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.

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Is this the stronger voice Scotland voted for?

Angus Robertson is correct to state that the SNP have an opportunity to act as a real opposition to David Cameron’s Conservative Government. I genuinely hope that in key votes they will constructively support the Labour party in its efforts to undermine David Cameron’s slender majority.

However, I am a little uncertain about what issues the SNP will oppose the Conservatives on. This weekend David Cameron confirmed that the Conservatives will soon give Westminster an opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act – a move which will reintroduce fox hunting in England. The SNP’s stated position is to abstain as this is an English only issue.

This is the first of many issues where the SNP will be torn between their nationalist ideology, populism and a strong moral argument – what is most important to them? Over the next five years Scotland will see no opposition to the Tories from the SNP on issues they judge not to impact directly on Scotland. For example, will they abstain if the Bedroom Tax increases in England?

This position the SNP has adopted on the Hunting Act also highlights the extent to which the SNP would have backed a minority Labour government. It is now very clear that the SNP would have abstained on a whole range of Labour’s plans to tackle poverty in England.

Is this the stronger voice Scotland voted for?

The SNP Lacks Credibility on the Attainment Gap.

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One of the great contradictions of contemporary Scottish politics is the emphasis the nationalists have placed on tackling inequality despite having done virtually nothing to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

The Scotsman today suggests there is some movement in the SNP on this issue and, after eight years in power, they will adopt a successful Labour education policy.

However, I am unsure that this initiative alone will be enough. Authoritative analysis by Unison has estimated that the council tax freeze has cost £2.5 billion and thousands of job losses in local authorities – this has had a direct impact on every state school in Scotland. Class sizes are rising and Scotland has 4275 fewer teachers. In addition to this, our colleges have been cut and university students from poor backgrounds receive the worst grant in Western Europe.

These cuts have taken place to enable the SNP to deliver populist policies which in many cases have also worsened economic inequality as well as the attainment gap. For example, the council tax freeze gives an annual saving in Band A of  £60, or 0.3% of net household income, compared with £370, or 0.8% of net household income, for Band H residents. This is good news for those living in mansions, but those on low incomes face high costs for everything from school meals to people with learning difficulties being charged for access to day centres.

Let’s get serious about the attainment gap. Let’s tackle educational inequality from pre-school to university. Let’s fund it by having the wealthiest Scots pay a fair share, not cutting service to the vulnerable in Scotland.

Stamp Duty – SNP and Tories Race to the Bottom

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Throughout the ongoing  constitutional debate in Scotland we have been warned of the danger associated with a “race to the bottom”. This is a socio-economic phenomenon in which competing governments cut   taxes in order to attract or retain economic activity or win votes in their jurisdictions with the result of disadvantaging the poorest in society.

Late last year the Scottish Government announced the LBTT would replace Stamp Duty and that it would make it easier to buy properties up to £325,000 in value. Soon afterwards the UK Government undercut the Scottish Government with changes to Stamp Duty – making it even cheaper to buy a  £325,000 house. The report in the Herald today explains that the latest round of one-upmanship involves the Scottish Government spending a further £60m on cutting LBTT. The race to the bottom has come to Scotland.

Scotland’s 50,000 homeless and the further 50,000 living in overcrowded accommodation must be reassured that the tax payable on purchasing a £325,000 home has dropping so rapidly!

The SNP’s £100m for Elderly Care

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Professor Donaldson was correct to be sceptical about the announcement by the Scottish Government that £100m will be spent over the next three years to deal with the crisis in elderly care in yesterday’s Herald.

Scotland has had three health minsters in three years. In 2012 the number of trainee nurses was cut significantly. In 2013 the RCN warned of intolerable stress levels in the Scottish NHS and that health services are only managing to meet demand because of nurses willing to go the extra mile for free. In 2014 we learned from the IFS that the Scottish Government had cut real terms spending on the health by 1.2%, whilst the UK Government had increased spending by 4.4%. At the turn of the year, we learned that 1,200 NHS beds had been cut in two years.

Of the £100m announced by Ms Robison, only one third is new money – derived  from Barnett consequentials. The additional funding will come from existing health budgets over the next two years.

