On Reverence and Aspiration

27 05 2015

Aspiration: As an ex-scientist aspiration to me is drawing something, particularly bodily fluids, in or out using a sucking motion. I suspect that this isn’t the definition used by politicians.

Over the past several months politicians from all parties have spoken about the aspirations of hard-working people. The Labour Party collectively, and those individuals standing for election as leader, have put their catastrophic defeat at the general election down to their inability to appeal to the aspirational classes. What they mean by aspiration isn’t at all clear.

It seems to me that aspirational could simply refer to those folk who want to aquire more stuff; a bigger TV, the latest gadget, a flashier car. Aspiration as a synonym for covetous.

Or maybe by aspirational they mean ambitious; ambitious for a better job or a house in a trendier part of town perhaps. In this context it is even less clear why this type of aspiration is considered as universally a good thing. Blind ambition is not a thing to be encouraged, surely.

In most contexts, ambition is an entirely individual pursuit and speaks nothing of the need for a more inclusive society. In Scotland the SNP showed that it was possible to get elected by offering people the chance to vote for a better society. A society which puts all of us first and doesn’t focus on the ambition or covetousness of a few individuals.

And an aspirational class? We live in a country where the status of your parents, more than any other factor, dictates your own success or failure. Those born poor are overwhelmingly going to stay poor. Those born into privilege will prosper and pass on those advantages to their offspring. We live in a country where the gap between rich and poor is huge and growing. The Labour Party did not and will not promise to reverse the austerity measures introduced by the ConLib administration. A Labour government, had one been elected, would not have reversed any of George Osborne’s cuts to social security. It would have kept the cap on total household benefits, kept a limit on total welfare spend, introduced means testing for child benefit payments and retained the full raft of anti trade union laws.

In essence a labour government would have done little, token mansion tax aside, to improve the condition of those suffering on the poor side of the rich-poor divide. It would have done little to close the gap. So what is the point of aspiration in those circumstances?

Reverence: Another component of election rhetoric was the reverence shown toward small business owners. I saw this first hand as I chaired the hustings in my own constituency where the, ultimately successful, SNP candidate prefaced most responses with, “as a small business owner”. Why is owning a small business seen as an completely good thing? Owning, or better still running, a small business may give the speaker some authority when talking about small businesses but, having run several myself, it doesn’t give any clearer insights into broader, global, economic issues than, say, being a teacher or a labourer. And if that small business was a law firm or a massage therapist how can that automatically lead to a better understanding of our manufacturing base and industrial heartlands?

And small businesses are not all good. Some are, but if the owner of the garage that has failed to repair my vehicle, and charged a fortune in the process, ever stands for parliament I can assure you, small business owner or not, that his only grasp of economics is how to add zeros to an invoice. Anyway, I do not really want to be governed by folk who always put the interest of businesses first. The phrase “as a small business owner” is gaining as much currency as the equally noxious preface, “as a mother”, and both should be challenged whenever they are uttered.

The north-south divide

20 04 2015

As personified by the middle-aged man-child Russell Brand, there is disaffection with politics across all young people. However, while 50% of men aged 18-24 voted, only 39% of women in the same age group bothered to cast their vote. This means young women are an easy group for politicians to ignore. Amongst women in general, women voting in general elections has fallen by 18 per cent and, according to Woman’s Hour, only 55% of women in the UK are planning to vote.

Why is this? Well, just 22% of political journalists are women and only 23% of MPs in the last parliament were women and the three main party leaders in Westminster are men. So with so few women in politics, or reporting on politics, there are few role models for young women. This male-dominated environment, with it’s grey suits and the constant braying and jeering in the House of Commons, is simply not one with which most young women can identify. The images and language of Westminster are almost totally masculine. Even when politicians focus on women they do it badly. What was more alarming than the Labour pink bus was how the Labour Party described the campaign itself. Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, demonstrated just what they really thought about women when she suggested that they wanted, “to have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table rather than having an economy that just reaches the boardroom table.” That’s right. They are aiming to talk to you women where women are; in the kitchen not the boardroom!

But things are different here in Scotland, where almost three-quarters of Scottish women say that they are certain or very likely to vote in the general election! An election which, with many powers devolved to Holyrood, is possibly less relevant than the election to that parliament which will take place in 2016. The independence debate changed things in Scotland for all voters, but it changed most for young people and for women. Post-referendum there has been a huge increase in the number of women actually joining political parties; 44% of SNP members are now women. When Nicola Surgeon was elected as First Minister she became the first UK politician to appoint a gender balanced cabinet. Furthermore, all three party leaders at Holyrood are women, as is the Presiding Officer. The numbers in parliament are important, of course, but more so is the change in language and the change in emphasis. As Nicola Sturgeon said, “If you’ve got a fairer society you’ve got a stronger economy. The two should go hand in hand”

While the engagement started with that simple yes/no referendum it didn’t stop there.

