Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Controlling our lives

In the past week, according to the UK Conservative Government – the government rejected by the people of Scotland – we have been plunged into a constitutional crisis.

The cause of this crisis was unelected Lords voting to amend government proposals that aim to cut the level of Working Tax Credit received by people struggling to survive financially, despite the fact they are in employment.

The Tories’ idea of what constitutes a constitutional crisis is interesting, mainly because the House of Lords did not actually do anything it is not permitted to do, and the Tory Government in the House of Commons does not actually have to accept the Lords’ amendments to its Working Tax Credit proposals. 

It could be suggested that a real constitutional crisis lies in the fact that the Tory Party has only one MP in Scotland but is able to impose its will on the country, including its plan to slash the level of Working Tax Credit against the wishes of 99-percent of MPs elected by the people of Scotland.

Of course, Tories point-out that Scots – by a 10-percent majority – last year voted to remain within the British Union, and this decision meant the people of Scotland agreed to accept whatever government all the peoples of the United Kingdom chose to elect.  As pro-independence supporters made clear ahead of last year’s referendum, the reality of this argument actually means England will elect the UK Government, irrespective of how Scotland votes. 

The so-called ‘Scottish’ Labour Party knew this full-well, but still campaigned shoulder-to-shoulder with Tories.  The absurd position of ‘Scottish’ Labour is that it would rather see Scotland governed by a Tory Government from London, than have a Labour Government and a Labour First Minister in Scotland if that relied on us re-taking our independence.

‘Scottish’ Labour got its wish: Scotland remains within the British Union and the Tories – with just one Scottish MP – governs all of the UK, including Scotland. 

So, Scots having a government that was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters of Scotland does not represent a constitutional issue, never mind a crisis.  It simply represents the desired constitutional outcome campaigned for last year by the Tory-Labour-Lib Dem British Unionist coalition during the Independence Referendum.

That said, there actually is a constitutional issue relating to the House of Lords.  Quite simply, in a democratic country, unelected and unaccountable people should have no place in the process of government.  There are other related matters, such as the cost to the public purse of funding the activities of these unelected and unaccountable people – Lords and Ladies can claim £300-a-day, tax-free, for attending the Palace of Westminster, irrespective of whether or not they actually do anything once they are there.   

An argument can be made for a second, revising chamber within a parliamentary system, but no logical case exists for the undemocratic British House of Lords populated by retired politicians, party-political donors and the descendants of so-called aristocrats who owe their positions to services provided to the ruling British elite.

It should also be clarified what actually happened last week in the House of Lords.   Labour Lords abstained on a Lib Dem Motion that sought to completely kill-off Tory plans to cut Working Tax Credits.  The Labour abstention meant the Tory plan remains in place.

There were then two Labour Party amendments, which did not seek to kill the cuts but, rather, simply changed how they would impact on people.  Close scrutiny suggests that, overall, they could actually make things worse.

The two Labour amendments were passed by the House of Lords but, if implemented, they would simply result in the introduction of a three-year ‘protection’ for current claimants, meaning they would still be hit by cuts to their Working Tax Credits…eventually…although this would be done when claimants are transferred onto Universal Credit.

New claimants would still have their Working Tax Credits reduced immediately.

However, the bottom-line is that the Tories’ plan to cut Working Tax Credits – and make the poor even poorer - was not killed-off by the House of Lords.

The reason Tories claim we now have a constitutional crisis is because the House of Lords did not simply endorse the proposals of the Conservative Government in the House of Commons.  There is an opposition majority – Labour and Liberal Democrat – in the House of Lords.  The Scottish National Party does not nominate anyone for the unelected and undemocratic chamber.  However, the House of Commons will always have its way, even if it meant Prime Minister David Cameron had to create over 100 new unelected peers to deliver a Tory majority in the House of Lords.

All of which brings us to the real issue that should be hitting the headlines, but which has been submerged under the manufactured outrage over a spat between the two houses of the Palace of Westminster.

The Tory plans to cut the level of Working Tax Credit will make poorer those who are already struggling financially, even though they have jobs.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this move, punishing the poor is what Tories have always done: and we shouldn’t be surprised that the real issue is not even being discussed in Britain’s media.

Working Tax Credit exists to raise income to a level that means people can pay their bills and support their families.  Remember, these are people who are in employment.  The real issue we should be outraged over is that employers are still getting-away with paying wages so low that workers cannot survive on them.

Working Tax Credit is a public subsidy to employers who refuse to pay their workers a living wage.

Of course, this results from the nature of the capitalist economic system: capitalism is entirely based on greed and exploitation.  Employers exploit their workers in order to maximise profits.  This situation will not change until we elect politicians prepared to put first the interests of people, rather than the financial profits of multi-national corporations.

Capitalism is not inevitable, it is not the only game in town.  We do not have to tolerate a social and economic system that says people must struggle and that, for many, life has to be unbearably tough.

Democracy – people power – means we can change things, if we want – but if we do want change, we must stop voting for political parties that implement policies enshrining hardship and inequality.

