Comment: Richard Leonard on fighting for a fairer Scotland
This has been a year like no other. And the challenges we will face over the next year will evolve, some may be different but many will be undiminished.
A year ago, pre-pandemic the First Minister insisted that ‘it is more important than ever that the Scottish Government continues to act in a calm, considered and consensual way.’ But as I said at the time we should not be calm about housing costs continuing to rocket beyond people’s means. Or calm about the reliance on food banks in Scotland being at an all-time high. Nor should we be calm about public transport being run in the interests of profit, not passengers.
The 2019 Programme for Government might seem like a lifetime ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic has in fact underlined the importance of making real efforts to tackle entrenched inequalities in Scotland. We stand on the precipice of a major economic crisis - for which the SNP government has prepared us no better than it prepared us for the public health and education crises.
So given that we have heard, in the past few months, the First Minister profess her commitment to consensual politics more than ever, I pose questions almost identical to those I asked her back on September 3rd 2019.
Will her party support the Fair Rents Bill to cap private sector rent rises? SNP and Tory MSPs joined forces to block it progressing further at the local government committee, but there is still time for the government to adopt it.
Will she support our plans to enshrine the right to food in law? My colleague Elaine Smith has now formally lodged this at Holyrood, and it will be unforgivable if the SNP takes the same filibustering approach with which it has attempted to kill off the Fair Rents Bill.
Will she support Labour plans for a publicly owned bus network and a publicly owned railway? Not least because of the accelerated level of public subsidy going in to both. And what about support for our proposal for free bus travel for all, starting with the under 25s?
But there are two even more significant tests facing the SNP government relating to issues I, and other Labour MSPs, have repeatedly raised throughout the last parliamentary year. One is Scotland’s need, now clearer than ever before, for a National Care Service. I have long been concerned with the issue of delayed discharge from hospitals, which is often caused by our underfunded care system not being able to put care packages in place for vulnerable patients. This was something that the SNP pledged to eradicate entirely by the end of 2015 - but it was still a major problem at the start of the pandemic.
Residents, families and care workers have all spoken of being let down and in some cases betrayed by the government - with a lack of personal protective equipment, inadequate and chaotic testing regimes and outrageous pressure for residents to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders.
Bereaved relatives have experienced not just grief but the cruelty of the current circumstances, which have meant they have been unable to spend valuable time with their loved ones due to fear of spreading the virus. It is clear that Scotland’s care system is broken - with fragmented provision, a postcode lottery of service quality and too many instances of profit being put before the people the system serves, and those who serve the system. So the National Care Service we create must put people before profit, have national direction with national standards, support local delivery of care and offer good work - with care workers’ pay and conditions reflecting the value they offer to Scotland. I am glad that our summer campaign, It’s Time to Care About Care, has been welcomed by figures across the political spectrum. I am willing to work with everyone who is prepared to support the establishment of a National Care Service worthy of the name.
The other major test of the SNP is whether it is willing to face up to the severity of the coming economic crisis - and whether its proposed solution is a sticking plaster or lasting change for the better. Since the scale of the coming storm became clear, I have been calling for the Scottish Government to put a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme in place before the furlough scheme ends. This point in time is now worryingly close, and with no scheme yet in place thousands more workers risk being thrown onto Scotland’s dole queues.
It is clear that those who already face disadvantage in the labour market will suffer the most - with a huge rise in youth unemployment. And in July, Scottish Labour unearthed worrying figures showing that unemployment among women had risen by half in the space of a year. Some of this is likely to be due to the disproportionate number of women employed in the hospitality sector and the uncertainty around schooling and childcare during the lockdown. But these issues themselves point to pre-existing structural inequalities which the SNP government has failed to tackle.
Women are over-represented in poorly-paid, insecure jobs which both the UK and Scottish governments - in spite of the latter’s commitment to “fair work” - have been prepared to tolerate for the sake of keeping the unemployment rate down. And the limited expansion of free childcare promised by the SNP now faces a lengthy delay which ministers have blamed on COVID-19 - despite free childcare offering part of the answer to a major impact of the pandemic.
The Scottish Jobs Guarantee Scheme must go significantly further than the UK Government’s Kickstart scheme, which offers so-called minimum standards which will likely be its norm: just 25 paid hours a week, the minimum wage and six months of work. Scotland needs jobs for good, which offer training and skills that workers can use throughout their lives.
In recent days we have seen just how quickly our threat of a vote of no confidence focused the Deputy First Minister’s mind on finding a real solution to the SQA grades fiasco. But the fact ministers spent a week defending a system built on little more than class discrimination demonstrates a government out of touch. We are now less than a year away from the Scottish Parliament elections. Over the next nine months, we will continue to apply consistent pressure on the Scottish Government to break away from its failed dogmas: the stubborn indifference to the educational attainment gap, the hit-and-miss approach to industrial intervention, and the toleration of a broken social care system. If we can gain cross-party support to establish a National Care Service, a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme or controls on spiralling rents, we will seize the opportunity - for the people of Scotland cannot afford to wait.
But we will campaign in next year’s elections on a platform of real change. That means no more tinkering at the edges while public services, our industrial base and our economic sovereignty withers away. It means a total rejection of the SNP’s managerial approach to government. We will fight for a post-pandemic Scotland which does not seek to return to the old, failed normal. We will fight for a Scotland which instead learns the lessons of a triple crisis rooted as much in the past decade of governance as in the current medical conditions. We will fight for a fairer, more democratic and more prosperous Scotland where the government intervenes on the side of the people it serves.