General Election 2015

What Are We Gonna Do Now?

So, as it turned out the polls were right about Scotland and the two seats which I was campaigning in, East Lothian and Midlothian couldn’t escape the national trend and both returned SNP MPs.

The SNP are to be congratulated on the result that they’ve achieved.

The  swing to the  SNP across Scotland is unparalleled and their campaign seems to have been played just right.

In the Labour party we’ve had our time to commiserate with our candidates, both  Kenny Young and Fiona O’Donnell  fought what I thought were excellent campaigns. The party in Midlothian and East Lothian was energised as never before and we spoke to thousands of voters.

But ultimately, the harsh reality is that we lost the election in Scotland and wider than that across the UK.

There have been endless comments, discussions as to why the Labour Party in Scotland is where it is today. In this post I’m not offering a definitive answer to that question, it’s just really to record my own experience, some of the discussions I’ve had and some observations on the issues that seem to be emerging:-

  • Post Election Discussions –  The discussion that sticks in my mind the most following the election was with a friend who isn’t a member of any political party.  They take a general interest in politics and vote regularly, usually, but not always for the SNP. So, I wasn’t surprised that the first time I saw them after the election that they confirmed  they had voted SNP, what did surprise me, and I think also surprised them was that aside from me, they didn’t know anyone else who had voted Labour. This is someone in  quite a well paid job and who’s circle of friends includes a number of what would be termed as being in professional occupations. This underlined for me the extent to which the SNP campaign had resonated amongst voters regardless of class or employment status.
  • Brand Politics – As much as we may not like it politics is to some extent about marketing, a great ad campaign will have a memorable slogan, logo, and capture the public imagination. Ring any bells with what we’ve just seen? One measure of the SNPs success can be seen in the way in which some local businesses now think nothing of putting up an SNP poster during the election campaign, or displaying a sticker with the stronger for Scotland slogan. Clearly any concerns that to display your political leanings will lose you business, doesn’t seem to feature as much of a risk.
  • Just because I vote SNP doesn’t mean I want independence’ – I think that it has probably taken a few of us in the Labour party a while to understand this. Back to one of my post-election discussions,  maybe we have spent too long arguing about the constitution, obviously  we have to respond to what our political opponents are saying, but here’s a thought, maybe the SNP are quite happy for us to talk about the constitution, rather than to focus on their record in government? The other issue linked to this is that the SNP are seen by many as being competent at what they do. I think we need to understand this, saying that people have somehow been duped or conned into voting for the SNP is going to divert us from where we should be. We need to win the trust of voters again, show that we are credible as a party through our policies and the way we speak to voters.
  • Create an independent Labour Party – Lots of reasons are being put forward to do this. Personally, this leaves me in something of a quandary. One of the reasons I joined the Labour Party was that it was the party that would fight for social justice throughout the UK and that the expression of that solidarity was that we were a UK-wide party. If we created an independent party are we giving up on that and admitting that boat has sailed?
  • Trade Unions – There’s been quite a bit of talk about the influence unions have on the Labour Party,  in my view our links with the trade union movement are on the whole a positive thing. The latest Office of National Statistics data certainly highlights some of the challenges facing union’s today, but it also demonstrates their successes and diversity. The issues that unions highlight are also issues that we can campaign on and help inform the policies that we want to develop to challenge inequality.

The Scottish Parliament elections are less than a year away, so we don’t have much time for reflection.

Between now and then we need to convince voters with a clear strong message that we are a credible alternative to the SNP.

We also need to set out clearly what we stand for and articulate that in an effective way.

For me that message has to be about challenging inequality and working to make a positive difference to people in their day-to-day lives  – whether that’s through educational opportunities, doing what we can to create better conditions for employment or improving services.

But, we need to set that out in a positive and attractive way with policies that underpin those aspirations.

That’s the campaign I hope to fight in Midlothian North and Musselburgh in these coming months.

GE 2015 – In The Thick of It

This time next week it will all be over and we’ll know what voters have decided. Whether one party has done enough to persuade the public to give them a mandate, or whether no one party has been persuasive enough to win their trust for the next 5 years.

Its been another busy campaign for the Labour Party across East Lothian and Midlothian.

In East Lothian we’ve been out campaigning to re-elect Fiona O’Donnell MP.

Fiona has proven to be a hard-working MP, not afraid to vote with her conscience, as her vote against the re-newel of trident showed. Fiona is someone who party members respect and like. That has been shown throughout the campaign, as members have come out in large numbers to support her.

In Midlothian we’ve been out working to elect Kenny Young.

His enthusiasm, drive and commitment has galvanised the local party and again members have been out in large numbers to support his campaign.

Across both constituencies we’ve seen new and long-standing members, both young and old out campaigning hard, knocking on doors, making phone calls, delivering leaflets and holding street stalls all to support our candidates.

