Answers for a Better Way

On the eve of the STUC Congress Dave Moxham looks at the questions we set the two potential First Ministers, suggests what their answers should be and puts forward other ideas they should be backing.

At the time of writing STUC is preparing for what I believe will prove to have been the biggest trade union led demonstration for a generation, with hundreds of thousands of workers, students and people from all walks of life coming together to march for an alternative.  STUC’s own There is a Better Way campaign will be the major issue at our Congress with motions looking to develop our response around job creation, defence of public services, fair taxation and fair pay.  Congress will also consider its options in relation to further mobilisation of Scotland’s communities and the appropriate co-ordination industrially to the threats we face.

In circumstances where the key fiscal levers lie with Westminster and the central policy is austerity backed by welfare cuts and attacks on trade unions it would be tempting, but wrong, to focus all our energies south of the border. The role adopted by government in campaigning for “The Better Way” is vital.  Whether at Scottish Government or local government, STUC expects that leadership will be shown through continually arguing and mobilising for policy alternatives and through implementing policies locally and nationally which are consistent with this approach.

All parties contesting the Scottish election must retain perspective on the roots and causes of the current economic crisis.  The failure of neo-liberal globalisation and international regulation are manifest and can be laid at no single government’s door; however neither the previous Labour Government at Westminster nor the current Scottish Government can be absolved of blame.

In the election and despite the manifestly embarrassing position they find themselves in, Liberals in Scotland will be forced to heap opprobrium on the former Labour Government and hope against hope that their current Coalition position will be forgiven – or accepted as inevitable.  This is unlikely to happen.  For their part, the Tories will require considerable Chutzpah to defend austerity madness but their options are few and it can be expected that attacks launched on the public sector and universality down south will take up much of their time in Scotland during April. From the relative safety of opposition, the Greens are advocating a number of sustainable and progressive policies which will merit serious consideration, irrespective of the party’s electoral success.

Which leaves us with the SNP and Labour. It is one of the more pleasing aspects of Scottish politics – and some would argue its voting system – that how ‘the left’ votes still matters to the outcome of Scottish elections.  Thus the question posed of party leaders by Scottish Left Review – and a few others which STUC would add – represent an important political battleground.

Will you continue to block the transfer of functions from the NHS to private commercial organisations and will you apply the same principle to local government and other areas of public service?
STUC will argue that within a framework of mixed provision, directly delivered, directly accountable, public services must remain the primary delivery mechanism and privatisation opposed.  Within this framework the voluntary sector can and must play a limited yet vibrant and innovative role.

The next part of Government will be influenced to some extent by the findings of the Christie Commission. STUC hopes that that Commission will establish some important principles about models of public service delivery. Too many in the political class have fallen into the trap of confusing challenges to increasing productivity in personal services generally, with the idea that public services, specifically, are inefficient. Thus, whilst privatisation has generally been disdained at Scottish government level, local authorities have been liberated to pursue a hotchpotch of delivery models with varying levels of private sector involved.  Procurement regulations make it difficult to pursue a genuinely mixed provision of delivery between public and voluntary sectors without opening up the market to private sector dominance.  But whilst public services must remain the primary delivery mechanism, the voluntary sector can and must play a vibrant and innovative role based on contracting which guarantees and sustains equal pay and other conditions of employment for third sector workers.

Will you keep Scottish Water in public ownership as at present?
All parties should commit to public ownership, explicitly oppose back door privatisation through mutualisation, PFI or contracting out of services.  The new Government should then investigate how it goes about enhancing and democratising the current publicly owned model.

Will you keep open the option of using the tax-raising powers of the Scottish Parliament (including reform of local taxes) to protect jobs and services in Scotland?
The Council Tax Freeze was never a good idea and become increasingly unsustainable as the Scottish Government starved itself of finance (now around £500 million a year) and resorted increasingly to use of ‘smoke and mirrors’ mechanisms to mask the impact on local government and previously ring-fenced funded voluntary organisations. Part of this revenue self-denial was the implementation of the Small Business Bonus Scheme, which the Scottish Government did not even attempt to justify in terms of specific impact with even the Federation of Small Businesses unable to point to positive impacts. It was the turn of Labour to disappoint when the Supermarket Tax was thrown out at the unsubstantiated whim of big business.

All available taxes must be considered and it is to be hoped that the Scotland Act will enable borrowing powers to be introduced as early as possible. A more progressive Council Tax Banding is a must, and potential wider tax reform including business and local taxation must be considered given new fiscal powers proposed in the Scotland Bill.  Above all the tax debate needs to be approached consistently by the parties of the centre left.  Advocating higher public spending (and one presumes taxation) at Westminster while reducing the Scottish tax base is not acceptable.

It is one of the more pleasing aspects of Scottish politics that how ‘the left’ votes still matters to the outcome of Scottish elections.

Will you ask university students or graduates to pay directly for their education?
The expert group, set up by the Scottish Government and Universities Scotland outlined the gap in funding between the English and Scottish higher education sectors. Even given the group’s assumption that the tuition fees introduced in England will provide additional funding for the university sector (a fact disputed by Oxford University which has already stated that it needs £8000 per year tuition fees just to break even) the expert group has estimated that the gap in funding for higher education in Scotland is only between £91 million and £263 million per year. These figures suggest that higher education can be sustained in Scotland without having to resort to a graduate contribution that plunges young people into debt and discourages the poorest from applying.

Will you support a programme to reduce the pay inequality in the public sector and where possible bring pressure on the private sector to do the same?
Both the Scottish Government and Scottish Labour have made meaningful commitments in respect of the Living Wage.  Labour in particular is proposing that the Living Wage should apply at local government level and has made general commitments to pursuing the Living Wage through procurement and through establishing a Living Wage Unit to increase pressure in the private sector.  The commitment from both parties runs counter to the cacophony emanating from business organisations and the Tories down south in favour of reduced wage regulation and attacks on trade union rights.  Establishing greater wage equality in Scotland is a prize which goes just as much to the economic recovery of local communities as it does to fairness.  It therefore requires a narrative – ideally one which is shared by the major political parties – which connects fair pay with sustainable economic growth and is thus robust in the face of the inevitable attacks from business and the right.

What is your vision for Scottish society now that neoliberal economic policies have failed?
Achieving sustainable growth built upon a more equal society requires action to rebalance the Scottish economy and invest in jobs.  Not withstanding the need for major change at UK, European and international level.  Over and above the areas identified by SLR we need policies in Scotland on:

Jobs – Create Scottish Government funded jobs programmes targeted at young people with a particular focus on skills development and Green jobs. Commit to a policy of no compulsory redundancies for public service workers and to pro-active policies to protect skills and jobs. Commit to meaningful ongoing funding for Scottish union learning.

Manufacturing – work with STUC and other stakeholders to develop a modern industrial strategy for Scotland; make manufacturing output and employment growth an explicit aim of economic strategy.
School Education – commit to the necessary resources and teaching staff numbers to deliver on the Curriculum for Excellence and reduce class sizes.

Health – commit to public delivery, early intervention and an NHS funded and delivered occupational health service.
Access to Justice – recognise the role that personal injury claims play in maintaining and improving health and safety and therefore ensure that the importance of a case is not judged by its value so that trade unions can continue to use the Court of Session to raise claims on their members’ behalf and to ensure that Access to Justice is not denied by oppressive and excessive court dues.

Childcare – commit to a step-change in support for childcare.

Housing – explore all available options to facilitate an increase in investment in voluntary sector and direct housing stock.

Ferries – public ownership; retention of the Clyde and Hebrides bundle; no to single route tenders – pledge to revisit costly, inefficient tendering of lifeline services.