Eve of poll reflections

Tomorrow is polling day in the closest and most unpredictable election in my lifetime. I haven’t always been active in politics and this is the first general election I have taken part in as a Scottish Labour party member and activist.

In previous elections, I did what more people do: zone out the noise of the campaign as much as possible, vote on the day without thinking much about it and wake up to the result the next day. I’m very conscious that this is the election experience for most people when I now knock on their door and ask them what they think about it. Some people I speak to are puzzled that door knocking actually happens; some people are completely uninterested. A minority is abusive; the majority is polite. Every now and then you have a long discussion about the issues that are important to the person you are speaking to, who wants to know how your party can make a difference.

I am genuinely proud of the plan for Government that the Labour Party has on offer in this election. It is radical but achievable and it will benefit the many, not the few.

A ban on exploitative zero hour contracts; increase in the minimum wage; incentives for the living wage; tackle tax avoidance and evasion while abolishing non-dom status; abolish the bedroom tax; reintroduce the 10p tax rate for low earners and 50p rate for those earning over £150,000; a mansion tax to increase funding for the NHS; Scottish Jobs Guarantee for unemployed young Scots; a future fund for young people in Scotland who don’t go into higher education.

These are just a few of the policies in a manifesto that is fully funded and committed to addressing the deficit.

These policies would have a genuine impact on the lives of tens of millions of people living in the UK. It is a completely different road than the one which the Conservative and Liberal Democrats have led us on since the last election, a road which they would continue on if they remain in power.

And despite my hope that Labour emerges with a majority or as the biggest party on Friday morning, the reality is we may not. The polls have Labour and the Conservatives at neck and neck. As a result of the predicted gains of the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives will remain the largest party and will, likely, remain the leading party of a new government.

If this happens, the chance to change our country and implement Labour’s plan for a better Britain will vanish. It will be another five years before we get the opportunity again.

The fact is that if the SNP were not predicted to take the vast majority of Scottish seats in this election, David Cameron would already have his bags packed. But he hasn’t. He’s getting set to stay in Number 10.

A lot has been said about the how even if the Conservatives remain the largest party they could be blocked from forming a Government. Maybe that is possible, but why take the chance? Why gamble on back room deals, body language and personality clicks or clashes to achieve the result you want?

If you want if you want to see progressive change that benefits the many and not few, if you want to see the back of David Cameron and this Conservative led coalition and if you want to see a Labour Government, then you have to vote for it and you have to vote Labour.

There are many things that separate Labour and SNP supporters but I am yet to speak to an SNP supporter on the doors that says they want to see another Conservative Government. Let’s not wake up on Friday and regret the missed opportunity to prevent one.

Postscript

Another part of being relatively new to the world of election campaigns is realising how much they rely on committed volunteers.  Most people probably don’t realise how much political parties and the democratic process rely on people who fold letters, stuff envelopes, deliver leaflets, man street stalls, canvass voters, drive people to polls, drop of snacks for hungry activists.  It is a truly remarkable which often goes unremarked upon.  To everyone who got involved in this process, no matter the party, I salute you and your effort. 

Security in work, safety in work, dignity in work

Speech delivered to Scottish Labour Party conference during the ‘Prosper’ policy debate on 7 March 2015:

Good afternoon, colleagues. I want to talk to you today about the issue of justice and its importance in allowing our country and its people to prosper.

Without justice, we cannot hope to have a fair and equal society; without fairness and equality, there is no justice. This is at the heart of the Labour Party’s mission.

A topic of such breadth and importance would require more time than I have today to say all that needs to be said. I will therefore restrict my remarks to one area that will mean a lot to everyone in this room and the wider Labour movement: workers’ rights.

Too often in my work as a lawyer, I see clients whose rights have been trampled on by unscrupulous employers and, increasingly, clients whose rights have been abolished by this Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government.

Zero hour contracts give workers no security in work and no protection in law.  They have no entitlement to sick pay should they fall ill or suffer injury. Only a Labour government will ban this abhorrent practice.

The Coalition increased the minimum period for employee rights to two years service. Workers are left more vulnerable to dismissal without any legal recourse.

And dramatic increases in tribunal fees mean that even when workers have gained their rights, there are barriers to defending them. Claims to tribunals have already fallen by 60%.