Away from party politics, women have started and joined new political organisations in their thousands. Women for Independence has almost 20,000 followers in 53 local groups all over Scotland. Many of these groups, which show women how politics and campaigning works, were formed after the referendum as women continue to be engaged with matters of state and society. Regardless of whether women were yes or no voters, the referendum showed women that our opinions matter and that we could exercise influence and power.

6 of the 12 strong team at Common Weal, a self-styled group aiming to replace our “me first” society with one in which it is “all of us first”, are women. While there still seems some confusion about their legal form and directors/trustees, they have made a commitment to a 50:50 gender split on the board.

While David Cameron asserts that the prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP is a “match made in hell” many of the UK electorate don’t seem to agree, with Nicola Sturgeon claiming an inbox full of emails from voters from outside Scotland who would love the chance to vote SNP.

It is incredible that it is a woman, one who as a member of the Scottish Parliament is not even standing in the Westminster election, is able to assert at the launch of the SNP manifesto that she would build not just a “stronger Scotland” but a “better and more progressive politics for everyone” in the UK.

By changing the look and the language of UK politics Nicola Sturgeon may succeed where pale and male politicians have failed and persuade women into the polling booths!

Wherever you draw the line, fee-paying schools fall on the wrong side

6 04 2015

Let me start with a statement. I am a firm opponent of elite, fee-paying schools on the grounds that their existence is an offence to both equality and meritocracy.

Fee paying schools in the UK educate less than 8% of the population, yet 71% of senior judges, 60% of those holding senior positions in the financial services, 54% of FTSE CEO’s, 53% of senior diplomats, over half of the House of Lords and a third of the current cabinet have been schooled in this way. It is perfectly clear that this is inequitable.

Why, then, do they still exist?

There have been many opportunities, particularly since the end of the second world war to either abolish them completely or to curtail their influence. None have been taken and governments of all hues have failed in this regard, both north and south of the border. In fact in the 1960’s, with the British Empire and the institutions that underpinned it disappearing, public schools with their fondness for cold showers and team sports over science and technology, had become a bit of an anachronism. A commitment to meritocracy in education was meant to ensure a fairer distribution of life chances. Entry to higher education would be determined not by family connections but by passing examinations which would be open to all. A system would exist that would allow children from socially and financially disadvantaged backgrounds to compete on a level playing field, so to speak, and to flourish. Meritocracy, in this sense, was supposed to benefit natural born talent. There is an argument to be had as to why natural talent is valued higher than the application of hard work upon lesser innate ability, think George Best and Bobby Charlton, but that is for another day.

Meritocracy in the sense that was intended, was not achieved. I confess that I should have been more sceptical and much earlier. In the 1970’s family friend and MP for Stoke South Jack Ashley visited my parents home and was massively supportive of their decision to send me to the newly established local comprehensive school. I was later told that one of his own daughters was studying at The Sorbonne and another was educated via Grammar School. Hypocrisy continued. In 1996 Harriet Harman, then Shadow Secretary of State for Education chose to send one of her sons to a selective school outside her local borough of Southwark. Meritocracy didn’t, however, fail due to the hypocrisy of some parliamentarians. It failed because the children from more affluent homes were best placed to benefit because they had the support of their parents. Some parents invested time and effort in developing the talents of their children, while others could not or did not.

Indeed my own parents were able to make a choice, one which is not open to all. My father moved job and into a part of the country that still operated selective education in order that my brothers and I could complete our education at grammar schools. In many cases, the meritocracy introduced into the education system simply widened the divide between children who did and who didn’t have parental support.

I was at a conference recently looking at women’s experience of sectarianism. Everyone in the room agreed that sectarianism was a bad thing and that greater integration of communities would lead to a better understanding of each others circumstances and life experiences and would help to alleviate the antagonism between different communities. Yet the vast majority sent their children to faith schools – on the grounds that they were, supposedly, better academically. Beyond Scotland, there are more and more cases of parents moving house to be in the catchment area of certain state schools or who are sending their children to faith-based schools irrespective of their own religious beliefs, or absence thereof.

There we have the reason.
Fee paying schools are simply an extreme example of parents exercising parental choice; they exist so that parents can use their wealth to secure career advantage for their children. But is this a good enough reason for such schools to be allowed to persist?

As a society we accept, as a given, that parents favour their own children over other peoples children. When we are doing things for our children it is easy to feel that we are being generous and are behaving entirely morally. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Returning to Harriet Harman by way of illustrating the point, she said “I think parents will understand we had to make the right decision for our child and that we would have been less than human if we had done anything else.” We feel that we should do as much as we can to gain advantage for our children and society is largely supportive in this regard. Harriet Harman wasn’t sacked. Selfish gene theory insists that this apparently altruistic behaviour towards our own offspring, and the feelings of wellness that it confers in the parent, are essential evolutionary traits in ensuring gene transmission to future generations. Additionally, it is very common to hear parents saying that they want a better life for their children than they have had; a sentiment rarely, if ever, challenged. Making choices that benefit just our own offspring rarely feels like selfishness, but in reality that benefit is often gained the expense of others. Even if another isn’t immediately or directly disadvantaged, we are gaining relative advantage by putting distance between our children and others.

