Whenever Labour, the Conservatives, the LibDems, or the SNP, talk about how the important things are to let big companies pay less tax and to crack down on benefit fraud, we can be quite sure they are telling a story which is aimed at getting tabloid support:
Tax evasion currently costs this country £25bn a year; tax avoidance – that is, large companies and wealthy individuals who “take advantage” of the system – cost us £70bn a year. In addition to this, £26bn is going uncollected, adding up to a staggering £121bn in total – or, to put it in context, three-quarters of the annual deficit. To put it in yet more context, the amount lost to disability fraud is estimated at £1bn – and this figure should be considered in the context of benefit underpayment, which consistently saves more than the fraud costs. This does not of course excuse fraud, but it does make a mockery of the coalition’s claims that abuse of the system is costing money that they will save by being “efficient” – another euphemism.
All of these parties at Westminster and Holyrood seem to think they can tell us what should matter to us.
I am undecided about how I’ll vote in 2014, and free for nothing, I’ll tell both Labour and the SNP how they could convince me to vote their way.
Tell me you’re going to build enough council houses that everyone who needs to rent one can have one. And keep building them so that as the stock diminishes by Right To Buy, it increases by new builds. You know this will save money – Housing Benefit has effectively become a subsidy for people who can afford to buy a place for the purpose of renting it out. Nice little earner for them. You know this will increase employment, decrease homelessness, improve quality of life hugely, even improve educational scores – children don’t tend to do well in school when they’re living in a bed-and-breakfast.
Getting brownfield sites to build council homes will mean changing land laws to allow inner city sites which are sitting unused to be claimed for this purpose by the state. Building housing estates where people can get to work will mean improving public transport, cracking down on high fares – re-nationalising the railways. Improving Scotland’s democratic deficit at least at the local government level.
Let’s hear this from the SNP and from Labour. Never mind those silly campaigns: let’s see the parties competing in Holyrood and Westminister to promote their visions of independent Scotland vs. devolved-within-the-UK Scotland. That would be a real campaign, with actual consequences, committing UK Labour/Scottish Labour to real opposition to the Tories, committing the SNP to a really progressive Scotland.
Liam Byrne, Iain Duncan Smith’s Shadow, has openly said that Labour has no plans to turn that around if they win in 2015 – because “savings have got to be made” – and because Byrne and others in New Labour don’t see any votes there, given that the 2011 Social Attitudes Survey found that social contempt for the unemployed has increased:
54 per cent of those surveyed felt that unemployment benefits were too high, compared with 35 per cent in 1983 – another era of dole queues. If the question had been, “Could you live on £67.50 a week?” – the actual value of Jobseekers Allowance for those aged 25 or above – it’s a safe bet the results would have been rather different. Nearly two-thirds believed that one factor for child poverty was parents who “don’t want to work”. Scroungers and work-shy freeloaders: these are Britain’s poor as far as millions are concerned.
If you’re New Labour, your reaction to that is not “How can we turn these attitudes around?” but “how can we get those millions who hold welfare recipients in contempt to vote for us?”
Welfare reforms developed by Iain Duncan Smith are supposed to be the policy manifestation of a moral epiphany that the former leader had on a visit to a Glasgow housing estate in 2002. Even when senior Labour figures belittle Duncan Smith’s efforts to rescue people from a life on benefits, they accept that his motives are sincere.
Iain Duncan Smith himself on Cait Reilly, the woman who rejected Iain Duncan Smith’s “welfare reform” because she wanted to get paid for working for Poundland:
“What a snooty so-and-so. She seemed to say she shouldn’t stack shelves because she’s intelligent. The way she sneered — as if she was too good for it,” he says.
“…It’s a human right for the taxpayer to know you’re doing something productive instead of wafting around looking for the job you want while someone else pays for it.”
As Owen Jones asks: Whatever happened to the Labour Party?:
Labour could bring down welfare spending without cuts that destroy lives: £21bn of taxpayers’ money is wasted on housing benefit, lining the pockets of landlords charging extortionate rents. The money could be used to build modern council housing, creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and bringing down the 5 million-strong social-housing waiting list. A living wage could reduce the billions spent on tax credits. And rather than focusing on benefit fraud – worth £1.2bn a year, or less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – Labour could launch a clampdown on the £25bn lost through tax avoidance by the rich.