In 2013, the Coalition abolished workers’ rights to hold employers responsible for breaches of health and safety regulations through civil court actions. Between 1990 and last year, the number of fatal accidents at work fell from 368 to 133. This is still 133 too many and if employers are able to casually or deliberately disregard the safety of their employees without consequence, this number will only increase.

The Labour movement spent over one hundred years advancing and promoting the rights of workers in this country. We have seen how quickly they can be dismantled. The most vulnerable in our country have been made even more vulnerable. I dread to think what the Tories could do with another five years of power.

Business, the economy and our country will prosper when workers have security in work, safety in work and dignity in work. Good employers recognise this.

Only by returning a Labour government in May can we repair the work done by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and advance the cause of fairness, equality and justice in the workplace across the United Kingdom.

No time to be missing targets on mental health

Each year, one in four of us in Scotland will experience a mental health problem.

Mental ill-health is deeply personal and often isolating. Despite efforts by governments and charities, there remains a social stigma and lack of understanding about psychiatric conditions.

At every level of our society, we could and should do more to help those who struggle with mental health issues. We could and should show more compassion. We could and should have better treatment services.

In my practice as a solicitor, I see how prevalent mental health problems are in our country and the impact they have. Some are short-lived periods of distress brought about by an event – bereavement, divorce or an accident. But for many their condition is chronic; it is controlled, rather than cured, over the long term.

If you have, or know someone who has, struggled with long term depression or another psychological condition, you will understand the impact of this on every aspect of life. It can affect physical health, personal relationships and employment.

This month, the coalition Government announced new ambitious targets for the treatment of mental health illness in England and Wales. Treatment times for a serious psychotic episode will match those for cancer and patients with other conditions such as depression would have improved access to talking therapies: 75% treated within six weeks and 95% within 18 weeks.

Fast and effective treatment is essential for the individual, but it is also important for the wider economy. The cost to Scottish employers due to mental health problems is estimated to be about £2.15bn per year; the cost to society due to lack of employment among people with mental health problems is estimated to be about £1.44bn per year.

In Scotland, we have had targets for mental health treatment since 2012. The Scottish Government’s Mental Health Strategy for Scotland committed to access psychological therapy within 18 weeks by December 2014.

However, the most recently published statistics, show that only 82% of people across Scotland are seen within 18 weeks. The year before, it was 81%.

Patients in Edinburgh and the Lothians are faring even worse, with only 73% of patients receiving treatment within the target time.

It is perhaps not surprising then that in early 2014, the Scottish Government revised down its target to 90%.

Unless serious steps are being taken now, it looks like the SNP Government will have failed, not just in its original promise but its lesser one too.

Since the referendum, the SNP has been pressed on public service funding and delivery in Scotland, particularly regarding the NHS. Too many people are struggling with the real problems that life can throw at us: poor health, inadequate housing, lack of meaningful employment. These are the issues of Government. These are the issues that impact real lives in Scotland.

The goal of better mental health for our country is important and attainable. On this, among a number of issues, the SNP Government needs to focus on what really matters and make up time lost while Scotland was on pause.

Healing wounds and moving on

This is a modified version of a speech I gave at the Law Society of Scotland’s post-referendum conference during a session titled ‘Healing the Wounds’.  I felt it was a fitting piece to publish here to round up the series of posts on the issue of Scottish independence.  Future posts will mostly focus on local issues from my campaign in Edinburgh Western. 

The referendum was an exhilarating, challenging and life changing experience for me. I am one of the thousands of people in this country who became politically active for the first time because of it. The last week, in particular, was intense, exciting and emotional.

Throughout the campaign, I was confident of the result. Bar a couple of dark moments, I expected a win for Better Together. And when it was confirmed after 6am on 19th September, I was proud of what so many had achieved, I was happy and I was relieved. But there was no sense victory over the other side. I took no joy in the faces of the Yes campaigners who remained at Ingilston until the final result; I took no satisfaction from the pictures of broken hearted fellow Scots in the newspapers over the following days.

There was a sensitive, compassionate and insightful feature in the Scotland on Sunday by Peter Ross about the aftermath of the result for Yes campaigners.

He related the feelings of those he had spoken to: anger, heart-break and bitter disappointment. He said that while it might look melodramatic in print, the impact of the campaign on these activists should not be underestimated. “Although the political transformation they sought had not come about, many feel huge personal change. They are engaged with society in ways they were not before. They feel, finally, that they have managed to get some purchase on life.”