Yet, most of us also feel that it is wrong that children from poorer backgrounds do not have access to at least some of the life chances as the rich.

What we have, therefore, is a conflict between the desire of parents to confer advantage on their offspring and needs of a fair and just society.
On the one hand parents as individuals feel that they have a right, a right that is rarely challenged, to do whatever they can for their children.
On the other hand is the desire in society for equality of opportunity for all.

Where, then, do we find balance between these two competing elements.
In practice there are already some constraints on parental choice. It wouldn’t, for example, be acceptable to disobey the law in order to confer advantage. How far can parents be allowed to improve their own children’s prospects before equality of opportunity is compromised? How about buying a pony? Is that acceptable? Paying for flying lessons? Paying for piano lessons? Since the supply of goods and services are limited helping some children to obtain them necessarily restricts their availability for others.

Not everyone can have a yacht but does that mean that no-one should have a yacht?
Better, perhaps, to consider a fair chance and fair society rather than equal chances and an equal society?
Not everyone can have a yacht but perhaps we should try and arrange things so that all those who want access to a yacht can at least learn how to sail?

Returning then to fee paying schools. Segregating children along the lines of wealth runs counter to the idea of a fair or an equal society. It creates unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes, as demonstrated by the numbers of alumni holding positions of power; positions from where they can, and do, create more inequality.

Let me end with a statement. While I am unsure as to where the lines of parental advantage should be drawn I remain convinced that fee-paying schools fall over the boundary. How they could be abolished, I’m not sure. I suspect if an attempt were made to close them they would move, like most of the money that supports them, to some offshore tax have.

The answer is to work to create a society with equality of income and wealth where it would be much harder for parents to purchase privilege.

Is the era of pale, stale and male really over?

6 04 2015

There is a general acceptance that gender equality is making progress in the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon made it clear on taking office as First Minister in Scotland, reinforced by her appointment of a gender balanced cabinet, that equality in high office can be achieved. And in the recent election debate the women leaders were seen to perform better than their male counterparts, replacing swagger and bluster with reasoned argument and debate. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon topped the post-debate opinion polls by offering sincerity, passion and intelligence as a coherent alternative to the baying of the men in suits and remarked that the debate showed, “why we need to break the old boys network at Westminster.” But in a world where Nigel Farage, the white, middle aged, city man, who went to a school that charged annual fees of £17,500 can cast himself as a political outsider, is the era of privileged, pale and male really coming to an end?

While it s true that Nicola Sturgeon acted quickly to ensure that her cabinet had equal representation of men and women, change at a national level is slower. For example, in Scotland only 28 per cent of the candidates standing for election as MP’s are women. Women have made progress, albeit slow progress, in representation on the boards of big businesses and public bodies but has anything really changed for women in the workplace as a result? Or have these successful women simply put on the clothes and adopted the mannerisms of the powerful, becoming part of the system without actually changing it? Placing women in influential positions doesn’t in and of itself bring about equality in the whole system. Having more women in powerful roles can change what power looks like but one doesn’t automatically follow that it will change what power looks like. One only has the say the two words ‘Margaret Thatcher’ to see the truth of that statement.

Take the ethically branded Co-operative Group, where Ursula Lidbetter is Chair. The group, along with all other high-street retailers, has refused to sign up as a Living Wage employer. The workforce, mainly women who continue to dominate part-time and insecure work, suffer and often have to rely on working tax-credits to top up their pay packets. Having women at the top of a business does not guarantee better conditions for those women working in the business.

Those who advocate gender equality in politics and in the boardroom need to match that support with commitments across all of society. The gender pay gap is wide and persistent. George Osborne has hailed as a success the current gap of 19.1%. True, this is the lowest on record but there has been equal pay legislation in the UK for over 40 years! In addition, women are increasingly being employed on zero hour and other insecure contracts.

The changing nature of the debate at a political level is, undoubtedly, a good thing but unless women use the position of power to create real change for the majority of women then the pale, male and stale system will be replaced by one that may look different but which will, in practice, be exactly the same.

March of Women

9 03 2015

Yesterday I took part in the March of Women to celebrate International Women’s Day. Firstly, there was a re-working of Cecily Hamilton’s play A Pageant of Great Women and 50 of us spoke on behalf of a great women from Scottish history. Then over 100 women walked from the Women’s Library, where the play was staged, to Glasgow Green, some half a mile away. It was an incredible event and a wonderfully original and inclusive way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The play, which was originally performed at The Scala Theatre, London in 1909, was staged before an audience of women and men and the march, though itself women only, was supported and followed by women and men. If I’d have asked any of them whether they believed in an equal society it’s a fair guess that everyone would say yes. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Over one hundred years have passed between performances and we are still living an an unequal society. The march, then as now, was women leading the call for change.

