Friday, 27 June 2014

Bye-bye Right to Buy...and good riddance

Margaret Burgess MSP has secured her place in Scottish political history as the Housing Minister that ended a core element of Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to socially engineer a working class Tory vote.

In 1980 Thatcher’s Tory Government introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ for tenants of social landlords.  The Tory ‘spin’ was that Right to Buy allowed the working class to get their foot on the housing ladder by buying the home they rented from the local council.  In fact, the policy had more to do with the Tories undermining the public sector in general and the provision of social housing in particular.  A separate issue was Thatcher’s belief that if the working class owned their homes they would be more likely to vote Tory.

Of all the rightwing, free-market policies introduced by Thatcher-led Tory governments between 1979 and 1990, Right to Buy was most clearly ‘her baby’.  It was ideologically-driven and designed to restructure housing tenure within the UK.  To that extent it succeeded: today, more people own their home than rent from social or private landlords.  However, the damage to society caused by Right to Buy has been significant and will continue to impact for many years beyond the date of its final demise in Scotland in 2016. 

Right to Buy legislation forced councils to sell houses to sitting tenants who applied to purchase their home, often at a considerable discount on the market value of the property.  So, while buyers could get a very good deal, councils were often left considerably out of pocket. 

Most public sector housing in Scotland was built by councils and funded by loans secured from the Public Works Loan Board.  Such loans came at low interest rates and were repaid by councils over an extended period - often as long as 60 years - representing good value for money for the public purse.  This long-standing method of funding and providing much-needed, low-cost homes to rent in the public sector was comprehensively undermined by the introduction of Right to Buy legislation, and further by the subsequent switch to the Tory/New Labour method of funding capital projects, initially called the Private Finance Initiative and latterly Public Private Partnerships.

When Right to Buy was introduced in 1980, councils were forced to sell property at discounted prices, despite the fact local authorities would have to continue servicing the long-term loans taken out to build the houses.  In addition, under Right to Buy, councils were prevented from using receipts from the sale of houses to build replacement properties to rent.  The consequence of the Tory policy is that the public sector in Scotland has lost almost 500,000 homes that previously would have been available to rent in local communities.  This is why young couples now languish for years on council lists, waiting to be allocated an affordable home to rent.

The rise in the private rented sector is also a consequence of Right to Buy.  While people wait for public sector housing at affordable rents, they are often forced to rent from a private landlord, in a sector where charges are very much higher.  Then Tories complain about the cost of ‘welfare’, which includes Housing Benefit paid not to tenants but directly to private landlords.

As for Thatcher’s belief that home-owning members of the working class would be drawn to vote Tory, there were different outcomes in Scotland and England.  Scots, even those who took advantage of Right to Buy, continued to reject Thatcher and her party’s uncaring and divisive polices.  In England, though, many who bought their council homes did see voting Tory as part of the ‘aspirational’ journey they had been sold by Conservative spin-doctors.  That said, even in Scotland there were consequences to Right to Buy that benefitted the Tories.  Workers who had bought-in to the property-owning Tory ideology were less likely to fight for their rights in the workplace.  With a mortgage to pay, workers were loathe to take strike action, which resulted in a more cowed and subdued workforce.  This, in turn, has led to the erosion of pay levels, diminished working conditions and greatly-reduced job security.

However, last week’s Housing Bill, introduced by Margaret Burgess and passed overwhelmingly by Members of the Scottish Parliament – only the Tories voted against it – did not just end the bad legislation of Right to Buy, it also set-out progressive measures to create a housing sector designed to meet Scotland’s needs.

The new SNP Government legislation builds on measures such as a demand-led, low-cost shared equity scheme for first-time buyers, financial backing for Homes for Scotland’s mortgage indemnity scheme and a range of initiatives to protect tenants in the private sector.

Principally, though, Mrs Burgess and the Scottish Parliament – except for the Tories - last week indicated a strong commitment to investment in affordable housing: over the next four years, the SNP Scottish Government is committed to investing more than £1.35bn, with a target of providing at least 30,000 affordable homes by March 2016.

