaining is whether or not Ms Sturgeon can blow the independence whistle loud enough to distract from her party’s record in government.

Policing in Edinburgh: The public pay the price for SNP cuts and mismanagement

Residents of the Greenend Estate claim to have been plagued by break-ins. Picture: Toby Williams

There was something nightmarish about the story of the car that crashed off the M9 and lay in a field for 3 days with its occupants trapped inside. What makes the story particularly worrying is the fact that the police were made aware of the incident and failed to act. The control room near Edinburgh which took the call about the M9 crash has a workforce absence rate of 10% and over half of the employees have applied for redundancy. Although the M9 incident is far more serious, it is similar to the reports that the police in Scotland no longer investigate many break-ins as it is “not a good use of time”.

This comes within the context of year-on-year cuts to Police Scotland’s budget, £64million this year alone, which resulted in the loss of around 800 police staff. The only way Sir Stephen House, the outgoing Chief Constable, can deliver the further cuts asked by the SNP Government is via what he terms “extreme measures”.

This situation is driven by the SNP decision to merge Scotland’s eight existing police forces simply to cut the policing budget. Since then several regional police control rooms have been shut to achieve redundancies. Indeed, these SNP cuts have been so successful that the Tories are thinking of emulating them.

The Police Scotland budget cuts have been exacerbated by the way in which the force was re-organised. Despite warnings from Unison and Scottish Labour, the SNP Government proceeded to implement an accounting structure which resulted in Police Scotland being billed for an additional £23m in VAT.

To maintain the police numbers and balance the budget, Police Scotland must cut administrative posts and have police officers take on more paperwork. This is not new – even before Police Scotland was formed the SNP were boasting that they’d appointed “1000 new officers”, but failed to mention that half these officers took the place of 972 sacked civilian workers. Unison’s George McIrvine: Police officers being paid around £35,000 a year are now doing the jobs previously performed by civilian specialists on £25,000.

The impact of these cuts has not been trivial. In Edinburgh, station closures and the abandonment of anti-burglary teams has coincided with a massive spike in house break-ins. In August it was reported that there were 2480 break-ins reported to police in Edinburgh in the preceding year to 1953 in the previous 12 month period – a rise of over a quarter. Other reports suggest that housebreaking doubled in Edinburgh in the first three months of 2015. Keep in mind that Edinburgh (Balerno specifically) already topped the league for house break-ins and that they had already risen by 40%. 40%!

So what has changed in Edinburgh that led to an increase in burglaries? For starters, 10 police stations were closed. My nearest police station in Oxgangs has been replaced with a weekly one hour session in a local library – this serves tens of thousands of people in Colinton, Bonaly, Oxgangs, Firrhill, Swanston, Buckstone, Fairmilehead, Dreghorn and Redford barracks and a substantial part of the Pentland Hills Regional Park.

In addition to reducing the profile of law enforcement in Edinburgh, Police Scotland also made a series of changes which Ian Murray MP termed “Glasgowising“. This saw methods of policing tried and tested in Edinburgh rejected for a “one size fits all” Scotland-wide approach. A key move in Edinburgh was to disband the dedicated housebreaking team only to re-establish it in December 2013 as “Operation RAC” due to public outcry. Although the police have worked tirelessly, progress has been slow due to the amount of ground that was lost when the housebreaking team was disbanded.

Whilst progress in dealing with house break-ins has been slow, the general crime clear up rate has been taking huge steps backwards. Like much of the western world, general crime in Scotland has fallen substantially. However, even police Scotland concede that their clear-up dates are not improving significantly. Indeed, the average police officer is now clearing up about eight crimes per year, down from 12 per year since the SNP was elected.

Responding to public concern, both Ian Murray MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP have made repeated calls for a return to locally accountable policing in Edinburgh. Despite also having their budget cut, Edinburgh’s Labour led council has set aside £2.8m to fund gaps in policing in Edinburgh. The money will fund 41 officers to work closer to communities. Labour’s Councillor Cammy Day is clear: “It’s what people have asked for. They need to know who they can talk to and who is their local contact, so having the named officers will really help.”

The top-down changes to policing is not unique to Edinburgh. The summer has seen controversy over armed policing, real concern about the abuse of stop and search powers and a collapse in police morale. In July the SNP Government was referred to the UN by the Scottish Human Rights Commission over the use of stop and search powers.

Throughout all of this the SNP Government asserted that these are “operational matters” which Police Scotland should address, but failed to accept it was time to look again at how policing is funded and organised in Scotland. The catalyst for change proved to be the deaths on the M9. This ultimately forced Sir Stephen House, the Police Scotland Chief Constable, to resign. Immediately following this the SNP gave into pressure and committed to an overhaul of how Scotland’s national police force is run and said the new Chief Constable would have to attend “local public scrutiny sessions”. Time will tell what this actually means.

Scottish Labour has consistently raised concerns about the oversight, funding and operation of Police Scotland. A key voice has been Graeme Pearson MSP, Labour’s Justice spokesman and former “top cop” who understands how policing works. He has raised concerns about political oversight of Police Scotland, in particular the claim by the Scottish Police Federation that “targets designed to give politicians control over police activity” were at the centre of much of the difficulties. Pearson has undertaken to complete his own independent review of policing in Scotland and will be holding meetings around Scotland to speak to rank and file officers, civilian staff, community groups and victim support staff. The review will look at: local accountability, relationship between Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority and SNP ministers; staffing; and, targets. This review will then feed into Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto.

Corbyn forces Sturgeon to play her #indyref2 card early.

Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn

Labour, the UK’s largest political party, has elected a left wing leader by a landslide. This is not a revolution, but a giant evolutionary step forward. Even those on the right recognise that Jeremy Corbyn  has offered many hope where there was none, and that policies such as reducing student debt and nationalising the railways are hugely popular right across the UK’s political spectrum.

Kezia Dugdale was one of the first people to meet Jeremy Corbyn after his election, and he has made it clear that he will support her in her efforts to rebuild Scottish Labour. When he visits Scotland in the coming days I fully expect that he will call on the SNP to work with him in Westminster to oppose the Tories by winning arguments, not playing games in parliament. However, I very much doubt he’ll have much time for the SNP’s woeful Holyrood record on education, policing and the NHS.

As positive as many people are about the impact on inequality Jeremy Corbyn  can have has a conviction politician,  the very last thing the SNP hierarchy want is for the news agenda to be dominated by jubilant left wingers supporting his agenda.  This is because Jeremy Corbyn’s vision is not the regressive centrist platform cloaked in a tartan left wing veneer so loved by the SNP, but something which is genuinely focussed on delivering social justice in every corner of the UK. This is a real threat to the SNP’s dominance.

To distract the SNP’s core support from Jeremy Corbyn’s positive agenda, Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to play her referendum card early. By talking up the chances of a second referendum in the near future, she simultaneously reassures hard-core nationalists whilst keeping on side those on the left who reluctantly see the SNP as the necessary means to deliver a socialist Scotland once independence is gained.

Whilst the SNP may have been successful in moving the agenda back on to the ground they are comfortable with, I am hopeful that the rebalancing of politics across the UK will expose their record in government to forensic scrutiny by the Scottish public.