But, by marching alone and performing alone we are letting men off the hook. We are taking on the role as change agents, taking sole responsibility for change. The drive for equality becomes a women’s issue. Something we do alone. The men can sit in the audience, walk alongside and applaud our spirit. They need do no more than that.

Take politics and the forthcoming general election. According to Glenn Campbell, political correspondent for the BBC, the SNP’s candidates list is only 36% female, the Lib Dems is 27%, Labour 26% and the Tories just 15%. Of the 263 candidates selected by the five parties, 73 are women, representing just 28% of the total.

Take the pay gap, which Nigel Farage insists is “just a fact”. It is not closing. The International Labour Organisation estimates that the average gender pay gap now stands at close to 23 per cent, meaning that for every £1 men earn, women earn just 77p. Why isn’t the gap closing? Because it is seen as solely our responsibility as women to close it. It is up to us women to gain the skills we need to compete for the top jobs. Women have children and it is up to women to manage the career break this entails and if there is then a decrease in pay and conditions then that is only to be expected.

I am a founder member of an organisation which seeks to improve board effectiveness through increased diversity. There are many, many reports that show that boards make better decisions, and the companies they manage perform better, when boards are gender balanced. Yet, according to the 3rd annual survey following the Davies Report, women account for just 20.7% of FTSE100 board directorships and just 15.6% of FTSE250, and there remain 48 all-male boards. True, this is a slight improvement year on year but progress is woefully slow and it takes organisations driven largely by women to continue to push for change. When the benefits of board diversity are clear, why is it left to women to campaign for change?

Men are in positions of power at the moment. That, as Nigel has it, is just a fact. Men are in a position to actually make the changes needed to bring about full equality but choose not to, or to make change slowly.

My contention is that campaigning for equality should not just be a thing that women do alone. It is not good enough for men to sit and watch while we march. Men need to be more than supporters. Men, as well as women, need to challenge inequality.

Equality is about fairness and which of us, male or female, doesn’t believe in that.

Barbie Bus Politics

1 03 2015

The Labour Party faced ridicule recently when their Women to Women campaign was launched in a pink bus, prompting comedian John Oliver to suggest that they were engaging with women in the same way as toymaker Mattel engages with 8 year old girls.

Gloria De Piero, who probably thought she was trading the puerile soundbites of GMTV for the serious world of politics when she was elected MP for Ashfield at the 2010 election, was instead forced to stumble through an interview while trying to find a different word than pink for the obviously pink bus parked behind her. Harriet Harman chose to call it cerise but whatever the shade of pink it was a strange choice for a party who have vocally supported the PinkStink campaign and one which was always likely to be seen as patronising.

What was more alarming than the colour of the bus was how the Labour Party described the campaign itself. Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, demonstrated just what they really thought about women when she suggested that they wanted, “to have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table rather than having an economy that just reaches the boardroom table.” That’s right. They are coming to talk to you where you are; in the kitchen not the boardroom!

I thought that the opprobrium rightly heaped upon “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind” video, released on behalf of the Better Together campaign which implied that women can’t think of big things when they have housework to do, would have taught Labour a lesson, but apparently not. And being patronising to women isn’t a Labour only issue. At a recent prestigious fundraising events held by the Conservatives one of the prizes was a shoe-shopping trip with Teresa May!

And anyway, with the manifesto already written this is not listening to women. It is merely talking at women.

But is there a need for a campaign for women at all? Does it really help to lump all women together in a homogenous mass of pink-loving, lovely, ladyness?

I am involved in many organisations which actively campaign to increase the recognition of the achievements of women and to promote greater participation of women across all aspects of society from shop floor to boardroom. During the debate on Scottish Independence I was active in writing articles, knocking on doors, giving out leaflets and generally campaigning. Yet it never occurred to me to join Women for Independence. The issues that occupied me, and millions of Scots on both sides of the debate, were those of social justice. Issues that affect both men and women. I am very unlikely to share the same views as any of the women the Daily Mail has called Cameron’s Cuties just because we both have ovaries. And young women starting out in work, looking for their first home, worried about repaying student loans, worried about getting a job have much more in common with young men of a similar age than they have with my retired and comfortably off mother. 51% of the population are women. Women are the average voter and not a niche, special interest group that have a narrow range of interests. Yes, there are issues that effect women in particular, like domestic violence being perpetrated largely by men against women, and the disadvantageous effects of the recent changes in the benefits system but issues like childcare directly affects mothers and those in traditional families, not all women.

There is a problem to be solved, though. One of engagement. At the 2010 election only 39% of young women bothered to vote. In total over 9m women didn’t exercise their right to vote. And, if you don’t talk about women then the debate becomes male dominated. Why? Because women aren’t IN politics. Women make up less than 22% of MP’s and less than 20% of cabinet posts are held by women…. and I actually heard Shirley Williams interviewed on Radio 4 this week saying that she thought her mother, Vera Brittain, would be proud of the progress women have made in politics.

