Thursday, 16 June 2016

Off to the Spanish General Election - Sunday June 26th

I am off to Madrid on Sunday to observe the Spanish General election at the invitation of Podemos.

The election has been called because it is 6 months since the last election and the Spanish Constitution decrees a new vote must be held if no party/coalition has been able to command a majority in the Cortes within that period. Since the last election on December 20th resulted in a hung parliament and none of the 4 main parties could agree to govern separately or together the June 26th vote has been called.

The latest opinion polls suggest little has changed however since December in terms of popular support. The conservative Partido Popular [PP] stands on 29% of the vote, Podemos [We Can] is on 25.5%, PSOE [the Labour Party] 20% and the smaller right of centre party Cuidadanos [Citizens] is on 14%. [Source: El Pais/Metroscopia 11.6.16]

With no party again likely to emerge with enough support to form a majority in the 350 seat Cortes on its own the pressure will mount to form a coalition. The likelihood of that happening however is poor. All the possible permutations failed to materialise last time. So there is likely to be a prolonged political impasse.

All of this is bad news for the economy and continues the journey into uncharted political waters for post Franco Spain. The country has been governed by either the PP or PSOE since the 1970's. But that all changed when the Spanish economy 'went off a cliff' following its financial collapse of 2008. The unprecedented economic crisis that followed also unearthed massive corruption and bribery at the heart of the Spanish banking sector and political establishment. The PP and PSOE leaders were caught red handed and thoroughly discredited by their financial corruption.

The economic collapse and social outrage at the corruption scandals led to the emergence first of Podemos [We Can] on the Left and then Cuidadanos [Citizens] on the Right. Both changed the face of Spanish politics.

Economically Spain remains in huge trouble. Unemployment as a whole is running at 20% and youth unemployment at 50%. The country has seen one million people emigrate in the last 5 years alone. The EU was forced to step in and bail out the Spanish finance sector. The country now has one of the highest debt: income ratio's in the world. It owes its creditors more than one Trillion Euros. The social consequences of the collapse are pitiful. 30% of the population are now living in poverty and unable for instance to afford the electricity they need to keep warm in the winter and cool in the blistering summer sun.

Podemos and their pony-tailed leader Pablo Iglesias have promised to create a million new jobs, to renegotiate EU debt repayments, invest in health and education provision and industrialise Spain's economy by moving away from the traditional sectors of tourism, agriculture and construction. Their hopes of forming Spain's first Left-wing Coalition Government since the 1930's rest with PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez. But there is no love lost between the two parties. More importantly their political differences are profound. Podemos are anti-austerity. PSOE are much more economically and socially conservative. On the crucial issue of Spain's constitution where areas like Catalonia, the Basque country, the Valencien community and Galicia the two party's share a desire to maintain the unitary state. But Podemos is in favour of independence referenda in these areas with a new constitutional settlement might loosen the grip of Madrid and devolve even more power to the localities.

In an attempt to boost its own level of support, increase the pressure on PSOE and ultimately break the deadlock in government Podemos has reached an agreement with the Spanish Communist Party [Unida Izquerida] to form an alliance for this election and will appear on the ballot paper as Unidos Podemos [United We Can].

I am looking forward to the election campaign and learning much more about Podemos's programme and strategy in the next week or so. And I will be filing regular reports from Madrid here on my blog over the next ten days.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

Edinburgh Peoples Festival hosts debate on the European Union Referendum

The Edinburgh People's Festival hosts a debate on the forthcoming Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU on Wednesday at The Grassmarket Centre in Candlemaker Row.
The event offers the citizens of Edinburgh help to decide whether to Remain or Leave the EU.
Former SNP Deputy leader Jim Sillars will make the case for leaving the EU, Maggie Chapman from the Scottish Greens will outline the Remain view and Lothians MSP Neil Findlay will also join us to explain why he is as yet still undecided.
Doors open at 7pm and the debate will be chaired by Natalie Reid from the Edinburgh People's Festival. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

FREE PRESCRIPTIONS MUST BE PROTECTED

 
Free NHS prescriptions are one of the landmark achievements of The Scottish Parliament. And this needs to be reiterated as the Annual Conference of the British Medical Association's Scottish Committee convenes in Clydebank today. For a motion has been tabled at the conference by the Ayrshire and Arran branch calling for the reintroduction of means tested NHS prescription charges on the grounds that providing these medicines free is 'a drain on NHS resources and adds to GP's workloads'.