Right to Buy was an ideologically-driven attempt by London-based Tories to destroy publicly-owned housing for rent, and to socially-engineer a Tory vote within the working class.  Scotland always rejected the Tories’ twin objectives of Right to Buy, and the new housing legislation introduced last week by the Scottish Parliament finally ended the destructive policy and its consequences.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Independence for Labour

Back in August 2012 I wrote that independence could be the best thing to happen to the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party.  With last week’s announcement by UK Labour leader Ed Miliband that his party is now in favour of removing benefits from unemployed 18 to 21 year-olds - thereby further copying the Tories and UKIP - it would seem independence is ‘Scottish’ Labour’s only hope of returning the party to the core social democratic values favoured by activists in Scotland.

By the way, the reason I put ‘Scottish’ in inverted commas in the above sentence is because the Scottish Labour Party does not exist.  All political parties must be registered with the Electoral Commission and there is no Scottish Labour Party on the register.  According to the Commission, the term ‘Scottish Labour’ is simply a ‘description’ used by the Labour Party, which has its registered office in London.

The official position of ‘Scottish’ Labour in the Independence Referendum campaign is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories in opposing independence.  So anti-independence is ‘Scottish’ Labour that it would rather see the Tories continue to govern Scotland from London than have a Labour government in an independent Scotland.  Any psychologists reading this are welcome to have a go at explaining the tortured ‘logic’ behind such a position.

However, not every member of ‘Scottish’ Labour supports the party’s anti-independence stance, far from it.  Virtually every day we hear of senior party members and trade union activists publicly stating their intention to vote ‘YES’ in the Independence Referendum.  One of the fastest-growing political movements in Scotland is ‘Labour for Independence’, an organisation comprising rank-and-file members of ‘Scottish’ Labour who realise the opportunity presented by the Independence Referendum.

The hierarchy of ‘Scottish’ Labour and the party’s Westminster MPs from Scottish constituencies argue that the people of Scotland should reject independence on September 18th and should vote for the London-based Labour Party at a 2015 UK General Election.  Then, so their argument goes, a UK Labour Government led by Ed Miliband would put everything right for us – but there are two striking problems with that strategy.

Firstly, Labour is unlikely to win a 2015 UK General Election.  For the party to have any chance of electoral success it would, at this stage – 11 months from the scheduled election – need to be around 20 per cent ahead of the incumbent Tory-led Government.  Polls show either the two parties neck-and-neck or the Tories ahead.  The most likely outcome of a 2015 UK General Election is the Tories governing on their own or in a right-wing coalition with UKIP.

The second problem is that, even if UK Labour was able to pull-off an extremely unlikely turn-around in fortunes ahead of the May 2015 Westminster Election, the Labour Government elected would be little more than a pale imitation of David Cameron’s Tories.  As the Conservatives move further and further to the right, attempting to recapture far-right English voters who deserted to the racist and homophobic UKIP at the recent European Election, so the Ed Miliband-led Labour Party also moves further right. 

Everyone knows that Labour abandoned any pretence of being a socialist party when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created the Tory-clone New Labour, and what has happened under the leadership of Ed Miliband is a further rightward re-branding that has ditched even moderate social democratic policies.  Today’s Labour Party talks of supporting ‘compassionate capitalism’, which is an entirely contradictory concept.  Capitalism is based on greed and exploitation of the majority by a small elite.  For capitalism to work (for the elite), the majority – the working class – must be exploited in terms of being paid less than the value of their labour and by being charged more than the actual value of the products they must buy, such as food.  There is no compassion in capitalism.  UK Labour’s support for a concept that does not, and cannot exist, is a fraud.

Today’s Labour Party is as comfortable as the Tories and UKIP in demonising the unemployed as skivers and shirkers.  Both Miliband and his ‘Scottish’ Labour leader Johann Lamont have spoken of ending the “something for nothing” culture, a barb directed at people deemed to be ‘undeserving’ simply because they find themselves without work and have to claim benefits to survive.