To engage women we have to demonstrate that politics is not a man-only activity. This will not be achieved by driving a pink van through towns and villages. Far better would be for politicians to do their jobs and tackle issues such as equal pay. They could ensure that women are treated fairly in the workplace. If the Labour party really wanted to do something for women it could ensure that North Lanarkshire Council, which it runs and has run for generations, settles the 3,000 cases brought by women against it under equal pay legislation.

This “stop me an buy one” approach, with politicians arriving to a fanfare then leaving again like well-dressed ice-cream sellers, will not work.

Placing power in the hands of the people

3 11 2014

Well, at least I won’t need to use my passport when we come up at Christmas.

That was pretty much the only mention of the independence referendum on my recent visit to my parents’ home in Cheshire. There was nothing in the newspapers or the the tv. Taken together with the poor turnout for the debate held in the House of Commons on 14th October it is clear that, as far as people and politicians south of the border are concerned, the matter is now closed.

Compare and contrast with the 14,000 individual submissions, including my own, made to the Smith Commission. Setting aside any concerns about the timescale on which the commission is acting, to produce Heads of Agreement with recommendations for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament by 30 November 2014, what is clear is that, in Scotland, the issue of independence hasn’t gone away.

But for me independence, or lack of it, is only part of the solution. Independence would have been a valuable first step in bringing decisions closer to the people affected by those decisions but just as important as where government is, is how it works.

Firstly considering where government is; when government is too far away from the people being governed it is much more likely to fall under the influence of vested interests. Decisions are made which serve the interests of those groups rather than for the electorate. You need only look at the rise and rise of companies who exist solely to lobby politicians on behalf of the companies that they represent to see that this is true.

Now considering what government does; independence would have made no difference to the lives of the people of Scotland if the decisions made in Holyrood were the same as those taken in London. Listening to voters in Orkney and Shetland, who voted overwhelmingly to stay within the union, Edinburgh is a faraway place that cares little for their interests, just the same as London.

Government in the UK as a whole, and Scotland in particular, is massively centralised, both in terms of parliaments and massive local authorities; for example highland council covers an area the size of Belgium! Further comparison shows that Scotland has 32 local councils while Finland, with a population similar to Scotland, has 348 local authorities. The small island of Iceland has some 79 local municipalities. The average population of a local authority in Europe is 5,620. While in Scotland it is 163,000. Scotland wasn’t always so centralised, the current structure is a legacy of the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1994, until then there were nine regional councils, 53 District Councils and three Island Councils, and it doesn’t need to be like this.

The contraction of the number of authorities has been accompanied by the loss of powers and budgets and a decrease in local democracy. Decentralisation, such as has happened at all, has been a cloak behind which privatisation stalks – the provision of erstwhile public services by private suppliers. I have seen organisations lauded as successful social enterprises when, for example, they provide local care services under tender from NHS Scotland, replacing services that previously the NHS had supplied directly – and in the process patients are re-framed as customers.

The only way to ensure government for the people by the people is to bring decision-making to everyone’s doorstep.

We must all have the chance to be involved in local decision-making and to feel that our voices will be heard; to feel that decisions affecting us can be made locally by us, rather than being handed down by remote local authorities or central government. We must create a new layer of local democracy at the community level.

But creating a new structure would count for little unless accompanied by real budgets and real powers at a strategic level. For example, communities could fund and control their local transport and planning decisions, and take control of local economic strategies.

Community councils do exist in many places, there is one here in Crieff, but other than in a few cases where income from wind farms and other local energy projects has been forthcoming, they have little money and little power to act. Yet there is a growing desire for local ownership and control of assets such as community woodlands, shops and other assets and amenities under threat. But this piecemeal creation of small development trusts and local community benefit societies, while desirable and commendable, is not a solution in and of itself. While devolution cannot stop at Holyrood neither can community control be restricted to individual, disparate projects.

We, the people need to be trusted. Currently, when government wants advice on policy it employs consultants, at great expense, who typically call for submissions from groups and organisations but seldom from individuals. The Smith Commission is a notable exception to this rule, though how many of the 14,000 submissions from individuals will be read is another matter. A case crossed my desk only this morning, a review into the role of women in the Scottish economy has been underway since July and a group I co-founded, Changing the Chemistry, has been approached to be a primary input to the review. Consultation amongst interested groups, even those with noble aims like Changing the Chemistry, favours vested interest groups. Far better to set up a small group of woman who reflect the whole of society and which can make a recommendations that reflects the views of all of society. Better still, allow woman in communities to decide how best they can participate in the Scottish economy by empowering local initiatives to stimulate economic growth; after all, things that would work in Crieff may not be right in Morningside.