The implicit question underlying the move is how much of the £100m will be spent on quietly moving elderly care from the public to the private sector?

The SNP’s Trident Folly

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David Torrance ably points out in his opinion piece in The Herald today that more Scots support Trident than oppose it. I am largely undecided on the issue, but his observation does highlight the folly of the Nationalist position.

When Nicola Sturgeon made Trident removal a “red line” issue, she was essentially saying it was more important than dealing with food banks, welfare sanctions and the redistribution of wealth and opportunity in Scotland. Cynics would say that this is because the SNP cannot flank Labour on the left on these and other issues, whereas Trident is a policy conflict which can be exploited.

Indeed, the news that the SNP have organised a commons debate on Trident speaks volumes. Surely Scots, not least the SNP’s new left-wing members, would have been better served by a debate about the issues which underpin inequality in the UK, or even one on how the oil industry may be better supported?

Education & Inequality in Scotland

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The link between education and deprivation is clear, the problem is that the there is no short-term solution to deal with it. It requires education to provide opportunities for children from pre-school through to university.

I grew up in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – a council estate in Kirkcaldy during the 1980’s miner’s strike. My route out of that was to work hard at school and go on to complete a degree and eventually a PhD. This solid educational base has led me to a career which has taken me right around the world – from Australia to Brazil, Japan and Dubai.

My experience tells me that education is fundamental to reducing inequality in Scotland and elsewhere in the world. As a lecturer who manages one of the UK’s leading engineering programmes at a Scottish university I continually come across students who must leave university because they simply cannot afford to support themselves.

The Scottish Government deserves great credit for abolishing the £2000 “Graduate Endowment Fee” in 2007 and thereby making higher education fee in Scotland. However, they also halved the grant payable to the very poorest students to the lowest in the EU – £1,750 per year (less than I received from Margaret Thatcher in 1987).  Students from poor backgrounds must now either work long hours or accumulate massive debts.

I recently came across a student from one of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh who as well as studying full-time also managed a supermarket full-time.  He was one of the very best students I have encountered, and was evidence that whilst Scots growing up in poor communities may lack opportunity, but they don’t lack commitment, intelligence or ambition.

What could the SNP bring to a coalition arrangement with Labour?

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There can be little surprise that Ed Miliband has refused to formally rule out a coalition agreement with the SNP. The real question is what could the SNP bring to such an arrangement?

If they had left open the possibility of working with the Conservatives, then they could perhaps have had a stronger bargaining position. Their current position means they’d have to back Labour or be criticised by the Scottish left for letting the Conservatives back into Downing Street. Ed Milliband would have them over a barrel.

Nonetheless, if the SNP say they hope to influence Labour’s policy agenda, they need to outline what they oppose, what their alternative is and how Scotland would benefit. Simply pretending that the SNP’s mere presence in government would “end austerity economics” is fanciful.

Nicola’s lack of leadership on the oil, and how Jim can Benefit

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Euan McColm had a good piece in the Scotland on Sunday today relating to Ms Sturgeon’s lack of leadership on the oil price crash. Of course, the problem the First Minister faces is that the crisis simultaneously highlights the problems associated with an economy overly reliant on oil and also the benefits of Scotland being part of the much larger UK economy. The news that the fall in oil price was not even discussed at the Scottish Cabinet meeting this week confirms this point.

The implicit question posed by McColm concerns Alex Salmond – would he have handled the situation differently? He would have and he did. Mid-week, in order to defend his successor, he tried to move our attention back to the SNP’s obsession – constitutional change. However, his suggestion that “Home Rule” could be won in May’s General Election quickly fell victim to the oil price crash when its was highlighted that it would  mean Scotland would have to shoulder the full impact alone. Mr Salmond may well view that as a price worth paying, but it would be economic madness.

Amongst all this turmoil, Jim Murphy is gaining credibility by showing leadership in the vacuum created by the Scottish Government – he may even have momentum. In my view, he needs to play a subtle game however. He must highlight the SNP’s weakness on oil economics without alienating the left-leaning Yes voters with “I told you so” rhetoric. He needs to keep the focus on public services and the impact the SNP’s oil economics would have on them. He needs to encourage left-leaning Yes voters to judge the SNP on their record, not their constitutional nirvana.