Monday, 5 March 2012

Scottish Labour – redefining core values?

The weekend’s Scottish Labour Conference heard UNISON seek to redefine the party’s focus onto the basic issues of unfairness and inequality, somehow lost in the normal anodyne New Labour media-speak.
UNISON speakers drove the debate on pensions, cuts, the need to challenge the economic myths behind the ideological attack on public services and the welfare state – and of course what kind of Scotland we want in the future.

STUC President and UNISON Scottish Secretary Mike Kirby laid down a clear challenge as to what the unions expected from Labour politicians. Calling for a ‘renewed political purpose’ from local councillors in challenging cuts, he said:

“They are not elected to manage Local Authorities. Councils employ people to do that. If councillors are going to shrug their shoulders and say that there is nothing they can do – then we are entitled to ask precisely what councillors are for.

“Councillors should not be passive administrators of a cuts package determined elsewhere – but champions of their areas, their authorities and the services their local populations rely on.”

UNISON’s Gordon McKay drove home the theme that Scottish Labour needs to push its vision of fairness and social justice: “It is inexcusable that public sector workers should take more pay freezes and pay cuts. We will not blame public sector workers for the greed of bankers. Scottish Labour must work with the trade unions on fair pay and that does not mean a pay freeze”.

The attacks on local government were at the front of Johann Lamont’s first speech as leader. Not the most confident of performances perhaps, but solid in content as she grasped the issues affecting Labour’s core support.

“In Alex Salmond’s progressive Scotland, he took a two per cent cut from the Tories, doubled it and handed it to Scotland’s councils. We are seeing the consequences of these decisions in our communities every day”, she said.

“Is it fair that an elderly person has his care visits – possibly his only contact with the outside world – squeezed into 15 minute windows because their care worker is overstretched? Is it right that in Fife, where 25 per cent of school leavers go to Adam Smith and Carnegie Colleges and 2.5 per cent go to St Andrews University, it is college funding that is attacked? Is it acceptable that families are trapped in sub-standard or inappropriate homes because we cannot meet the shortfall in housing demand?”

Exploding the myths

That need to focus on the basics and to challenge the very root of the financial con that underpins cuts was underlined by Mike Kirby: “People are recognising our explosion of the myths of the crisis and agreeing with us that ‘There is a Better Way’”

A few weeks ago, Chancellor Osborne boasted to IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, ‘We will stick to the deficit reduction plan we have set out. It is the rock of stability on which our economy is built.’

“Osborne might instead have listened to these words”, said Mike. “Stability by itself is not enough – after all, graveyards are pretty stable places. Who said that? He did, in 2007”.

“Now we’re in that graveyard, burying the hopes of the next generation. What is behind this strategy makes no sense unless you are bent on destruction, destruction of that which you yourself will never need.

“The UK government has an ideological agenda to attack the welfare state, the welfare systems which the social consensus since the Second World War has built.”

Job losses, changes to tax and welfare systems and the cost of childcare were disproportionately affecting women: “There is recent evidence from the Fawcett Society, supported by my own trade union that the government’s approach to reducing the deficit is ‘turning back time’ on women’s equality”, said Mike.

Pensions support demanded

On pensions, Mike said “Public sector workers are entitled to pensions that are affordable, sustainable and fair”.

At a time of pay freezes, higher tax, rising inflation and fuel costs, it was wrong to demand even more from public service workers in pension contributions.

“Contributions which will go straight to the Treasury to pay off the deficit caused by the banks”, Mike reminded delegates.

“If the Government wants revenue to tackle the deficit it should turn its attention to private corporations sitting on over £100 billion of tax due to the Treasury by the use of complex tax evasion.”

“The health scheme takes in £2 billion more every year than it pays out. The local government scheme in Scotland has funds worth more than £20 billion – equivalent to a fifth of Scottish GDP. It could pay out all its pensions for the next twenty years without a single penny more in contributions.

“These figures show that public sector pension funds are not just healthy - but valuable contributors to the economy – funding much needed investment.

“The real pensions’ crisis is in the private sector – where two thirds of employers do not pay a single penny towards their workers’ pensions. It could cost this country up to £15 billion to support the millions of private sector workers who have been locked out of saving for their retirement.”

As Scotland’s NHS workers gear up for more strike action on pensions next week, Gordon McKay was ‘grateful’ for the support on 30 November as he made a wry demand for renewed backing: “We expect the same support from the Labour leadership today as we had then. We are sure that the fact there is now no leadership election will not affect that support in any way.

“And a word for Nicola Sturgeon (Cabinet Secretary for Health)”, added Gordon. “It's decision time Nicola. Are you on the side of the Tories and their business friends, on low paid NHS workers? If you are willing to sit down with us and talk meaningfully about a Scottish solution to these unfair contribution rises to pensions, then UNISON will call off its industrial action. If not - be assured that our members will know what an independent Scotland would look like.”

Yes, the constitutional debate permeated the whole conference with a drive to define what kind of Scotland we want to live in.

Mike Kirby flagged up the forthcoming STUC Congress which would debate: “Building a successful economy, based on a sound manufacturing base, high quality public services, tackling youth unemployment, for a progressive equality agenda and international solidarity.

“And yes, the issue of the constitution and future governance of this country but defined by what kind of society we want to live in. Where there is quality of life for all, in peace and progress. That will define the best system to achieve our goals, and the best system of governance, not historical romance, not a reaction to the views of others. And born of confidence in ourselves, not a fear of future options or scare stories”.

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