As an MSP I presented the original Holyrood Members Bill to abolish these charges in Scotland. And I am proud to have done so. The charges were abolished in Scotland in 2011. Any move to reintroduce the charges would not be in the best interests of patients or our nations health.

NHS Prescription charges were introduced in 1951. The charge of 1/- [one shilling] was intended to be temporary to help pay for Britain's war in Korea. Sixty years later they were finally abolished in Scotland but only after the charge had risen to £6.50 per item on the prescription.

The evidence I presented to Parliament in 2004 showed that tens of thousands of patients were going without the medicines they needed because they could not afford to pay. The means testing principles were illogical and contradictory. Some patients were exempt from payment on the grounds of age. Others, such as pregnant mums, were exempt on the basis of their particular health condition. There was no logic to which conditions should be exempt and others charged. It was entirely arbitrary based on the cost implications to the Exchequer. This meant that a retired multi-millionaire for example did not have to pay a penny but a low paid care worker had to meet the cost in full. MSPs on £65,000 a year were often exempt by virtue of their age or an existing health condition but cancer patients requiring multiple drugs at one time could rack up a small fortunes in medical bills.

The founding principle of the NHS, that the service be available to all citizens free at the point of need and paid for out of general taxes was of course completely breached by prescription charges.
Wales and Northern Ireland had abolished the charges years before Holyrood finally did so in 2011. Today only NHS patients in England now pay for their prescriptions. The charge currently stands at £8.20 per item. And it is due to rise again on April 1st.

Prescription charges mean the sick must pay twice for medical treatment, once out of their general taxes and secondly from this additional 'tax on the sick'. Economically the case for reintroducing prescription charges is weakest of all. NHS Scotland gave evidence to support my Bill showing that the cost of admitting patients to hospital whose condition had deteriorated through not accessing medication [£600/day] far exceeded any income they might gather from prescription charges. Leaving aside the cost to the wider economy - of days lost to prolonged sickness absence from work - the cost to the NHS of administering the means-tested system and protecting it from fraud reduced again any financial advantage further. The cost of medicines prescribed by GP's to their patients represents less than 0.5% [half of one per cent] of NHS Scotland's annual budget. 

NHS prescription charges are profoundly and politically unpopular because they undermine the fundamental principle of an NHS free to all.

 I am sure the BMA in Scotland will recognise the powerful case for ensuring patients in Scotland do not go without the medicines they need and oppose the motion to reintroduce prescription charges. And I urge them to work with their colleagues in England to see the charges are abolished there too.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

RISE is the socialist choice on May 5th

Independence is the elephant in the room as far as the 2016 Holyrood elections are concerned. It completely overshadows everything else.
RISE: Scotland's Left Alliance supports a second referendum on Independence within the lifetime of the next Holyrood Parliament. We want an independent socialist Scotland, a modern democratic republic.
Scotland was assured throughout the 2014 Referendum by the 'No' side that we would never have to endure another Tory Government we did not elect or suffer policies we did not want. But that turned out not to be true. Instead another Tory Government was foisted upon us to inflict painful cuts and punishing austerity on working people in Scotland. They preside over an economy increasingly built on poverty wages and casualization. They continue to blame immigrants and claimants for an economic crisis that had nothing to do with them. Whereas they let the real culprits the greedy, reckless and corrupt bankers carry on with 'business as usual'. They have taken us into yet another war in the Middle East, this time in Syria, that we do not support. And they plan to restrict workers rights still further by introducing the worst anti-union laws in all Europe. It is little wonder then that this hatred for the Tories is the predominant influence in Scottish politics today.