Today’s Labour Party is committed to backing the Tory policy of spending billions-of pounds on a new generation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, while hundreds-of-thousands of men, women and children rely on foodbanks to stave-off hunger.  Labour would also continue to locate the UK’s first-strike nuclear arsenal at a base on the Clyde, just 30 miles from Scotland’s largest city.

Today’s Labour Party is a Tory clone pandering to right-wing prejudices.  Electing a UK Labour Government would simply see a continuation of devastating austerity, cuts to public spending, soaring unemployment and deepening deprivation for so many of our fellow citizens.

It is these realities that have prompted a growing number of ordinary Labour Party members in Scotland to embrace the opportunity presented by independence.  An independent Scotland would see the creation of a real Scottish Labour Party, free from London control and free to re-embrace the social democratic (maybe even socialist) policies favoured by activists.

The UK Labour Party was built on firm socialist foundations formed in Scotland.  For many years the goal of providing a parliamentary voice for the working class and of advancing the cause of ordinary men, women and children was shared within the party in both Scotland and England.  However, while ‘Scottish’ Labour activists still adhere to the party’s founding principles, the London-based hierarchy that controls Labour is now firmly committed to a capitalist economic system that exploits the working class and enshrines inequality, poverty and deprivation.

By voting ‘YES’ for independence, Labour activists can take back control of their party here in Scotland.  Independence really can be the best thing to happen to ‘Scottish’ Labour.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Lallygate' - a new low for the Unionist campaign

For much of the past week, the British Unionist media in Scotland – including the taxpayer-funded BBC – and the three main British political parties all attempted to have a decent man sacked from his job. 

The man condemned by newspapers, broadcasters and British Unionist politicians is Campbell Gunn, a special adviser to Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond.  Mr Gunn’s ‘crime’ is to have sent an e-mail to a journalist at the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph, in which he tried to correct a misrepresentation made at an event held by the anti-independence Better Together campaign in Glasgow.

At the Better Together meeting, a woman called Clare Lally (pictured above) told the audience and assembled media, “I’m just an ordinary mum from Clydebank who is campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK.”  The Daily Telegraph gave prominence to the story of the “ordinary mum” being inspired to get up on stage and take part in the campaign to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, which is what prompted Campbell Gunn to contact the journalist who wrote the story.  In an e-mail, Campbell Gunn said, “You are no doubt aware that the 'mother-of-two', who described herself as 'just a normal person' in the Telegraph today is actually a member of Labour's Shadow Cabinet and daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally.....”

That is the full text of the e-mail sent by Campbell Gunn to the Daily Telegraph.  No content has been omitted.

It subsequently transpired that the Clare Lally who addressed the Better Together meeting is, in fact, not related to Pat Lally, the former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow.  Wherever Campbell Gunn got his information from, it was inaccurate in that respect.  For the error and any offence caused, Campbell Gunn made a comprehensive apology.  Mr Gunn offered to apologise personally to Clare Lally, but she declined the approach and subsequently refused to accept his apology. 

The ‘offence’ associated with being described as a relative of a former Lord Provost of Glasgow has not been explained.

The other point made by Campbell Gunn in his e-mail to a Daily Telegraph journalist is factually correct.  The woman presented to the media by Better Together as “an ordinary mum from Clydebank who is campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK” is, in fact, a member of ‘Scottish’ Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, helping the party to formulate policy on the role of Carers.

In August 2012, the Labour-supporting Daily Record carried a story headlined “Mum joins political elite to fight for carer’s rights”.  The story began, “Clare Lally is to join Labour’s shadow cabinet as their first ‘Carers Champion’, “ adding that Ms Lally would “advise Johann Lamont’s party on the challenges facing Scotland’s 660,000 carers”.

In the article, Clare Lally told the Record, “I have always been a Labour supporter. But to actually be able to contribute and help make a difference is a better opportunity than I could have asked for.”

So, despite Ms Lally’s claim to be “just an ordinary mum”, apparently inspired into action by a desire to campaign for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, it turns out she has “always been a Labour supporter” and for the past two years has been part of what the Daily Record described as the “political elite” by being a member of ‘Scottish’ Labour’s Shadow Cabinet.

