Richard Leonard: This next year will be dominated by fundamental questions about our identity and our place in the world
Last year in the Holyrood Annual Review, I said Scotland needed change. That there was nothing inevitable about rising inequality, spreading poverty, an investment squeeze, exhausted public services, housing and climate emergencies, profound health inequalities, and one in four children living below the poverty line. It was time to end the failed experiment of austerity and start investing in people, communities and public services.
In truth, little has changed. Austerity prevails with nothing but the most timid use of tax powers by the SNP Government, and too many people, at the sharp end of Tory-led attacks on the most vulnerable in our society, find themselves without support from a governing party which demands more powers and then hands them back.
Little wonder, then, that a year on, we still live in a country where the richest one per cent in society owns more personal wealth than the poorest 50 per cent. Accumulated personal wealth in Scotland has now surpassed £1tr.
And yet there is acute poverty in the midst of plenty. Figures from the Trussell Trust published earlier this year showed that in some parts of Scotland, the number of emergency food parcels given out to families increased by as much as 40 per cent since the previous year. Over the summer, I’ve visited holiday hunger initiatives led by local councils. It is clear that demand for action to combat poverty is growing. The number of families affected by the cruel two child benefit cap has doubled, and £80m has been handed out in advance universal credit payments to people facing economic hardship.
This deepening of poverty is both morally unacceptable and economically and socially corrosive. A couple of months ago, I visited a busy food bank in Paisley on a Friday afternoon. It was busy and well organised. It’s a stone’s throw from the high street, which, like too many others in town centres across Scotland, is struggling for its very retail survival. What that busy Friday afternoon food bank tells us is not that there is a shortage of demand for basic goods based on need, and that it is a lack of demand that is the cause of town-centre decline. It is that there is a shortage of money to meet that need. Addressing poverty, including in-work poverty, would help not hinder town centre regeneration.
So tackling the low wage, low investment, long hours economy must be a priority, and that means a clean break from the neo-liberal economics which has given us not only austerity, but fuelled massive inequality between those who create the wealth and those who own it. It is an economics which relies too much on the market and even introduces the profit motive and the shareholder dividend into the National Health Service. Little wonder that workers like those employed by ISS at Hairmyres are fighting back. And it is the same economic model which has brought to an end more than a century and a half of production at the Caledonian Railway Works in Glasgow.
Of course, the intervention at Ferguson Marine on the lower reaches of the Clyde is welcome, but we need to go beyond a Scottish Government doctrine of ‘case by case’ to a proactive national plan for our economy. This is the right thing to do in any case, but it is made even more urgent and strategically necessary by the need for government leadership on climate change.
Indeed, the grassroots protests of people from all walks of life demanding action from the Scottish Parliament are also a defining memory of 2018-19. It was ordinary people’s extraordinary activism, which pushed the Scottish Government into accepting the incontrovertible fact that we are in a climate emergency.
The SNP government’s commitments on CO2 emissions in the Climate Change Bill were pedestrian, but the pressure wrought by citizen protestors and the continued work of opposition parties tightened up targets for reductions, which are now the most stringent in the UK. However, we are not doing enough. We cannot solve the climate crisis at the expense of those who already have a bad deal. We must look at good work and good jobs in the new environmental reality, which is why the role of trade unions in planning the change is so essential.
To protect workers, we must go further than the climate bill in its current form and use the new parliamentary term to enshrine the Just Transition Commission in law, so that working people and communities are not left behind. Those of us who lived through the deliberate assault on the coal industry, mining communities and the miners’ union know what an unjust transition looks like. We need a credible decarbonisation plan, which puts people and communities at the centre of it.
The Transport Bill offers parliament an opportunity to reverse a decade of neglect in our public transport services. Thanks to the work of the opposition parties and key third sector groups, the bill will now allow councils to run bus services directly. Scotland’s buses can now be run for people, not profit, with local authorities able to use the income they make to keep fares down and protect bus routes, instead of the profits being hived off to company shareholders.
There is a further opportunity to bring public transport into public ownership with the break in the failed ScotRail contract. It was extraordinary when in 2015 the SNP Government privatised the railway services for not the next five, but for the next ten years. Public opinion, not least passenger opinion, backs a return to public ownership. It’s about time the political establishment caught up.
And so to the NHS. We started last term with a new health secretary who promised to fix its problems. It is a promise which is increasingly ringing hollow. Our NHS doctors and nurses are overworked, understaffed and under-resourced. A year on, the cabinet secretary has not overseen improvement, but quite the opposite: more operations cancelled, longer waits at A&E, promises broken on delayed discharge and bleak cancer outcomes for the poorest people in our communities. On top of that, the list of safety scandals gets ever longer; now we have a neurosurgery department in Edinburgh that is not fit for purpose; and a brand new, £150m state of the art hospital lying empty. In the coming year, Scottish Labour will continue to hold the Health Secretary to account. It is paramount that we strive for greater equality, improve the health of the nation and make our NHS and social care services fit for the future.
Scotland has changed in the 20 years that our parliament has been sitting. The parliament has altered the physical relationship to power, with decisions that most affect us now being taken close to us, but it hasn’t done enough to change the relations of power. Which is why land reform is unfinished business, why we need positive action in housing, including in the private rented sector. It is why we need a new economic approach, and a stimulus in co-operative development and worker ownership. And it is why we cannot simply pass laws on equality, we need real and radical changes in the culture and distribution of power. I see the decentralisation of power to communities and to local government as a critical part of that. The decade of centralisation needs to be ended.
It has always been my firm belief that politics is not a game. That, at its best, it resolves the great economic, social, sometimes moral, questions we face. I understand that this next year will be dominated by fundamental questions about our identity and our place in the world. Those questions demand answers. Ours is to remain and reform both the UK and the EU. And we will strive to ensure that the Scottish Parliament better reflects, and so deals with the pressing concerns of the day-to-day lives of the people of Scotland: our jobs, our homes, our health and our quality of life.