Monday, 18 March 2013
The Independence movement in Scotland is understandably focused, with 18 months to go until the Referendum, on how to turn around opinion polls suggesting only 38% or so intend to vote Yes.
There are those, like the Scotsman columnist and SNP insider George Kerevan, who insist the Referendum is more likely to be won on the back of a growing economy that makes people feel confident about their future. But with economic and social conditions across Britain facing a prolonged deterioration for the working class majority, the key challenge must surely rather be to show Independence offers us the chance to avoid the worst recession in 80 years, to avoid another generation being lost to under-employment, to avoid the further vicious attacks on our living standards planned by the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition.
The ‘under occupation penalty’, as the UK Government prefer to call the ‘bedroom tax’, is the latest policy of a Coalition making working class people pay for a crisis caused by bankers and the rich. It is a harbinger of what is to come for more and more of us. It means a cut in housing benefit of up to £35 per week for those least able to weather the economic turbulence. Due to be implemented on April 1st the ‘bedroom tax’ is being compared to the Poll tax because it is again being implemented here despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of Scots. Yet we remain powerless to stop it because we are at the mercy of a Government we did not elect.
Scotland has rejected the ‘bedroom tax’ as we rejected NHS prescription charges, elderly care charges and university tuition fees. We have, as is plain to see, different political values North of the Border. The Independence movement must therefore explain to all our fellow Scots there would be no bedroom tax and no more Tory Government’s hacking away our standard of living if we were able to make all our own decisions.
But for the Scottish Socialist Party Independence means more than that. It involves a commitment to full employment with everyone earning a living wage and enjoying far better working conditions than is currently the case. It means ending fuel poverty, with our gas and electricity industries returned to public ownership and control. It means ridding our nation of chronic poverty and inequality that brings shame on our international reputation. It means a higher standard of living for the vast majority of us. For the SSP being part of the UK holds Scotland’s working class majority back.
The Referendum is being fought against a background of deteriorating economic and social conditions for millions. Last week for example ‘The Independent’ newspaper warned in a page one headline ‘Half UK children will be living below the breadline by 2015.’ [14/3/13]. And ‘The Scotsman’ [13/3/13] reported Government figures show the standard of living of Scotland’s working class majority has plunged over the last 5 years with household bills up 25% whilst wages increased on average by only 6%.
This then is the context of the Independence debate and we should not underestimate the profound desire for change that is sweeping the country. Independence could offer us the chance to avoid a sizeable fall in our living standards.
All supporters of Independence will have realised, I’m sure, that our opponents pay us a great complement by ditching the central message they used during the last Referendum in the 1970’s. They argued then that Scotland was ‘too small, too poor and too weak to be an Independent nation’. But that argument has been so soundly defeated they dumped it and now claim ‘Of course we could run our own affairs. Of course Scotland could be one of the wealthiest nations on earth, it’s just we will be even better off if we remain within the UK.’ Unfortunately the bedroom tax, rising fuel poverty, falling living standards, rising under-employment, rising child poverty and the worst recession in 80 years make this claim increasingly difficult to sustain.
The choice then is increasingly clear. We can vote Yes and become a nation free to determine our own future or watch our living standards plummet further as attacks on public services and social support take hold as our reward for remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
The rise of UKIP, highlighted again in the Eastleigh by election result last week, puts the issue of immigration centre stage in British politics once more and reminds me of the conclusion reached by Sir Bob Worcester in his detailed study of the 2010 British General Election. Worcester found that immigration had been the 2nd most important factor in determining how voters had cast their ballots after the economy. I remember thinking how worrying that conclusion was for the left because the issue is almost entirely driven by the far right.
Whilst many disaffected Tory voters in Eastleigh cited their opposition to Cameron’s views on same sex marriage and wind turbines for changing their mind this time it is also clear their other main attraction in Nigel Farage’s party is his policies on the EU and immigration.
I firmly believe it is high time the left took the fight to the right on immigration and exposed the xenophobic reaction that UKIP espouse on this issue. Whilst Farage ludicrously claimed ‘5 million Bulgarian’s are about to descend on Britain’ as part of his Eastleigh election message the fact is of course that his views are not far removed from the Tories, Lib Dems and perhaps most shamefully of all from Labour.
The left on the other hand has a powerful message on immigration, one that can, if articulated effectively, neutralise the pernicious influence of the far right in the minds of working class voters. And the essence of our case is that those immigrants who come here actually make this country richer and stronger by doing so. The real tragedy of immigration is, by the same token, that they make their old homeland that bit poorer. It stands to reason then when you think of it that these new immigrants bring their skills, talents and energies with them and put them at the disposal of our economy and society. Yet the debate on immigration has for the past 30 years been dominated by the poisonous disinformation and ‘little Englander’ prejudices of the right wing gutter press. The Daily Mail has led the way with The Sun and Daily Express chasing after them and the BBC, Sky News and others following along dutifully behind.
It would clearly be foolish to underestimate the toxic legacy and the impact on the consciousness of voters, not least those anxious to explain the fall in their living standards. How many times, for example, have you heard the riposte ‘Aye, if we sent them back our problems would be over’? The ‘them’ in question can be anyone from Afghans, Poles and asylum seekers. When this view arises, as it did again for me in Edinburgh this week when I was campaigning against the hated ‘bedroom tax’, I like to gently confront my subjects with some choice questions by saying ‘they [whomever they are] cannae win can they? I mean if they are not working they are vilified for taking benefits and if they are working ‘they are taking our jobs. It isn’t the immigrants who are to blame for the worst recession in 80 years. It wasn’t them who bankrupted the economy, corrupted our banking system and destroyed the living standards of millions, it was the bankers and the rich.’
Much as the Tories are keen to scapegoat immigrants for the crisis we must not let them get away with it, nor let such claims go unchallenged. I truly believe the lefts message, when presented effectively can be attractive and popular. Not least because deep down in the Scots psyche is the powerful realisation that we are a nation of migrants and immigrants. ‘We’ came here from somewhere else and we now have family members who left here and are spread out across the world. These were, like all immigrants, brave people who had to take the heart breaking decision to move far, far away in search of a decent life. If we thought for one second that our family, friends and loved ones arriving in say Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, America, Canada, and many other parts of the World received the same kind of ugly welcome the Poles, Afghans, Nigerians, Pakistani’s and Bulgarians get here, we would rightly be livid.
The Scottish Socialist Party has a very powerful case indeed in welcoming immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Each and every one of them should be welcomed here because they are just like us, ordinary decent people trying to make a life for themselves in a harsh new environment. They should be welcomed and protected from those - employers, landlords and other businessmen - who would, given half the chance, exploit and persecute them.
I firmly believe socialists can succeed in confronting the far right reaction preached by UKIP, the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour on immigration. Indeed if we put our case with passion, courage and honour we can turn around the despicable agenda of the right and gain widespread respect for our agenda of solidarity and internationalism.