Where we are governed from, not who we are governed by.

26 01 2014

Yesterday I attended a referendum debate with speakers from either side of the debate.

Putting my cards on the table, I firmly believe that decisions should be taken as near to the communities affected by those decisions as possible. In the UK we have a system of governance that places too much power in the hands of a few people and takes control away from the people affected by the policies that centralised government enact.

Philosophically, therefore, I tend towards the view that independence would be a good thing as it would bring even more decisions under the control of Holyrood and out of hands of politicians who have little knowledge or concern for lives lived outside of the city-state of London. For the record, since 1950 Scotland has voted Conservative for just 6 out of 63 years but has been governed by Tories from Westminster for 38 years. This in itself should raise concerns about fair representation.

What has concerned me in the independence debate, confirmed yesterday, is the poor quality of the ‘better together’ arguments. I’m pleased to see that some of the early scare tactics about the ability of Scotland to stand alone as an economic unit have stopped, all sides agreeing that Scotland ‘could’ go it alone. The argument should now be about whether Scotland ‘should’. However, what they have still failed to grasp is that this is not about the track records and current manifestos of the political parties. While the ‘no’ campaign is right to suggest that Scotland should not vote yes just because the current UK government is unpopular in Scotland, it should also expand the debate beyond implying that a yes vote is a simple endorsement of everything the SNP says. I’ve heard many ‘no’ voters say that they couldn’t vote yes because they couldn’t vote for Alex Salmond. The headlines in today’s Scotsman newspaper, which really should know better proclaims, “Alex Salmond is within reach of victory in the independence referendum”.

This is nonsense. Alex Salmond happens to be First Minister at this time in Scottish history. Voting no just to spite Alex Salmond is wrong-headed and short-sighted. Voting yes because you like Alex Salmond is equally absurd. It would be like making decisions about the Union on whether or not you like James VI. True, we quite probably would not be having this vote had it not been for the persistence and tenacity of Alex Salmond, but Scotland existed before his premiership and will exist long after his demise.

Much of yesterday’s ‘no’ debate, spear-headed by Labour MSP Margaret Curran, was a speech about what a Labour government in Westminster would do, or has done. Frankly, this is irrelevant for exactly the same reason given above. Scotland is not voting on which party it wants to be governed by. We are voting on where we want to be governed from. And actually, pointing out that it was a Labour government at Westminster that brought in equal pay legislation only serves to highlight the 44 years that have passed in which successive Westminster governments have all failed to ensure that the act is actually implemented. The gender pay gap persists despite the Equal Pay Act. And it would be just as valid to spotlight the lies that led the Labour government to wage an illegal war in Iraq, but to do so would also be missing the point. The people of Scotland will have plenty of opportunity to vote on who we want to be governed by and at that point Labour, SNP, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and whoever else will be able to lay out their respective policies before the Scottish electorate. The independence vote is about where the parliament will be sited and, therefore, how much power those elected will be able to wield in best serving the people of Scotland.

As an aside, apart from the fact that their full name, the Conservative and Unionist Party, would make it difficult to be anything other than pro-Union, I can’t see why the Tories aren’t pro independence. Not having 50+ Labour MPs returned to Westminster as a matter of course would seem to make it much more likely that the Conservative Party could govern the rest of the UK in perpetuity. The fact that they still think that we are ‘better together’ indicates that there is maybe something in Scotland, other than our votes, that they want. Oil and gas maybe? Just a thought. By the same token, I can see why Labour are against a yes vote. Without Scottish MPs the Labour Party could find it near impossible to form a majority government at Westminster. Since David Cameron has promised that further powers will be devolved to Holyrood post-referendum irrespective of the outcome, Scottish MP’s will become more and more impotent, since the range of issues they can vote on in Westminster will decrease. At this point Labour may have a numerical majority but not a working majority and be unable to govern effectively. The very fact of holding the referendum may well already have signalled the death knell for future Labour administrations at Westminster.

The only persuasive argument put forward is that Scots should not leave the disadvantaged areas of the UK behind to face their fate alone. That voting ‘yes’ would be turning our backs on those communities who are suffering similar privations at the hands of this ConLib government. I’m from Liverpool, brought up at a time when, under Derek Hatton’s leadership, the city council was regularly at odds with the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. My parents live just outside, and my father worked for nearly 30 years, the Potteries and I know just how hard that part of England is being hit by the current austerity measures. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, progressive forces in Liverpool, and the other great northern cities, don’t seem to be as interested in challenging the distribution of power and wealth in British society as we are in Scotland. These cities are not demanding more local control, are not demanding their own regional assemblies. Scotland appears to be unique in wanting to create a society where social justice is top of the agenda. The fact that other areas of the UK are not shouting for more control is puzzling to me but is not an argument for Scots to do nothing. Rather by creating more local control and accountability should act as a catalyst to other regions to show what can be done.

So, I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Not because of the SNP or the current First Minister but because I want whichever party the people of Scotland vote for to be in a position to truly represent the wishes of the people of Scotland. More devolved powers won’t ensure this, independence will.