If Scottish Labour supporters of Better Together honestly want to convince me, undecided, that the UK is “Better Together”, they need to convince UK Labour to stop veering off to the right. (And I know I’m not the only Scot who feels the same way.) Universal benefits, an end to workfare, removal of Trident, building council houses to end homelessness – all of these are things that could affect my vote in autumn 2014, me and a host of others, so why is Scottish Labour wasting their time slagging off the SNP? Labour berating the SNP isn’t convincing: Labour making policy like Bevan and Beveridge, that could be.
George Monbiot notes how right-wing lobbying groups that call themselves “think tanks” have been shaping the public narrative for many years and still do so today:
Echoing the narrative developed by the neoliberal thinktanks, they blame welfare payments and the mindset of the poor for the UK’s appalling record on social mobility, suggest the need for much greater cuts and hint that the answer is the comprehensive demolition of the welfare system. It is subtler than No Turning Back. There are fewer of the direct demands and terrifying plans: these movements have learned something in the past 30 years.
It is hard to think how their manifesto could have been better tailored to corporate interests. As if to reinforce the point, the cover carries a quote from Sir Terry Leahy, until recently the chief executive of Tesco: “The path is clear. We have to be brave enough to take it.”
Once more the press has taken up the call. In the approach to publication, the Telegraph commissioned a series of articles called Britain Unleashed, promoting the same dreary agenda of less tax for the rich, less help for the poor and less regulation for business. Another article in the same paper, published a fortnight ago by its head of personal finance Ian Cowie, proposes that there be no representation without taxation. People who don’t pay enough income tax shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Nor is this the Conservative Party’s only problem: there’s also the Tory Chairman, Grant Shapps/Michael Green: he said
his job is to win the election for the Conservatives alone, so he would say “no, no, no” to anyone advising the party to campaign on a coalition platform with the Liberal Democrats.
“The day of the reshuffle I went to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street, and today I can reveal precisely what he said. ‘Grant, you’ve got one task as chairman, get out there and kick-start our campaign, rally the troops, take the fight to Labour and help us win in 2015,” he said. [Yes, punctuation in the Telegraph story leaves it uncertain where David Cameron's quote ends and Grant Shapps begins.]
The only problem with that is, Grant Shapps (who now admits to using the pseudonym “Michael Green” but claims it was “only a joke” and he has nothing to do with Green’s business now) is a liability – Shapps may be good at social media marketing, but he’s the Tory equivalent of a chugger.
But then on Sunday Alex Neil, the Scottish Government’s Health Secretary, admitted in the Scotland on Sunday that as far as women are concerned, he isn’t to be trusted to support healthcare. Just as David Cameron did in response to Jeremy Hunt’s comments, Alex Neil said:
that the dramatic cut backed by Hunt was unrealistic but he added the legislation should be reviewed in the event of abortion law being transferred from Westminster to Holyrood as a result of independence.
“I do think there is a case to be had for a reduction from 24 weeks, but I don’t know if 12 weeks is realistic, frankly,” Neil said.
“But I do think there is now a case, given the state of medical science and the fact that babies do survive from an much earlier stage in the pregnancy.
“I do think there is a case for looking to bring down the number of weeks, but that is a personal opinion.”
There is no case to be made for a reduction from 24 weeks: it’s the last reasonable compromise. There’s a good case to be made for expanding the limit to 28 weeks or removing a limit altogether. The Health Secretary trying to cover himself by handwaving “personal opinion” is a nonsense: Alex Neil isn’t fit to be Health Secretary if he thinks he can express such anti-women, anti-healthcare views in public. He should either retract or resign, since if Alex Salmond continues to keep him as Health Secretary, it’s a clear indication that to Salmond, Alex Neil’s views aren’t objectionable.
(In 2008, one of the dismal crowd of MPs voting for reduction to 12 weeks was one of the SNP’s handful of Westminster MPs, Angus MacNeil. Only the SDLP and DUP have proportionally a worse record.)