RISE is in favour of a second referendum on Independence within the lifetime of the next Parliament to rid us of this Tory menace. But the independence movement needs to be clear that a new mandate is required from the Scottish people if we are to force Westminster to concede another vote. We must not forget that the power to hold a legally binding referendum on independence still resides with Westminster! And they got such a scare in 2014 they will not, to put it mildly, willingly grant another one. They are determined to stop Scotland breaking free from British control. So we need to mobilise Scottish public opinion behind that second referendum otherwise we could see majority support for independence develop and yet be unable to seize it.

RISE are standing candidates in the Holyrood elections on the eight regional lists in favour of a second referendum within the lifetime of the next Parliament at a time of our choosing. And we are asking people for their second vote.

Working class people need socialists in the Parliament speaking up for them. RISE has an excellent chance of getting MSP's elected and we urge all independence supporters to vote for us with their second vote and help elect as many RISE MSP's as possible on the lists. RISE has put our promise of a second referendum at the centre of our manifesto pledges. And as part of our vision of an independent socialist Scotland we also support a £10/hour living wage, the replacement of the Council tax with an income based alternative that sees the rich pay more and poorer less, and a promise to build 100,000 much needed new homes for rent in the socially owned sector. We will also create 100,000 new climate jobs in renewable energy, sustainable farming and via free public transport provision. And last but by no means least all RISE MSP's will live on the average wage of the Scottish people - just as the SSP's MSP's did between 1999 and 2007. So instead of taking the £60,000 salary all other MSP's get ours will live like the majority and not the elite.
As Edinburgh's famous socialist son James Connolly said in 1910 'RISE with your class not out of it.'

And all this shows that voting for RISE on May 5th is the smart choice for working people.      

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Spain set for period of political instability following Sunday's General Election


Having begun 2015 with a visit to Athens for the Greek General Election triumph of Syriza I had hoped to end the year by accepting an invitation from Podemos to witness Sunday’s General Election in Spain. Alas the votes close proximity to Christmas meant that for family reasons that was not possible.
But the dramatic news from Madrid meant that for the first time in the post Franco era Spain will not be governed outright by either the Popular Party [Tories] or PSOE [Labour]. The remarkable breakthrough by Podemos [‘We can’] on the left and to a lesser extent by Cuidadanos [‘Citizens’] on the right was widely predicted amid Spain’s prolonged economic collapse and recent high profile corruption scandals. Spain now has a complex and polarised four party system with the PP on 123 seats in Parliament [down 66], PSOE on 90 [down 20], Podemos 69, Cuidadanos 40 and the others on 28.

The result overall was inconclusive however and even if the right-wing bloc manages to pull together a workable coalition [by no means certain] they only just make it across the 176 seat threshold needed in the 350 seat Parliament. Similarly if the left [PSOE + Podemos + the nationalist parties] can construct an agreed programme [again a major doubt] they too only just make a majority. Talk of a ‘Grand Coalition’ between the PP and PSOE, the two biggest parties, is equally unlikely. If no coalition or minority Government can be cobbled together another election must be held within three months. Many Spanish commentators believe this may be inevitable.

The political uncertainty matches the economic picture. The ‘recovery’ claimed by [former] Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is extremely weak and largely invisible to millions of poor and under-employed Spaniards. For them Sunday’s result represents more of the same. The same austerity, the same mass unemployment, the same mass emigration by the cream of Spanish youth.
And the unresolved national questions in Catalonia, the Basque country and in Galicia, are unlikely to be settled any time soon either. The views of PSOE and Podemos on the left for example, are at odds with the desire of nationalists in the ‘regions’. Neither party backs self-determination, although Podemos was forced to concede a binding referendum to Catalonia in return for support there. The right wing parties oppose outright independence for Spanish ‘regions’.
Even if any coalition Government can be patched together it will be vulnerable to Parliamentary defeats. The PP lost one third of its seats. PSOE who should have been the main beneficiary of widespread disgust with the PP Government lost a fifth of theirs.

