Monday, 25 April 2011

Time To Abolish The Council Tax - Not Freeze It

The opinion polls suggest Labour and the SNP are neck and neck in the race for Holyrood 2011. Interestingly both parties now support a freeze in Council Tax bills for the next year. They arrived at this 'freeze' via different routes however.

Like the Scottish Socialist Party the SNP are opposed to the Council Tax in principle, believing, as the majority of Scots do, that it is unfair and hits the less well off disproportionately hard. The Council Tax is indeed a regressive tax that bears no relation to a person's income. Consequently the least well off are hit hardest as the wealthy pay coppers. Since they have not been able to replace it with an income based alternative, the SNP have settled for second be stand 'freezing' the current charges.

Labour on the other hand has no principled objection to the Council Tax. They argue for a freeze on the grounds that they purportedly want to 'help hard working families in this time of austerity'. Most people believe that it has more to do with avoiding being politically outmanoeuvred by the SNP. Either way freezing the Council Tax does nothing to address it's fundamental unfairness. Indeed it may be argued a freeze helps the rich most of all.

As things stand the wealthy in Scotland pay a tiny tiny percentage of their income on this bill. For example,Stephen Hestor (the CEO of RBS) was just awarded a £7.7 million pay package for the coming year. Living in Edinburgh his Council Tax bill will again be frozen at £2,338 or 0.03% of his salary whilst some pensioners are paying 25% of their income on theirs.

The Scottish Socialist Part believes this is utterly unacceptable and this week we will highlight our fully costed proposals for a local income tax to replace the Council Tax. Our plans would mean the burden would be lifted from the shoulders of of pensioners, low paid workers and the poor and at the same time force the wealthy to pay their fair share for a change.

Here's how it works. Each individual in Scotland will pay towards the funding of local services but the more you earn the more you pay. So, for example, if your income is less than £10,000 you are exempt. That's too low to force people to contribute. Thereafter, on incomes over £10,000 and up to £30,000 you pay 4.5%. So if you are on £200,000 your bill is £450 [4.5% of the earnings over £10,000] If you earn more than £30,000 you pay nothing on the first £10,000, 4.5% on the next £20,000 and 10% on the earnings over £30,000. The next incremental step is to 15% on earnings over £50,000 and 20% on earnings over £100,000. This graduated rate (which the SNP opposes) is fairer and ensures that as your income goes up so does your tax obligation.

Economists at Paisley University who scrutinised these figures found that 77% of Scots will be better off compared to now. Furthermore, using the latest Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs figures, they are able to demonstrate that these proposals would bring another £1.5 billion into Holyrood's Treasury.

So, not only would this tax be fairer and redistributive, it would also halt the need for any cuts to public services in Scotland. And that's a freeze we DO need.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