At the core of local democracy is having local assets in local control. Land reform is a priority. At present Scotland’s land is owned by a small, privileged elite. The large estates are run for the sole benefit of landowners and not for Scotland’s benefit. The needs of the great shooting estates have been allowed to override all else, leading to massive deforestation and the huge increase in deer numbers. Our uplands should not be treeless and bare. Land ownership must be democratised, with unproductive land used to create a sustainable economy in terms of food, energy and leisure.

There is a new engagement with politics. Nicola Sturgeon, on behalf of the SNP, is talking to packed town halls. All three pro-independence parties saw membership rocket following the referendum.

There is a fervent desire for change. In Scotland, the YES movement remains vibrant and active. All the groups which campaigned for a yes vote now united around one thought; that things don’t have to be like this, that there can be a better Scotland.

There is a thirst for knowledge. Many people who have never been engaged in civic society, who, I’ve heard many state, have been sleep-walking through their lives, who have not engaged with the political process on the assumption that their vote doesn’t matter, have woken up. People want to know about land-ownership, want to understand macro-economics, want to know how the institutions of state are managed. And we don’t want to be talked at. We want to talk to each other and decide how best to make decisions as individuals and as communities and as a country.

As I’ve stated ad nauseum in these blogs, the day of the hero entrepreneur is dead. Now time is running out on the hero politician. People are no longer satisfied with Alan B’Stard and his ilk sitting in whichever parliament we’ve sent them to, voting on behalf of vested interests rather than constituents. We must return power to people, to communities. We must no longer accept a nation run on the basis of privilege.

Why we need an equalities regulator for Scotland

31 10 2014

Following the referendum on independence for Scotland and the last minute vow by the leaders of the three major parties in Westminster to devolve further powers to Holyrood, the Smith Commission has been established look at what additional powers might be granted.

While I have had an input via organisations to which I belong or am affiliated to, this is my personal submission… not that I really expect that any of them will either be read or acted upon.

Earlier this year I attended a major conference sponsored by the Scottish Government; Women on Board, Quality through Diversity, which sought to identify areas of inequality in public sector boards. In short, while women make up 52% of the Scottish population and the majority of University graduates are women, there is still significant gender inequality on public boards, with women making up only 36% of board places and holding just 21% of board chairs. At Holyrood itself, women make up only 36% of MSP’s and fewer than 25% of local councillors are women.

Since the power to legislate on discrimination and equality is reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament does not have legislative powers to address this issue. The Scottish parliament cannot introduce, for example, quotas as the ability to do so is reserved under the provision on political parties in the Scotland Act.

Neither could quotas for membership of private sector boards be introduced as this would mean changes to companies law, which is also reserved.

Currently the Scotland Committee of The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the equalities regulator in Scotland but it is not accountable to the Scottish Government or Parliament.

So, in order to properly address the issue of equality, powers to legislate to improve gender equality must be devolved to Holyrood.

This change will allow parliament to introduce measures such as quotas. With the pace of change slowing following the Davies Report it will be decades before the current guidelines for board representation return anything like parity. The introduction of quotas may be a necessary, albeit temporary measure, to bring about change more quickly.

Scotland needs an equality regulator to replace the Scotland committee of the EHRC and to work alongside the Scottish Human Rights commission.

But this is not enough in and if itself.

Inequality cannot be addressed solely by changes to a statutory body or committee. Structural inequalities exist throughout society and cut across many government departments.

For almost 40 years the Equal Pay Act has enshrined a statutory obligation to provide equal pay, yet the gender pay gap persists and reports published earlier this week indicates that it is in fact now growing. Devolving powers will give Holyrood the power to conduct mandatory pay audits and to ensure that the provisions of the Equal Pay Act are adhered to.

Currently employment law, including the power to determine statutory maternity, paternity and parental leave and pay is reserved to Westminster. The provision of maternity leave, maternity pay and assurances about a return to the workforce without detriment to career progression are vital if women are to make full impact in the workplace. The power to be able to legislate in this area needs to be devolved in order to address employment and employability inequality.

Finally, there are considerably more women than men on the lowest incomes; 92% of lone parents are women and women make up 95% of lone parents dependent on Income Support. Currently the provision of social security, and decisions affecting welfare payments, are reserved to Westminster. The parties that make up the UK government and the opposition support the ongoing raft of welfare reforms while the Scottish Government, supported by the Scottish Parliament, has already demonstrated a willingness to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform. It isn’t likely that the UK political parties will change their stance with regard to welfare reform in advance of the 2015 general election or beyond, which leaves the Parliament in Scotland completely at odds with Westminster and constantly working to minimise the impact, both gendered and otherwise, of changes to the welfare system.

There are clear inter-dependencies between the welfare system, employment, employability and gender equality such that women’s rights can only be truly protected if the powers to legislate on equalities, employment law, benefits and taxation systems are transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

Humiliation? You aint seen nothing yet

30 09 2014

Prior to the referendum Peter Wilby, writing in The New Statesman, said that a happy outcome of the referendum campaign was the humiliation of David Cameron.