Podemos won 69 seats in a spectacular General Election debut for this new, young party. However a note of caution may be wise as there are many questions now facing them. Given they led the polls in the Spring uppermost perhaps among the questions is why did Spanish voters not move more decisively left? And why did 80% of voters reject Podemos given the severe economic hardship and the blazing indignation at several high profile corruption scandals affecting both the PP and PSOE?

Might a more decisive rejection of Spain’s political duopoly not have been expected? And might it not be premature therefore to write off Spain’s two long established parties just yet with all their money, power and influence?
In January Podemos were ahead in the polls. They were then rocked by a financial scandal of their own. Then there were reports of internal schisms over the party's structures and its decision-making process amid accusations of a move to the right. Podemos will face intense media scrutiny now and immense political pressure from a Spanish state concerned at its rise. All of which will undoubtedly add to the wider political instability in Spanish society.


Monday, 30 November 2015

Britain is Sleepwalking into a Nightmare in Syria

This is a letter I sent to 'The Herald' today following an article by their columnist David Torrance on the prospect of UK air strikes on ISIL in Syria

David Torrance is correct to highlight the glaring flaws in David Cameron's case for UK air strikes  in Syria ‘ …the intellectual side of the balance sheet seems to me insubstantial’ in today's Herald [‘Corbyn’s style may be inept, but his argument is correct’ 30/11/15].
The Prime Minister’s plea that ‘we need to do something’ after the Paris massacre is not god enough. In fact it is no better than the case Parliament rejected two years ago. On that occasion David Cameron insisted we should bomb the Assad Government after it used chemical weapons against civilians in the escalating civil war. Had MPs taken his advice ISIL would be sitting in Damascus today running the country and the political consequences of that don’t bear thinking about.
The British Governments claim that ‘there are 70,000 moderate fighters in the Free Syrian Army’ ready and waiting to play the crucial role of ‘ground forces’ in the war against ISIL is nonsense. It ranks alongside Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ which insisted Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Robert Fisk, the widely respected Middle East correspondent, ridicules Cameron's suggestion and insists the FSA is lucky if it has 100 ‘moderate Sunni soldiers’ and points out that this largely fictional ‘army’ is referred to only by Western leaders who refuse to recognise that the only forces [beyond the Kurds in their northern enclaves] capable of defeating ISIL are the Syrian Army of Bashir al-Asaad backed as he is by the Russians, Iran and Hezbollah.

David Cameron’s proposition to launch immediate UK air strikes on ISIL also undermines his oft repeated and equally reprehensible objective which is oust Assad and organise a complete ‘regime change’ in Syria. There is a brutal civil war taking place in Syria where the only force capable of defeating ISIL is the Syrian army.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Osborne's Autumn Statement reveals tax credit climbdown and extent of Tory attack on public spending

Two features of George Osborne's Autumn Statement today overshadow all others. The 'headline grabber' will inevitably be his unexpected climb down over tax credits. Just as important however are the figures revealing the reduction in state spending during his period in office. It now accounts for just 35% of the total UK economy. It was 50% when he became Chancellor in 2010.

Faced with widespread opposition over his proposal to cut £4.4 billion from the benefits paid to top up the wages of low paid workers, including criticism from scores of his own backbenchers, this aspirant Prime Minister abandoned his plan altogether. His decision says more about his own political ambitions however than any change of heart by the Tories. They still intend to slash £12 billion from other welfare provisions most noticeably Universal Credits and housing benefit. They will also proceed as planned with £20 billion of cuts to transport services, climate change provisions and justice budgets.

Over the last 5 years the Tories have systematically slashed UK state spending. They are committed as George Osborne again made clear today 'to a high wage [sic], low tax and low state spending economy'. This means passing more and more responsibility for providing social services will be passed to the private sector. And more of the real wage bill will be passed on to private employers and not the state.

So how can Osborne reconcile his u-turn on tax credits with his commitment to lowering the national debt? The Office of Budget Responsibility can provide some of the answer. He has benefited from low interest rates for paying back government debt says the OBR and higher than expected tax returns in the year ahead. But the OBR has also concluded that his borrowing will go up not down from now until 2020. So Osborne's decisions today were as much about his own political ambitions as economic 'prudence'