When the story broke, the response from SNP supporters was, for the most part, distressing. Instead of walling out Alex Neil and making clear that they wanted nothing more to do with him, they closed the party gates and presented a united front of denial (“The Scotland on Sunday is misleading!” – possibly, but neither Alex Neil nor the SNP is claiming he was misquoted, so I doubt it) – (“This has nothing to do with indyref!” – Ahem, we’re the voters you want to convince, we’ll decide what has to do with indyref) (“This doesn’t matter! It’s only his ‘personal views'” – May not matter to the speaker, but you’re not the decider of what matters…)
Oddly enough, my first stumble across the story was in James Kelly’s blog instructing me that what Alex Neil thought about abortion didn’t matter and shouldn’t affect my views on independence and I must be “thick” if I thought it should.
Other SNP defenders suggested that it didn’t matter what Alex Neil thought because as Health Secretary he didn’t really have anything to do with abortion. Or that it didn’t matter that Alex Neil was only as bad as David Cameron because Jeremy Hunt was much worse. None of these are good defenses, because none of them deal with the real problem – the SNP has appointed a man who holds anti-choice views on abortion to be Health Secretary: instead they create a huge problem, which is that with every defence of Alex Neil, the SNP is building itself up to be the anti-choice party in Scotland, the party not to be trusted on human rights.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the Great and Powerful Oz says. The Tories would like us not to pay attention to Jeremy Hunt’s views on abortion and homeopathy and the privatisation of the NHS and all the rest: Labour would like us not to pay attention to Liam Byrne calling for more welfare cuts, despite the human cost of those already accomplished: and the SNP would rather we didn’t look at Alex Neil and treated his position as Health Secretary as purely ceremonial, not as if his personal views could have any effect on healthcare provision and access.
The Shoogly Peg refuted Alex Neil’s claims which, like Jeremy Hunt, he says are based on unspecified “evidence”, and then she went on to say:
I am sick of this, and I am shaken. I believe that women ought to be equally represented in all arguments and discussions about our society. I am fed up with “women’s issues” being defined only as those which relate to family, children and housework. But remarks like Hunt’s and Neil’s force us back to basic rights relating to our bodies and our reproductive choices. Arguments which I thought we had won re-emerge, and while we’re fighting these battles all over again, the sphere of issues in which women have a legitimate interest is once again narrowed to babies, birth and bodies.
And I am shaken, because it never crossed my mind that this is what independence might mean. I have become complacent in looking pityingly southwards as their politicians privatise the NHS and play with education, safe in the knowledge that it will not happen here. I have said before that while I am not yet entirely convinced about independence, I am strongly inclined in that direction. That may not now be the case. If the establishment of a new Scotland means that the right-wingers and the more extreme religious groups will have the chance to attack women’s rights on the basis of non-existent medical evidence, then it is not worth the risk.
I am not convinced that there is the political will (certainly among those that are elected) for (small “l”) liberal policies. It is why I find laughable the assertions of some that independence will create a progressive beacon. This is not reflected in the social attitudes surveys among the population as a whole, and is certainly not reflected in those that are elected. For me, Neil’s position this morning (and the casual way in which he appeared to suggest that women could travel to circumvent the policy he wishes to impose (okay if you can pay to travel…)) is another example.
They’re both right, but more important for the purpose of this blogpost is: Why didn’t it occur to the vast majority of the SNP supporters, even those who say they disagree with Alex Neil, to actually step up and say that Alex Neil should cease to be Health Secretary? Why the head-in-the-sand attitude that the SNP, and the campaign for independence, can get over an anti-choice Health Secretary just by instructing people not to think about him?
What does this say about the SNP plans for an independent Scotland, if something as basic as human rights for women can be dismissed by them as trivial next to party loyalty to a Minister who’s gone wrong?
Party leaders, loyalists, and partisans who partake in Wizard of Oz campaigning “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, do not look at the man behind the curtain” should bear in mind:
Re Andrew Mitchell, Puffles (*notes*) politicians don’t get to decide when lines are drawn under such things. The public does.
— The Dragon Fairy (@Puffles2010) October 7, 2012
That’s true in 2014 as in 2015.