Of course Midlothian and East Lothian doesn’t exist in a bubble and we are all aware of the opinion polls and the accepted wisdom in some parts of the media, old and new, that the Labour Party in Scotland is a dying party.

But seeing the activity, enthusiasm and commitment from party members both here and around the country the view that this is a dying party is one that is hard to reconcile.

In the candidates we have we know that both Fiona and Kenny are dedicated and hard-working and given the opportunity will be committed to serving their constituents.

As party members we’re campaigning on a manifesto, that for many of us,  goes to the heart of why we joined the party, social justice:-

  • Redistribution through fairer taxation –  introduce a 50p tax rate on the top 1%;
  • Creating jobs – by taxing bankers’ bonuses;
  • Tackling working practices that exploit workers – ending zero hour contracts.

And in Ed Miliband we have a leader who has stood up to vested interest, whether that’s been Rupert Murdoch, the power companies, or when it came to it the USA over Syria.

He’s endured a highly personal right-wing media onslaught, yet emerged from it with his reputation enhanced.

The more David Cameron shied away from the public through avoiding the televised debates, the more Ed Miliband occupied that space and engaged with voters.

So, in these last few days before the polls open on Thursday and with a significant number of voters still to make up their minds it would appear that there is still all to play for.

The reality is that only David Cameron or Ed Miliband can walk through the door of number 10 on the 8th May.

I want that to be Ed Miliband – Vote Labour on 7th May.

 

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The Spirit of 1937 – Workers’ Memorial Day 28th April 2015

In 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier was published, this was George Orwell’s vivid account of working class living conditions in Lancashire and Yorkshire prior to World War II. In one section Orwell sets out what happens to a miner if he becomes injured and is unable to work. Back then it was left up to the company that the miner worked for to pay the miner a disability pension, in recognition of the injury that he had sustained.

If the company went bust then that was the end of the pension.

Fast forward a few years to the post World War II Labour government which embarked upon an ambitious programme of social reform, to tackle what the Beveridge Report saw as the five giant evils facing Britain at the time Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness.

The key role Aneurin Bevan played in that government is well known and I’m sure that Bevan’s background in the pits of Tredegar played a part as that Labour government set about tackling Want by introducing a number of reforms, including an industrial injury benefit, as part of its 1946 National Insurance Act.

No longer would those injured at work be dependent on the vagaries of an employer funded injury benefit scheme.

Or, so you might think.

Fast forward again to now – April 2015 and Britain in the midst of one of the most unpredictable general election campaigns ever.

In March, The Guardian carried a story about a leaked report, which set out a range of welfare benefits potentially facing the axe should the Conservatives win in May.

One of the cuts mentioned is the scrapping of industrial injury benefits, in future the cost will be passed on to employers.

Those companies that don’t have an insurance policy will become members of a default scheme and pay a levy to fund it.

It was reported that getting rid of this scheme could save £1bn.

So, in 2015 we could be heading back to the scene Orwell described in 1937.

The most recent official figures show that 629,000 people are injured in the UK as a result of work.

As we approach another International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on the 28th April, the focus of the trade union movement turns to those who have lost their lives or been injured as a result of a workplace incident.

This year the theme is removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace and union health & safety reps will be highlighting risks relating to asbestos, occupational cancer and other risks linked to biological exposure.

Where I live in Musselburgh and Midlothian there was a long tradition of mine working,

I stay a few minutes walk from Prestongrange, now an open-air museum, but up until 1962 a working pit and in Midlothian at Newtongrange, there is the National Mining Museum, on the site of the Lady Victoria Colliery which closed in 1981.

The very nature of long hours spent working underground with exposure to coal dust, meant that there was a risk of developing Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) sometimes called ‘Black Lung’. This disease can take a long time to develop, up to 10 years from first exposure before someone shows symptoms and although the pits around me closed some years ago, in 2011 there were 265 newly assessed cases of CWP recognised under the Industrial Injuries and Disablement Benefit Scheme.

Other diseases linked to exposure to coal dust such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema are recognised as prescribed diseases for coal miners and some figures suggest that there could be around 4,000 occupational COPD deaths currently each year in Britain.

So, although the coal industry in this country is now largely in the past, we should not forget those affected today by their time spent working underground, nor the valuable role that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) continues to play in supporting and representing former miners in winning compensation.

Of course the daily struggle to improve working conditions in the mining industry continues around the globe.

Come the next IWMD, we’ll be nearly a year into the first term of the new government elected this May and my hope is that there won’t be a need for any latter day George Orwell’s to be writing a new version of On The Road to Wigan Pier, where a Tory government has been elected and is systematically dismantling what Nye Bevan helped to create all those years ago.

There are a number of events held throughout the UK on 28th April to commemorate  IWMD including Edinburgh, Glasgow and the event I’ll be going along to in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian for a full list see here.

Facing the Future

A few months ago, during a conversation with one of my friends, the subject of university came up.  We both had a similar state secondary school education, although admittedly a few years apart, they had gone onto university, but I hadn’t.