At the very least, Better Together allowed Clare Lally to be presented as a non-politically-active member of the public who had simply been motivated by family interests to speak-up in favour of Scotland remaining within the British Union.  When it was revealed that, in fact, Ms Lally was an avowed supporter of the Labour Party and a member of its Scottish Shadow Cabinet, it has been alleged she was subjected to vile abuse on the internet.

No-one should be subjected to vile abuse on the internet or, for that matter, in real-life situations simply for holding and articulating political views.  If Clare Lally received abuse, every one of us should join in condemnation of those responsible.  Ms Lally should also report the perpetrators to the police, if their names are known.

It should also be noted that neither side in the Independence/British Union debate has a monopoly on internet idiots.  Pro-British Union newspapers and broadcasters like to trot-out the ‘cybernats’ name to describe alleged posters of internet abuse, but some of the most horrible and offensive comments have come from supporters of the Union and have been directed particularly at Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

Following the revelations behind the Clare Lally story and Campbell Gunn’s e-mail to a Daily Telegraph journalist, the leaders of British Unionist parties in Scotland banded together in calling for the First Minister to sack his Special Adviser.  Lib Dem UK Treasury Minister Danny Alexander, one of Westminster’s most prominent anti-independence campaigners, went even further, referring to “vile outpourings from the first minister's office".  To save you scrolling back up the page, here, again, is the full content of the e-mail sent by Campbell Gunn: “You are no doubt aware that the 'mother-of-two', who described herself as 'just a normal person' in the Telegraph today is actually a member of Labour's Shadow Cabinet and daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally.....”  This, to a UK Government Minister, apparently constitutes “vile outpourings”.

At First Minister’s Questions in Scotland’s Parliament last Thursday (June 12), all three leaders of the British Unionist parties – Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrats – went on the subject of Campbell Gunn’s e-mail and the alleged vile abuse received by Clare Lally on the internet.

Labour’s Johann Lamont - the same person who has “ordinary mum” Clare Lally in her Shadow Cabinet – referred to a “personal attack” by Campbell Gunn on Ms Lally.  She then said to Alex Salmond, “Does the First Minister not realise if he doesn't sack Campbell Gunn we can only conclude all the bullying that goes on, wherever it comes, is done by order, by design, by him?”

The whole ‘Lallygate’ issue emerged because Better Together tried to pass-off as an unaligned “ordinary mum” someone who is actually a self-proclaimed Labour supporter and member of the party’s Shadow Cabinet: but what the British Unionist media reported was fabricated outrage over an e-mail containing one error from a Special Adviser in the First Minister’s Office, for which an apology was issued.  To go from that position to the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland accusing First Minister Alex Salmond of not only condoning but ordering cyber-bullying was plumbing new depths for the anti-independence campaign.

I should note that I got to know Campbell Gunn when I served as a Member of the Scottish Parliament.  He was then the Political Editor of the Sunday Post.  In total, he served the paper and its readers for 43 years, including covering wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

From my personal experience, Campbell Gunn was an ‘old school’ journalist: you knew where you stood with him, you knew you could trust him to report you fairly and accurately.  When he retired from journalism in March 2013, he received a lifetime achievement award.

At the time of his retiral, Labour leader Johann Lamont said, “Campbell has proven himself to be a tough but fair journalist, a thoughtful and wise observer of politics and thoroughly good company, whose interests and views beyond politics are just as interesting.  Few political reporters can claim to have covered our game for such a long period while still remaining on good terms with all of those he writes about, and this is a testament to his professionalism and his good nature.”

It was the same Johann Lamont who last week used First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament to accuse Campbell Gunn of launching a “personal attack” on “an ordinary mum” and of being part of bullying apparently ordered by the democratically-elected leader of Scotland.  Ms Lamont, of course, also demanded that Campbell Gunn be sacked from his job.

It would appear there is no depth to which the British Unionist campaign will not sink.