True, it did look at one point that the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party would preside over the break up of the union but when it comes to humiliation you need look no further than than Ed Milliband.

He and the shadow cabinet were invisible throughout the campaign in what is, if a head count of Labour MP’s is anything to go by, a Labour stronghold. Only at the very last minute did the labour front bench arrive in Glasgow, where they were met by a man on a rickshsaw playing Darth Vadar’s theme from Star Wars and chanting “here are your masters.” This foray north also saw Ed Milliband walking away from a woman who was asking why Labour support payments for the retention of the trident nuclear missile system when people like her were struggling to find a decent home.

Gordon Brown, largely on his initiative it would seem, took the Better Together campaign into his own hands and forced the leaders of the 3 main Westminster parties to sign a vow to transfer further powers to Holyrood in event of a no vote. Not travelling together or appearing on the same platform when in Scotland does not excuse Ed Milliband from standing alongside the tories.

Scottish Labour was even more abject in it’s failure to respond effectively to the yes campaign. They have underestimated the Scottish people before, believing that the voting system for the Holyrood parliament would ensure that a mandate for a referendum would never be secured. In 2011, despite the voting system which was supposed to prevent it, the SNP gained a landslide victory which made the referendum inevitable.

Scottish Labour has treated the SNP government, in majority control since 2007, as a blip. It has failed to respond as effectively as the SNP, and more recently the alliance of organisations that make up the yes movement, have stolen the ground on issues of equality, fairness and social justice. This movement , which has prompted a huge increase in membership of the political parties which urged a yes vote, is now the natural home of those seeking an alternative to the austerity agenda imposed by the ConDems and parroted by Ed Balls (and Ed Milliband if he’d remembered that part of his speech) at the Labour Party Conference.

While the welfare state has been rolled back in England and will stay rolled back even if Ed Milliband gets into power in 2015 Alex Salmond and the SNP have moved forward on issues such as free prescriptions, social care for the elderly and scrapping tuition fees.

The Labour Party has become so complacent, so sure that it could rely on habitual labour voters to turn out and vote along party lines, that it had few records of who those voters were, where they lived and whether they would vote no as instructed by the party. Large numbers of grassroots activists, alarmed that the party would stand shoulder to shoulder with the tories and liberals, refused to canvas for no. As a member of the co-operative party, I received a letter “urging Scottish Co-operative Party members to support our sister party, the Scottish Labour Party’s United with Labour campaign”, and I duly resigned from said party. Getting the labour no vote out depended in large part on activists from Wales and the north of England who, as well as being unfamiliar with the territory, were themselves often less than 100% committed to the better together cause.

There are some labour supporters who do, without question, back the union. Until 1965 there was a Unionist Party in Scotland and it was, at that time, the party of the protestant working class. We saw them out in support of the Orange Lodge and at the centre of violent protest in George Square immediately after the referendum result was known.

I can understand why the Labour Party would want to preserve the union as Scotland regularly returns a large number of Labour MPs to Westminster. But why would Scotland support Labour? Why should voters in Scotland continue to support a party whose policies include maintaining Trident, allowed privatisation of the NHS, support the ConLib austerity measures and recommend cuts to public spending and and a party whose MPs vote to wage wars overseas.

There is a mood in Scotland, started in government by the SNP and energised by the alliance of groups who united around the yes campaign, for a fairer, more just society. Elections in 2016 might see parties who support this agenda flourish. In the meantime there is the 2015 UK general election. If Peter Wilby thinks David Cameron has been humiliated – Peter, you aint seen nothing yet.

Wha’s like us…

21 09 2014

…. damn few.
Well not quite, but not enough of Scotland’s 5.5 million people were like like us.

So what, if anything, happens next? Social media has been filled with new groups rallying the 45, that is the 45% of people whose argument failed to win the day. The appeal to the 45 reveals a lot about what went wrong with the campaign. We were talking to ourselves.

We have to look at the reasons people voted yes, and no, before deciding where to go next or we will spend the next however many months and years just talking amongst ourselves.

The nature of the question on the ballot form, a simple yes or no, made it easy to rally behind one side or the other but the reasons people voted yes, and indeed no, are complex.

For me the question was one of governance; decisions should be made by the people who those decisions effect or as close as possible to those people.
Independence could deliver just that and only that; an independent government. The nature of that government, left, right or centre would be determined in the Scottish elections of 2016.

However the yes campaign led on creating a better society. Now, I happen to agree with a lot of the social justice arguments of the yes campaign. After all who wouldn’t want a fairer society? It’s a mums and apple pie thing surely? But that was not the question being asked and anyway, do people put the interests of society ahead of their own interests? I think not. The UK has a right wing government promoting divisive austerity measures not because the ConDems fell from the sky and took control, but because 60% of the people in the UK voted for them.