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Lies, damn lies and what the statistics really reveal

20 01 2014

There is a great support, fuelled principally by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch Press and stoked regularly by the endless media parade of government ministers, for a reduction in benefit levels. Those on benefits are portrayed as feckless and “on the take”.

Certainly some are, in my year spent in and around Scottish community projects I came across young men who had no intention of working and who I still see on social media boasting about never having paid a TV license, but this is not typical.

According to a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than half of the children and adults living in poverty are from working households. Not feckless then.

And all cheats? According to the government’s own figures, fraud across the whole of the economy amounts to £73 billion a year. Part of that figure is down to benefits fraud. When listening to George Osborne, who recently spoke about “hard truths” it is easy to imagine that the vast majority of that figure is down to abuses within the benefits system. It is not. In fact, benefits overpaid due to fraud is just £1.2 billion and tax credit fraud even lower at some £380 million. So just under £1.6 billion in total. To none-economists, i.e. most of us, this is a massive number. It is but we need context. £1.6bn is less than 1% of the overall benefits and tax credits expenditure. And the total loss through fraud in the system is less than benefits underpaid and overpaid due to error.

Some more perspective, the government figures put public sector fraud, which includes benefit fraud, at £20.3 billion a year. The majority of this £20 billion is tax fraud which costs the economy £14 billion annually, or 69%. So if anyone is on the take it is those who fail to pay the correct levels of tax.

As a mother of a a young person who will be leaving college in six months time and looking for work and a place to live, I’m particularly concerned about who the rhetoric and policies are affecting our children. It is shocking and saddening that a recent survey from Princes Trust reported that 9% of respondents said that they “have nothing to live for”.

Against this background George Osborne continues to target the young by removing housing benefits from the under 25’s. This is a cynical, as well as heartless, policy. The most recent figures show that £107.6bn of the £201.8bn social security budget went on pensions; yet the state pension is protected by a triple-lock to ensure that there is no diminution in real terms and other benefits such as free TV licences for even the wealthiest pensioners are sacrosanct. Why? Because the over 65’s are more likely to vote than any other age group, 76% in the 2010 general election compared to just 44% of 18-24 year olds.

So the most important message I have for my son, and his contemporaries, is to ignore the childish petulance of celebrity rabble-rousers such as Russell Brand and make sure you use your vote. If you don’t, then this government will continue to ignore you and, worse, ensure that a disproportionate amount of the austerity measure fall on the young.

In practice, the removal of housing benefits to under 25’s will leave many, including those in work, at risk of eviction. Where does George Osborne expect these young people to live? Not everyone can move back in with their parents George!

If the government are looking for savings in the overall housing benefit bill then they should address the extortionate rentals being charged by private landlords. When tabloid headlines proclaim thousands a week being paid to individual families in housing benefit the subtext is that these families are pocketing the cash. They are not. It is being passed on to the landlords. If the government campaigned,or better still legislated, for affordable rents it would have an instant impact on the total paid out in housing benefits.

In my case I have the space and my son could move back but what jobs are available for a 22 year old in Crieff? Other than zero hours “contracts” in the hospitality industry – none. Working Tax Credits are a vital in supporting those in low paid work. This is an essential safety net but it is also true that it allows employers to maintain pay rates at below subsistence level. In this way tax credits reward employers who could pay more but who chose not to; the government fills the wage gap. If the government introduced legislation to make payment of the living wage mandatory the working tax credit bill to the taxpayer would be reduced.

A final, philosophical rather than monetary note. It is engrained in our psyche, call it the protestant work ethic if you will, that the work we are employed in is central to our human dignity. How often is the first question we ask a stranger, “what do you do?”. There are high value answers, doctors and lawyers perhaps, and being unemployed is seen as worthless. In an age where there are fewer and fewer jobs available, particularly for young people, we must reinforce the truth that we all have value over and above the value we have to employers. We are more than a potential employee. This utility is not the sole measure of our worth as humans.





Women 2014

6 01 2014

What will it mean to be a woman in 2014?

I’ve been mulling this question for some time and there are several issues that keep coming to mind.

Firstly, my perspective is my own. That seems self-evident but to clarify;what I mean is that I speak only from my own experience. For a middle-class white woman living in 21st century Britain the phrase “we have never had it so good”, first uttered by Harold McMillan in 1957, rings true.

Most of the things I talk about each day, talk to other women about, are set against a background of privilege. Not the massive privilege of the ruling male elite, but privilege nonetheless. Had I been born 100 years ago my life as single mother in a small Scottish town would have been very different. Initiatives concerned with getting more women into senior positions, enabling more diversity in boardrooms, enabling enterprise and the rest all take place in an environment where we build on the success of those who went before us, those who laid the foundations of equality and opportunity which allow our conversations today to take place at all.

