Thursday, 24 July 2014

Asking difficult referendum questions is essential

Despite some recent press coverage, UNISON's position on the referendum remains one of challenging both sides of the referendum debate on how their plans will create social justice, bring an end to austerity, poverty and health inequality. We want to know what they will do about building social cohesion, a more equal society and a world without nuclear weapons.

The referendum differs from the devolution campaign of the 1990s. There is no 'settled will of the Scottish people'. There is a divide. So, more important that taking positions of Yes or No, is pushing home the difficult questions for both camps and getting answers for our members.

And we need to be clear what the camps are...
Yes is the SNP. Of course there are radical elements and the Greens, but the campaign is the SNP's and they intend to keep it that way. After all, what we are voting on is the SNP's paper on independence. If we vote Yes it will be the SNP that negotiates the settlement. That is all we have on the table at the moment and that is not a recipe for a socialist Scotland.

The No campaign also has its difficulties. 'Better Together', tarnished with the Tories on board, is a hard nut to crack when you are asking questions about austerity and social justice. Probably our focus needs to be more on 'United with Labour' for the questions we want answered. Despite the welcome visions in 'Together We Can', the noises from UK Labour are not a recipe for a socialist Scotland either.

So let's look at the difficult questions.

Firstly we need to rule out the 'independence at any cost' lobby - and the 'British, queen and country' lot because they have nothing to contribute to the debate on social justice. Flag waving will not feed the waens as I recall someone saying.

And we need to avoid being seduced by the concept that any change must be better than no change at all. The No vote is characterised as negative but that does not mean that 'Yes' is positive. You can be in favour of all sorts of things from capital punishment to laws to stop hanging out your washing on Sundays without it necessarily being positive.

We also need to be aware that the questions we are asking on the left are not necessarily those being asked by wider society. We are united in support for tax to invest, more equality and doing away with Trident but what does 'Scotland' think?

On tax to invest, we could do some of that now. We have 3p in the pound (albeit only on the basic rate) that we could raise and spend. We could make the council tax more progressive and make the rich pay their fair share. So maybe the first question to both camps is not what will you do, but why haven't you done it?

Because there lies the problem for the left. If mainstream left of centre political parties (supported by 75% of those who voted in 2011) don't believe tax and invest will get them elected now, why should it be any different after independence?

On equality and related issues, 58% of people in Scotland want to reduce immigration. Although that is much less than England's 75%, it is still a majority. Scotland has just elected its first UKIP MEP. There is still work to be done on combating the myths that raise fears about immigration. What do the main protagonists on either side intend to do to address that?

A Daily Record poll in April seems to show 41% in favour of keeping Trident in Scotland - a majority if you take out the don't knows. But CND is clear that Scotland has a consistent position on opposing nuclear weapons. The fact is that the response varies in terms of how you ask the question. In other polls, issues like defence come way down the list of what is important to people in the referendum. The Yes camp would abolish Trident and so far the No camp appears to be talking multilateralism. We need to push both camps on the reality, justification and most of all the deliverability of their positions.

But on some issues there is major consensus among the main parties and the population. The one that stands out is the NHS. The commitment from both main parties to keep it public looks unequivocal. It will however be challenged as outsourced social care is imported into the NHS via social care integration.

So the referendum debate has brought some focus on public services. But in other ways it has created a diversion from the real issues on the ground. 39,000 jobs lost in local government with barely a whimper. 100,000 fewer working class kids going to colleges with 10m hours of learning gone. A national police force that is imposing 'one size fits all' across Scotland and wandering around peaceful towns with guns on their belts. That is Scotland today with the things we do have power over already.

It all raises the question as to whether left support for independence is a de facto admission of defeat. We cannot win our policies on a UK basis, so maybe there will be a chance under independence?

We are not voting for the SNP we are told, we are voting for an independent Scotland where we can elect who we like and that will make a difference. Well, we can elect who we like just now and, apart from the NHS perhaps, they are choosing not to make too much of a difference with the powers they have, even given the strictures of UK economic policy. Does that not mean the focus of the fight should be winning the policies first?

Honesty is missing from this part of the debate. Almost every analysis of the currency options for an independent Scotland warns of the effect on borrowing, taxation and spending. A pound controlled by London would thwart any investment strategy to beat austerity. The Euro would put similar restrictions. Our own currency would take years to build its international confidence, and borrowing costs to stimulate the economy would be prohibitive. The UK largely borrows from itself. Scotland would find that much harder.

Assuming (and it is a big assume) an independent Scotland elects - and continues to elect - a radical left government, it would still be saddled with years and years of forced austerity, job losses and poverty until the currency issue settled down.

After 6-10 or so years, we might then at last be masters of our own destiny. Maybe. To many Yes supporters that would be an acceptable price to pay for the possible prize at the end. If so, please come out and say it as opposed to playing down the whole currency issue as if it didn't matter.

And as for Labour's 'keep the UK to keep the pound' we really do need a wee bit more sophistication. We need answers from them about how exactly they are going to win back the voters across the UK who want the railways nationalised, who want their NHS protected and who want an end to austerity. We need to hear why Scotland would be fairer by remaining in the UK. The status quo of austerity and inequality is not an option.

One of the big issues pushing people to a Yes vote is the spectre of another Tory government. George Galloway has opened the debate about whether a Yes vote would in fact entrench a Tory government in rUK with all the non-Tory MPs from Scotland out of Westminster. For many, a Tory neighbour would be preferable to a Tory Scotland. But with an SNP white paper that proposes cuts in corporation tax, do you think our big Tory neighbour is not going to fight back in the race to the bottom?

Warts and all, we need a Labour government irrespective of how the independence vote goes. But we need one that re-engages with the people who want a reason to vote for it.

It is unlikely on 19 September 2014 that the Scottish people will have made hugely radical changes in their opinions. Even if they vote for independence, the political climate is not going to change dramatically. Austerity will still be with us with many of the causes outwith our control to mitigate for years.

I said earlier that we should not be seduced into thinking change is better than no change at all. That does not mean that people should not have a positive vision to vote for whether that is Yes or No. It is time for the No side, and especially Labour, to give a more coherent picture of its vision for a Scotland within the UK.

And it is also essential that the trade unions carry on asking the difficult questions of both sides so that, instead of merely Yes or No positions, we keep the issues of public services, social justice, peace and equality on the agenda up to the referendum - and just as importantly, beyond the referendum.

First published in UNISONActive on 21 July 2014

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