Way back in June, only 3 months and yet a lifetime away, I argued that relying on the feeling that people in Scotland are somehow so very different to the rUK might be misplaced. The no campaign were very successful in persuading some people that their immediate interests; their money, their jobs, their personal safety, would be best protected by voting no. Call it a campaign of fear if you like but it successfully appealed to self-interest.

Take the case of one young woman who intended voting yes and then had a very last minute change of mind for fear of having to carry two sets of currency and, since she lived in the borders, didn’t want to risk the hassle. Alex Salmond repeated ad nauseum that Scotland would keep the pound. Of course it would have, the economic argument is overwhelming, but the case wasn’t made in a way that convinced the fearful. And I’ve already heard apologies from women whose hearts were for yes but voted no as they were unsettled enough by the fears raised by no campaigners. Gordon Brown wading in at the last moment probably persuaded some that the UK government would pay more attention to the needs and desires of the Scottish people, but quite how the backbench MP for Kirkcaldy & Fife is going to compel the UK govt to do anything is another matter. What is the correct response to those women. Hell mend you? I think not.

I am on the steering group of an organisation working for increased diversity in Scottish and rUK boardrooms; particularly but not exclusively getting more women on boards. A fantastic peer-to-peer support network with women, and men, working to change the make-up of public and private sector boards in order to change the way organisations work. Equality legislation is currently not a fully devolved matter. The Scottish Committee of the Equality and Human Rights Commission reports in to the UK government equalities office. For example, should the Scottish government wish to introduce quotas to speed up the introduction of more women on boards it could not. An equality issue if ever there was one so surely most of the women involved in this network would vote yes. For most the answer was no. To many of the women involved in the group equality is important but not overridingly so. Many work for legal and financial companies who threatened to move HQ’s from Scotland should the vote have been yes. The women were not scared of this prospect and frightened into voting no. These women agreed with, and fully supported, that position. An appeal to social justice was never going to win those voters over. Finding ways to include people to the right of the debate is going to be a challenge but there is some common ground and we have to find ways of changing the minds of these women and men if we are going to build a better society.

I know many people who intended voting yes who have their children educated at private schools. That does not fit in with my view of equality and social justice so their reasons for voting yes were likely to be very different to those to the left of the campaign for yes.

In knocking on doors to get the vote out on Thursday I spoke to very elderly women who were almost in tears at the prospect that, after 50+ years campaigning for the SNP, Scotland might actually become an independent nation state. I feel that I have let them down at a personal level, that I couldn’t deliver their dream. But it wasn’t my dream. I’m English, after all. I’m not a nationalist, but many are and that was their reason for voting yes. Whatever might have happened to the country after that was of lesser importance than the fact of independence. I was advised by local SNP activists that they used to be dubbed the tartan tories. I’m not a political historian but suspect that the nature of the party has changed beneath the feet of these long-time supporters but the notion of independence has held them in one camp. What now for the SNP?

Just yesterday I showed a woman around my flat, which is for sale right now. She mentioned that the local church seemed to be having a service of reconciliation; as she put it, “something to help those upset by the result”, adding with a sneer, “not that there are many of them.” She was probably correct in that not many people in my bit of Crieff voted yes but it was the way she said “them”. I was sorry that the yes poster had already been removed from the window but suggested that there were more of “them” than she might imagine. She saw me as one of “us” not “them” as I live in a very nice, well appointed apartment in a very beautiful part of Crieff. It would be wrong to speculate on her reasons for voting no but I suspect class has something to do with it.

To paraphrase Tommy Sheridan, look at the people who are voting no and ask yourself why. We didn’t do enough of that before the vote. Neither did we look at the diverse reasons for people voting yes.

There were some fantastic groups that rallied the people of Scotland for yes. Many are now looking to find a place for themselves going forward. The first thing to do is to acknowledge that we lost. Those groups and that message was not effective or, in fairness, not effective enough. The yes campaign also raised the profile of many individuals, some of whom are also active in trying organise groups to head up the next steps Doing the same thing and with the same people will not deliver social change. I have huge respect for what Lesley Riddoch, for example, has to say but was swayed far more my the arguments made by individuals who I’d never heard from before. Lots and lots of voices all talking for ourselves being supported in having our voice heard rather than being filtered through groups or personalities.

There is a real danger that the energy released by the debate, energy which encouraged thousands of people who had never before engaged with the political process to go and vote, will be lost in the feeling that it made no difference. We have to find out all of the reasons that the 45 voted yes and find ways of bringing in the many people who now regret having voted no. We cannot just keep talking amongst ourselves and assuming that we all had the same reason or voting yes. In particular we must deliver for the thousands of young people who we let down. My own son was interviewed on Radio 4 as the results came in, just after the Dundee declaration. He spoke eloquently and clearly about his own reasons for yes and I’m incredibly proud of him. My life has been enhanced beyond measure in the last months by being able to talk to him about the issues that matter to us all. My suggestion is that all of us that already have a profile should stand aside and let the next generation through. Let them talk about the next steps and how they would like to see Scotland develop. And if we need a spokesperson I know just the man!