This isn’t the case for the majority of women across the globe. Women suffer discrimination, poverty and exploitation in ways that are difficult for us here in the UK to fully comprehend. Reading about atrocity is not the same as enduring it. While we cannot fully understand what it must be like to live in a country where women can’t drive, a country where genital mutilation is rife, a country where women are considered to be the guilty party rather than the victim when raped, it is really important that we see our own lives and our own conversations in this global context and to strive to make sure that the advances we can make here are shared by women around the world.

Secondly, I want to consider empowerment for women. Think Miley Cyrus. A young woman whose current image is the antithesis to the one created for her by the Disney Corporation. The question for me is whether this new image is her own creation, a result of her empowerment, or another form of subjugation, this time by the music industry. As Sinead O’Connor put it in her open letter to Miley earlier this year following the infamous Wrecking Ball video, “ it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”

The inevitable outcome of empowerment is to be empowered and, therefore, free to choose how to use your assets, physical and cerebral. But is this overt show of sexuality really empowerment or simply a more subtle exploitation? Exploitation by an industry, in the case of Miley Cyrus the music industry but which could equally well apply to print media and the continued appearance of naked women on page 3, cleverly making young women think that presenting themselves as a purely physical/sexual entity is what they want and what they themselves chose.

So, what does empowerment look like for young women today?

I’m in Sinead’s camp. I think that being empowered and choosing to act like a puppet of the sex industry not only looks just the same as being a puppet of the sex industry but it is in fact the same as being a puppet of the sex industry. What is the point of empowerment if you chose exactly the same way to express what it means to be a woman than would have been available prior to empowerment?

Laurie Penny, contributing editor in the New Statesmen and a writer I greatly admire, sees things differently and sees the attack on Miley Cyrus as a dangerous example of what she terms “slut shaming”.

“The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.”

Essentially girls are still being born into a world where there are two opposing views of women’s bodies. We are taught to be uncomfortable in our own skin, to constantly strive for the skeletal form of the catwalk model. Only then will we be lovable. So we subject our bodies to all manner of bizarre diets, we colour our hair, we shave our legs, we pluck eyebrows, we wear feet-deforming shoes, we spend fortunes of creams and pills and potions to try to conform to this ideal body type.

Being young and beautiful is as important today as it was when the lyrics of the song went,

“keep young and beautiful,
it’s your duty to be beautiful
keep young and beautiful,
if you want to be loved.”

Women are encouraged think this way and young girls can see that women who use their bodies in this way are the ones that gain power – through celebrity. So, taking control of our bodies becomes synonymous with taking control of our lives.

If we are going to change the way young girls think and act we have to break the link between “our bodies” and “our lives” and to stop considering “empowerment” and “exploitation” as if those things were mutually exclusive.

There is a Zen saying that can be summarised as, “before I was enlightened I chopped wood. After enlightenment I chopped wood. “ It is possible to perform the same task but with a completely different mind set. It is possible that gyrating on a stage wearing little more than a smile can be performed by the exploited and the empowered alike and we have to trust young women to know the difference. We can help them to learn the difference once we stop bombarding them with the message that only by having a great body can they have a great life. Any body can have a great life.

Thirdly, it’s time to ditch the diva.

It started with Shirley Conran’s book Superwoman, and with lines such as, “life is too short to stuff a mushroom, should have stopped there. But no. We are still looking to do it all, have it all, be it all. How about ‘Natural Superwoman: The Survival Guide for Women Who Have Too Much to Do’ or ‘Simply Wonderwoman: A survival guide for women with too much to do’ or ‘Domestic Sluttery: Cheat Your Way to the Perfect Lifestyle’; the review of the latter claiming that, “women would love to have the domestic goddess thing nailed, to waft around vintage fairs and antique markets for collectable items to furnish their houses with, and to be able to spend all day preparing the ultimate dinner party.”

No. Just No.

On a very basic level, I don’t want to waft around antique markets to find useless decorative stuff to clutter my home with. I don’t want to spend all day preparing the ultimate dinner party. I hate cooking and I hate dinner parties. If I have a day to myself I go to the beach or, my latest enthusiasm, make meditation stools. The point is that we women are not all the same. We don’t all want the same things.

On a more important note, by creating this role model of the successful businesswoman, who also makes perfect profiteroles, has a beautiful home and perfect kids is not empowering women. It is creating another unrealistic barrier at which to fall. It is fostering a feeling of being inadequate in those that don’t have it all rather than celebrating the things that we do have. I see lots of facebook posts from women displaying their beautiful lives; posts about the deal they just made and the fabulous meal they just prepared. I know that we don’t really want to read posts everyday about burning the porridge or missing the train but a bit of balance wouldn’t go amiss.

And there’s a bit of a theme in these books; tips for Women Who Have Too Much to Do. Women do have too much to do. We still take an unequal share of caring and domestic duties. Rather than reading books on how to cram what we do into the time we have to do it why not ditch some of the stuff? If we keep doing more and more in order to bolster our image as superwoman then we will never get to a situation where the duties are shared.

When women like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook fame stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has had she enjoyed she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, privileged journey that very few women, or indeed men, are able to take.

By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system. Women can transform the landscape, not by replacing male hero-leaders with female divas but by working to change the way the world works.