Monday, 30 November 2009

The language of politics

Report on the BBC website highlighting that MPs have criticised the overuse of jargon in governmental documents, particularly for forms. Indeed, they point out that this over complication may lead to people missing out on benefits that they are entitled to, which is an appalling situation.

I think that this discussion about jargon needs to go further and examine the language which is used in political debate. In my work life I have focused on democratic engagement in recent years and have been struck by the fact that there is a very common perception amongst the public that political activity requires a very specific technical language in order to participate.

It is a reflection of the idea that politics has become 'professionalised', one of the key factors I think which puts people off participating. It is seen as a job and one for which you require strange and arcane language, knowledge which requires university education to be deciphered. One of the strengths of the British political system has been that technically at least it is possible for anyone to become an elected representative, a situation which is definitely not the case in other democracies. For example, someone like John Prescott would never have become Vice President in the US, but was able to rise to the office of Deputy Prime Minister in the UK. However, we are losing the chance to engage wider elements of society as the field becomes more closed, accessible if you are a party worker and/or politics graduate but difficult otherwise.

There is a growing trend for politicians to follow a set path - politics degree, work for a party or politician, elected. The more 'out-there' ones maybe go spend some time at a think tank to break from the mould. However, where are the charity activists, the grassroots campaigners, the, well, normal folk? True politics is not exactly the most appealing arena at the best times, and of course I am overgeneralising, however in order to have a vibrant and representative democracy we require all elements to be involved in it. Representation is not the only means for participation, however it does demonstrate a very visible involvement for different communities.

Working in Shettleston in Glasgow, a predominantly white working class area, I was told that politics wasn't for folk there, it was for rich, old men who attended top universities. Working subsequently with ethnic minority communities, the comment is the same other than for the addition of the word 'white' as an additional barrier.

Billy Connolly joked that anyone who wanted to be a politician should by default be barred from standing for election, but there is an element of truth to his quip. There is nothing wrong with having elected representatives who have followed the path I outlined above; the problem lies when that becomes the norm for representative's history.

One of the ways to try and change this system is to try and improve the language that is used, to restore political discourse to the realities of life rather than the removed and rarefied secret code which is often used. I'm not calling for a dumbing down of discourse, but rather that politicians stop and think about how they present their discussions, about whether they are relevant to the people they represent. Because not only would accessible discussions encourage a greater range of people to put themselves forward for election, it would provide a better environment for the wider populace to participate and challenge the political system, renewing and reinvigorating our democracy.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Putting the Evolution into Devolution

The Queen's Speech outlined proposals by the UK Government to introduce a number of measures for devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament and Government, largely in line with the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Whilst a commitment to strengthening devolution is to be welcomed, there are several problems with the measures which will hamper their effectiveness.

Firstly, these particular measures are reliant upon the Labour Party being returned to Government at Westminster which, whilst not impossible, is certainly an uphill task. The Conservatives have indicated that they would bring a Scotland Bill forward if they were in power, but obviously this could possess a different complexion. The questions raised by the SNP and Lib Dems about the need for a delay do therefore have a resonance - if Labour is commited to the changes why not implement them now?

Secondly, the changes themselves are tied into the Calman Commission's findings which, as I have blogged before, were not necessarily the most earth-shattering in human history. The devolution of further taxation control, principally in regards to Scotland's role in tax raising, is not likely to see much in the way of change - I would imagine that we will see either the Scottish portion remaining identical to the rest of the UK or, if the SNP are feeling mischevous, the Scottish section lowered in the hope that funding will still be available through the Barnett calculations. This would raise resentment across the rest of the UK against Scotland without necessarily actually having a beneficial impact on the country.

Other measures such as the control of drink-driving limits and airgun legislation are welcome but again are hardly major steps. It is not that the devolution settlement necessarily needs massive re-evaluation - personally I am of the opinion that we are still very early in the Parliament's life to be making these decisions - but if we are taking the opportunity after a decade then we should be using it to the full, to avoid the need to repeat the process every few years.

If anything the biggest changes Scotland needs are probably in regards to Westminster's role in the country. The Scottish Government and Parliament have responsibility for the issues which impact upon day-to-day life far more than Westminster does. In particular Scottish MPs are now seen as being less relevant to people in Scotland, impacting more on decisions south of the border than north.

The UK Government needs to examine the Scottish MPs' role to ensure that they can demonstrate their role in shaping and influencing Governmental decisions which do impact upon Scotland, such as UK foreign policy, national taxation and immigration. They need to be seen as complimentary equals to MSPs - the day of them trying to be considered a step above is certainly long gone.