For a Modern Democratic Republic

All across Scotland political parties are vying for votes and spending millions of pounds trying to engage the electorate in the 'democratic process'. Glossy leaflets are being distributed left, right and centre whilst 'hustings' take place in church halls and community centres as political activists strive for most votes. But regardless of who wins the 129 seats on May 5th all the successful candidates must start their new job by defying the democratic principles they have just publicly espoused.
I well remember my first day as an elected MSP, I was legally compelled to tell a lie, a great big lie in front of the entire country. And when I refused I was expelled from the very Parliament I had fought so hard to enter. The reason? The Scotland Act compelled me to swear an oath of allegiance not to the people who had just elected me but to 'the Queen, her heirs and successors'. I refused. My allegiance I insisted was to the people of Scotland. But the Parliamentary authorities made it clear to me, and to my fellow MSPs, in no uncertain terms, that if we refused to take the oath we would not be legally permitted to sit in Parliament. [This requirement also faces MPs at Westminster].
How can our democratic process be so quickly and categorically usurped in this way? What about the declaration made by the Returning Officer that I 'had been duly elected to serve the people' of the Lothians?
The answer is that Britain's constitution has a monarch as our Head of State. Furthermore our unelected monarch and unelected House of Lords help enact laws referring to us as her 'subjects'. The monarch is 'attended' by her Lords, knights, aristocrats and the landed gentry. Our armed forces fight for and express loyalty to their 'Queen and country'. The law of the land upholds 'Her Majesty' as the ultimate legal authority. She is not accountable to, or elected by, anyone. It's no wonder people across the world who know of the UK's antiquated constitution are prone to ask incredulously 'Is this the same country that haughtily lectures the rest of the world about democracy?
Those who defend the Queen's role as our unelected Head of State insist hers is a largely benign and symbolic position. But this is patently untrue. Her powers can hardly be described as 'benign' if, when you don't declare your complete obedience to her, you cannot take up the seat the people elected you to.
But Parliament has the power, insist the monarchy's defenders, adding that the House of Commons is sovereign and the Queen cannot interfere in their political decisions. But strictly speaking she could, that's the point. She could, if she insisted, even refuse to allow a Government to be formed. She could refuse to sign Bills into law. This may appear unlikely in the present circumstances, but what if there was a political or constitutional crisis? We saw a glimpse of this last summer when after a hung Parliament emerged out of the General Election it took quite a while to form a Government. Into such circumstances 'benign' powers are often seen to emerge! Ask the people of Australia. They well remember a greater constitutional crisis in the 1970s when the so-called 'benign powers' of the Queen were evoked to remove the elected Labour Government of Prime Minister Goff Whitlam.
Furthermore Tony Blair infamously took us to war in Iraq by dint of the Royal Prerogatives given to him by the Crown and without a vote in the House of Commons. And the Queen's Privy Councillors exercise powers that outstrip those available to the House of Commons. Their administration of many of the world's tax havens, for example, is beyond the reach of MPs.
Constitutionally, power in Britain doesn't ultimately rest with the people. Britain is not a fully functioning democracy but a constitutional monarchy. As a democrat this worries me. I support a modern democratic republic for Scotland, not an outmoded feudal anachronism. And the polls suggest the majority of Scots agree with me. Our constitutional arrangements are urgently in need of root and branch reform. A modern democratic republic would establish the clear principle that we, 'the people', equal citizens in a free country, are ultimately in charge. We demand the right to elect our MPs and our Head of State in free and fair elections. That Head of State must be accountable to the people alone.
I once watched Alex Salmond get himself into a 'right Royal fankle' trying to explain the SNP's policy of 'a people's monarchy'. Try as he might he couldn't square two contradictory concepts. You can have rule by the monarch or rule by the people, but not both. There can be no place for hereditary privilege in a modern Scotland.
In 2005 the Queen came to open 'her' new £440m Holyrood Parliament. All MSPs and their families were 'cordially invited to meet 'Her Majesty''. But we six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs headed for the hills. Calton Hill in Edinburgh City Centre to be precise, where with thousands of others, we read out a declaration calling for a modern democratic republic for Scotland. To us those three words, 'modern', 'democratic' and 'republic' are inseparable. 'Modern' is something the monarchy is not. And I'm not just referring to the castles, palaces and titles or to their horse drawn carriages, robes, crowns and double breasted suits. I'm referring most of all to their attitudes and principles, their unearned positions, class ridden hierarchies and political controls.
'Democratic' the monarchy can of course never be. You either have the 'divine right of Kings' and their 'hereditary privileges' or you have free and fair elections, you simply can't have both.
A 'republic' is by definition a state in which 'supreme power resides in the people' not a monarch. To me it is the essence of democracy. An elected Head of State is a prerequisite in modern democracies. If you look around the world at other leading economies; France, Germany, Italy, Russia, China and most of the others, they all dumped their monarchies centuries ago. And America never had one, not unless you count Elvis!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

SSP's Holyrood Manifesto

The Scottish Socialist Party launched our manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood elections yesterday at a press conference in Glasgow. With me at the launch were the other top of the list candidates from across Scotland. Frances Curran (Glasgow), SSP Councillor Jim Bollan (West of Scotland), and myself briefly outlined the main points in our magnificent manifesto [which can be downloaded from the SSP website] for the assembled press pack.
We gave the people of Scotland a cast iron guarantee that if they elect SSP MSPs on May 5th we will not vote for cuts to public services, to jobs, wages or conditions. This is a very important commitment because this will be the first Parliament faced with a reduced budget so MSPs will either vote for cuts or fight them.
The SSP has never, in twelve years, voted to cut public services or the standard of living of working people and we have no intention of starting now.
Second we stressed that we are committed to scrapping the hated and unfair Council Tax. We intend to replace it with an income based alternative which sees the wealthy pay more and the poor exempted.
And last, but by no means least, is our support for an independent socialist Scotland, a modern democratic republic. Whilst other parties dilute their commitment to independence we remain passionate about it. And as we will endure the sycophants cooing over a Royal wedding in the last week of this election campaign we felt it important to restate our commitment to a modern democratic republic for Scotland.
The press conference was well attended as the picture shows. As well as the BBC and STV film crews, several other photographers and journalists were present and their questions reflected their growing recognition that support for the SSP is increasing noticeably.
The coverage of our manifesto launch has, as usual, been patchy; some good, some bad, some non-existent. STV news carried a full interview and the greatest column inches were found in the Aberdeen Press and Journal. So, hats off to them for fair coverage and Dunces Caps to the BBC, The Daily Record and the other tabloids for ignoring us once again.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Prescription Charges Abolished in Scotland After 50 Years

After my election to Holyrood in 2003 I launched a Private Members Bill to scrap prescription charges. The SSP's Bill won the backing of hundreds of health groups, unions and patients groups across the country. It even won the support of the Scottish Parliament's own Health Committee.

It was voted down by an unholy alliance of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory MSPs, otherwise this double tax on the sick would have become law 6 years ago.

I am delighted nonetheless that our visionary idea has, at last, been realised and that a great injustice has been eradicated. The NHS promised, back in 1947, to provide health care free at the point of need paid for out of general taxation. Prescription Charges broke that promise to patients. Without our Bill, and the SNP Government's decision to pick it up, prescription charges would be £7.40 per item today as they are in England.

This achievement shows the people of Scotland what a difference SSP MSPs at Holyrood make to their lives, and in particular, to those of the low paid, sick and vulnerable. I hope people will remember this on May 5th.