In Scotland, we must also recognise that remaining within the British Union means we forego the right and the power to control our own country and our own lives.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

SNP 2015

The SNP’s 81st Annual National Conference starts today (October 15) in Aberdeen.

Predictably, Scotland’s predominantly British Unionist media has been telling us that the whole event is stage-managed and delegates are not being allowed to debate any contentious issues.  Those with Unionist leanings will no doubt be happy to believe such assertions, but anyone with an inquisitive mind might wonder why a social democratic political party would want to stifle debate on important matters affecting the people of Scotland.

The line Unionists want us to believe is that the SNP is undemocratic, with the membership cowed into uncritical submission by an autocratic leadership.  Some of us can remember a time when the leadership of the SNP really was out-of-touch and remote from rank-and-file members, but that charge cannot be legitimately laid against today’s leadership.

Nicola Sturgeon is, by far, the most popular politician, not just in Scotland but across the UK.  SNP membership has surged by 300% since the Independence Referendum in September of last year: it currently stands at 114,121.

Nicola, and most of the people around her in the SNP leadership, came through the ranks: I’ve leafletted, canvassed and carried out street-work with many of them.  They are party activists who fought the good fight during days when being a member of the SNP was certainly not the path to take if you wanted a political career.  The current SNP leadership have been ‘ordinary’ members.  They truly value the surge in party support and they know the SNP’s success relies on the strength and commitment of its membership.

If members want to debate particular issues at conference, they submit resolutions to a democratically-elected internal party committee, which produces the agenda for the annual meeting.  There are always resolutions that don’t make the final agenda, but my experience is that this is usually down to a lack of conference time, rather than an attempt to stifle debate.

So, given the British Unionist media is telling us the SNP Conference has been kept non-contentious to prevent any real debate and discussion, let’s have a look at some of the resolutions that did make it onto the agenda:

the Scotland Bill; Protecting Public Services; Climate Talks and Treaty; Elimination of Nuclear Weapons; Support for Carers; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP); Tory Welfare Benefit Cuts; Moratorium on Fracking; Empowering Communities and the Road to Radical Land Reform; Fair Work and the Living Wage; the EU Referendum; Restrictions on Trade Union Rights; Support for Families; the BBC Charter Review; An End to Food Poverty; Support for Women; Autism and the Justice System; Marine Tourism.

Hardly an agenda to prevent discussion and debate.

Of course, British Unionists will look at that long list and say, “Aye but, where are the debates on independence or a second referendum?”

Well, I’ve got some earth-shattering news for the Unionists: the SNP supports independence.  It’s been agreed.  The party is for it. 

Of course, conference-time could be scheduled for a ‘debate’ on independence and members could all contribute their personal reasons for supporting the policy that will see Scotland re-take the status of a normal nation, but then the British media would run stories condemning the party for ‘wasting time’ on an issue everyone knows the SNP supports, rather than debating real issues, such as Protecting Public Services; Nuclear Weapons; Support for Carers; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP); Tory Welfare Benefit Cuts; Moratorium on Fracking; Empowering Communities and the Road to Radical Land Reform; Fair Work and the Living Wage; the EU Referendum; Restrictions on Trade Union Rights; Support for Families; an End to Food Poverty; Support for Women; Autism and the Justice System; Marine Tourism.

As for the issue of a second Independence Referendum: the SNP Conference should not, and will not dictate a timescale to the people of Scotland.  A second referendum and independence will happen when the Scottish public demands them.

A second referendum can only be held if the SNP goes into an election promising to hold one – explaining the circumstances that would trigger such a move – and only if the people of Scotland elect an SNP Government on the basis of a manifesto containing that commitment.  The matter could not be simpler: if you want the opportunity to have your say in a second Independence Referendum, then vote SNP.  If, however, you oppose a second referendum, then vote for one of the British Unionist political parties.

Nicola Sturgeon has already made clear the SNP will not seek to hold a second Independence Referendum simply because the party favours this position.  There would have to be a material change affecting the people of Scotland, such as a referendum on membership of the European Union, in which England voted to leave and Scotland voted to remain.  If Scots were to be dragged out of the EU against their will, then this would be a trigger for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Again, conference could set-aside time for the issue to be debated, but imagine the screaming front-page headlines in British Unionist newspapers about ‘Nats obsessing on constitution’ instead of bringing forward policies on the social and economic ‘bread and butter’ issues affecting the people of Scotland.

The SNP Conference will reflect on a remarkable year for the party – in terms of soaring membership and its record-breaking performance in the UK Election, taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.  Delegates will also debate crucial issues in policy-areas that impact on the lives of all of us living in Scotland: and when they leave Aberdeen to head back home, SNP members will be buoyed by the knowledge that the party is heading for another landslide victory and majority government at next May’s Scottish Parliament Election.

Meanwhile, British Unionist newspapers will continue to publish distortions and outright lies believed only by a rapidly-dwindling number of readers.