So probably a case of watch this space overall. With decisions left until after the next election, everything will be up in the air as we wait to see who will form the Government. But as the Scottish Government prepare to release their White Paper on Independence we can guarantee that the debate still has a course to run.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The challenge of the public sector

Very interesting report published by Sir John Arbuthnott investigating how money could be best spent across the Clyde Valley area. Currently the eight councils spend about £6.5 billion each year and are facing, like every other council in Scotland, severe pressures upon their budgetary commitments. He has suggested that there are many areas where it would be possible to combine services which are currently duplicated, saving money and providing best value for public expenditure.

Needless to say there has been quite a response already to his suggestions. Although he has not suggested that the eight councils should be combined politically, the dread spectre of 'Strathclyde' has been raised above the parapets, frightening all with talk of the mega-body to end all mega-bodies. There is also the inevitable worries about the impact combination would have upon jobs - afterall if jobs are currently being duplicated then any changes is likely to see redundencies.

The threat of job loss, particularly in the current economic climate, is a worrying one and everything must be done to make the process as smooth as possible. However, the reality is that we do currently have a bloated public sector in Scotland which sees public money wasted, reducing public confidence in local authorities and the work that they do.

The left of course have traditionally been the defenders of the public sector, and this is a crucial role that they must continue to fill as the possibility of a Conservative Government, largely inimical to the sector, looms on the horizon. However, defence of the public sector cannot just be a blind kneejerk reaction of refusal to countenance any change. All sectors must adapt and evolve, and the fact that there is so much money pumped into departments replicating work fails the electorate.

Combining services would allow costs for equipment and maintenence, particularly in areas which require large outlays in materials such as road repair. Furthermore joint work would help to standardise facilities across the area, which is especially relevant considering the fluid and constant interaction for work and leisure between Glasgow and its surrounding environs.

If the councils remained politically independent they would retain the ability to make the key decisions about the delivery of services in their area as they currently do - what would change would be a demonstration to the public that they are seeking to maximise the impact of every pound spent. In addition they would see benefits to their budgets due to the savings achieved, allowing them to save key local services from cuts, an outcome which is inevitable if things continue as they are.

There is much still to be explored about the proposals and it will be interesting to see the responses that come from the councils concerned. There will be some opposition to the measures, particularly in light of potential job cuts, so it is important that Trade Unions are involved in the process to allow discussion and debate. However, change is needed to keep local authorities working, and in bringing together the work that they do they will be able to save money and best serve the public.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Well done Willie Bain MP

Well Willie Bain has been elected as MP, which is a fantastic result, especially the size of his victory. Reassured as well that the BNP were pushed back to 4th, albeit it only just. Still, a worrying situation and the parties must not be complacent.

Planning to be back to blogging now, so will put up my thoughts about the results when I'm less tired.

Glasgow NE result

Waiting for the final result but looking like it's been a successful night for Labour in my own constituency of Glasgow NE, with indications that the seat has been held convincingly.

However, the sad reality is that the main story of the night is likely to be the fact of the BNP coming third, if predictions are accurate. Whilst the turn-out is appallingly low and therefore the result shouldn't be extrapolated too far, it is the case that this result would be a historic change to the Scottish political scene.

Areas such as Glasgow NE possess many of the social and economic barriers and challenges which provide potentially fertile breeding grounds for the BNP. Up until now, however, the party has been held back by the historical reality that it had never had support in Scotland, being seen as an 'English' party. Retaining their deposit for the first time in their history in Scotland would have been a breakthrough in itself; taking third above the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats marks their arrival as a realistic and legitimate member of the Scottish environment.

One of the most depressing aspects of it all is that the argument is still trundled out that Scotland doesn't have a problem with racism, that somehow it is an English problem. This is completely false and doesn't just ignore the problem, it accentuates it.

It is crucial now that the mainstream parties take on the BNP and crush them utterly before they can create a irremovable presence. The oxygen of Question Time has fuelled their growth, but all of the mainstream parties also have to bear the responsibility for failing to stop the BNP in the past decade and in failing the electorate by not responding to their needs and fears. With this result, should the horror turn out to be true, the BNP have a massive opportunity to try and create the same possibilities for themselves that they have in certain areas of England. The parties have to engage with the public, to stop taking them for granted and to actually debate immigration, acknowledging peoples' concerns but also outlining the benefits it brings to the country. Moreover, we need to challenge the myths which surround the issue and which allow the BNP to play easy games.

I am proud that William Bain has been elected as MP for Glasgow NE (I will look stupid if that turns out wrong now!) and I know that he will be an excellent public servant for the constituency. But I am also embarrassed that we in this area will now be an entry in the history books for some of the worst reasons. We need to make sure that this becomes a one-off protest, rather than the start of a new politics in Scotland.