This led to some discussion as to why?

Going to university when I left school, wasn’t all that common if you came from a working-class background.

Out of my immediate circle of around 7 close friends, I can think of only 1, who went directly from secondary school to university. This picture is reflected, to some extent in a 2011 ONS (Office for National Statistics) report on Education and Training which can be viewed here.

This report illustrates how things have changed over the years when it comes to further education:-

    • In 2009/10 there were approximately 2.6 million students in higher education in the UK compared with 827,000 in 1980/81.

I don’t recall going to university being a big subject of discussion, as we spoke about what we would do once we left school. 

In my own case that was probably due to lack of application, I just didn’t get the grades.

But even amongst my friends who did, getting a job, if one could be found, seemed to be the priority over studying for a degree.   

Possibly it was because we didn’t really know that many people who had gone to university. None of our parents or siblings had been, so it wasn’t a world we really knew much about or felt part of. 

But the world has moved on, the number of universities has expanded and more students from a working-class background now go to university, though there are still issues about students from the poorest backgrounds getting into the top academic institutions. 

However, not everyone wants to go to university and I was reminded about my recent conversation again at the weekend, when Scottish Labour announced the Future Fund, along with opposition to tuition fees and increasing grants for the poorest students by £1000.

With this fund, Labour will use some of the money generated from cutting the tax relief that people earning over £150,000 get on their pensions and give 18 and 19 year-olds in Scotland, who don’t go to college or university, or who can’t get a modern apprenticeship, £1600 to help them as they make the transition from school to work.

Initial ideas as to what this money could be used for are driving lessons, buying work tools or using the money towards setting up a business.

To me, this is exactly the sort of thing the Labour Party should be doing.

This is a policy that redistributes wealth and invests in young people.

A group of young people who have largely been forgotten about by politicians in recent times.

It takes the traditional Labour Party values of fairness and social justice and sets them in a modern context.

The current opinion polls are clearly not the best for Labour, but bold policies such as this will hopefully win public support as the 7th May, and the only poll that matters, draws ever closer.

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Do The Right Thing

The Beatles sang about it, the Rolling Stones left the country and the Who apart from Keith Moon, seemed to hang about and get on with paying them.

What am I talking about?

Tax.

I’m an avid listener of music and reader of rock biographies, many of these about bands from the 60’s and 70’s and in a week when I’ve been reading about the Who, tax avoidance and tax evasion has been hitting the headlines, which all goes to show that taxation has been a long running political issue.

I think it was a couple of years ago at an STUC conference in Edinburgh, about how to create a fairer Scotland that thanks to Stephen Boyd, STUC Assistant Secretary, I learned that UK tax rates in the 70’s reached 83% under Labour and then the top rate was reduced to 60% under the first Thatcher government.

The issue of taxation has come to the fore again as we have learned about HSBC and the extent they may have been involved in facilitating tax avoidance schemes.

With less than 100 days to go to the general election, tax has again become a major political issue. Both the Conservative party’s view on tax avoidance and David Cameron’s judgement on the appointment of Lord Green as a minister have been called into question.

This week we discovered that HMRC had secured 1 conviction and £135 million in unpaid tax, on the face of it this appears to be less than impressive when compared to the performance of the French tax authorities who have reclaimed £200 million from 3,000 named accounts and the Spanish £180 million from 2,900.

I am no expert on how the tax authorities are resourced or staffed in France or Spain, but as a union activist in the public sector I have seen the cuts that the current coalition government have brought about in the UK Civil Service.

Last year my own union, PCS, commissioned a report by Richard Murphy director of Tax Research UK called The Tax Gap Report. Click here to learn more.

This report highlights that in just over a decade staff in HMRC will have been cut from 92,000 in 2005 to an expected 52,000 in 2016, a cut of nearly 43%.

Cuts on such a scale must surely have an impact on the effectiveness of HMRC to be able to discharge its duties.

And whilst we can urge the companies and individuals engaged in such schemes that there is a moral imperative to do the right thing, all the evidence would suggest that this will not be enough.

It was good to see the Labour Party take the initiative on this issue during the past week, making clear that Labour welcomed proposals from charities and campaigning organisations for an “anti-tax dodging bill”, which would make it harder for big companies to use tax havens and clamping down on tax breaks for big companies.

But, fundamental to this debate is making sure that HMRC has the staff and resources to carry out the work that it needs to and we should not lose sight of that.

The dividing lines and differences are becoming clearer in this election as we see Labour looking to bring tax avoiders to account, while the Conservatives talk about withdrawing benefits, if you are deemed to be obese.

It wasn’t any of the bands that I mentioned at the start of this blog that sang ‘the weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger’ but the Jam in Funeral Pyre, their apocalyptic vision of the future.

Increasingly it would appear that the General Election of 2015 is going to be defined as a choice between standing up against vested interest and the Establishment or about whether we make the UK a fairer society.