I was moved by this and recommended that all No supporters read it because we all need understanding, compassion and insight to heal our nation’s wounds and move forward.

To me, the campaign came down to one issue: how to forge a better, more prosperous, more socially just Scotland. Yes or No, our aims were the same even if our solutions were different. We now have the answer of the Scottish electorate and we must all move forward together, united in that one aim.

Political engagement has never been higher in Scotland. Scotland expects and our political leaders must deliver. Creating further division now can not be helpful. Acceptance of the result and working constructively with the Smith Commission is essential for all sides of the debate, but particularly the SNP. As the party of Government, they have a duty to act in the interests of all of Scotland, not just the so-called “45%”.

It is a huge privilege and challenge to be standing as a Holyrood candidate at this period of our history. I could not describe the honour it would be to be elected as a member of the Scottish Parliament in this new era of devolution.

It is an exciting and demanding time for us all in this small, proud country. I am confident that by coming together, we will be equal to the task ahead. That is how we not only heal the wounds, but draw new strength from the referendum.

Independence isn’t the answer

Speech given at Undecided Women’s Debate in Leith on 20 August 2014

Ladies, it is a pleasure to be here tonight and take part in a discussion with you about the future of our country.

Firstly, I want to say something that I think often gets lost in the heat and noise of the referendum debate: we all want the best for Scotland and for the people that live here – we just have different views on how best to achieve that. I don’t doubt the passion and commitment that Nicola and Lari have for this country and I would hope they don’t doubt the passion and commitment that Kezia and I have either.

But we are here because we do have very different ideas about independence for Scotland and on 18 September we will make different choices in the ballot box.

This is what the referendum is about: choice.

Why am I voting No? Simply, because I see no reason to vote Yes. I truly believe that Scotland is better and stronger as part of the UK and the problems we do have are not answered by independence. The problems we have are answered by better governments with better policies and the political will to act on their priorities. Independence is not needed for that nor can guarantee it.

The SNP is the driving force of the Yes campaign and has had independence as its defining goal for 80 years. They have wanted independence in times of war and times of peace; in times of prosperity and times of austerity; before and after oil was discovered in the North Sea; whether there was a labour, conservative or coalition government. They have wanted independence no matter what. To every problem, independence has been the answer.

But now the SNP and the broader Yes campaign have to explain what independence would mean for Scotland and they don’t have credible answers on some of the most important questions:

1. How would we join the EU, how long would it take and on what basis?
2. What would happen to cross border pensions, savings and mortgages?
3. What would happen to the 360,000 jobs with companies based in the rest of the UK?
4. What would happen to the 65% of Scottish exports which currently go to the rUK without trade barriers and the 250,000 jobs that rely on them?
5. What happens when the oil runs out?
6. What currency will we have?

These are serious questions and they deserve serious answers. They effect every part of our lives and the future of the country.

On the question of currency, in just the last three days we have had a currency union, sterlingisation and sterlingisation as a transition to another as yet unnamed currency all mentioned.

When we ask for serious answers and clarification, all we get in response from the SNP and Yes campaign is accusations of ‘scaremongering’.

But I suspect the truth is that for most people in the Yes campaign, they would want independence no matter what the answers were to any of the questions I just listed. They want independence because they always have.

Voting Yes is a choice. Very few choices in life don’t have pros and cons. The Yes campaign would have you believe that every person in Scotland would get to keep the things they like about the UK, get rid of the things they don’t and there would be no teething problems or down sides to independence. Who really buys that? The referendum is just a choice over where decisions that effect this country are made. It does not guarantee anything else.

In June, I read a newspaper article which had interviews with a number of Yes voters from across the political spectrum. It included a farmer, a billionaire, a woman from the radical independence campaign, a young man from Easterhouse and an Edinburgh financier.

They all had their own bold vision for an independent Scotland, but it was very much their own. When the Edinburgh financier’s vision of a ‘right-leaning country’ was put the woman from the radical independence campaign, she said “that’s just not going to happen”. When the radical independence campaign’s vision was put to the financier, he rolled his eyes and described them as “the mad fringe left”. Even in an independent Scotland there will be arguments about the choices we make and not everyone will be happy. I’m sure that even in Norway there are people who are unhappy about the choices their politicians make.

I think that for many voting Yes, independence is a blank canvas to project all of their hopes and dreams upon. Either they do not consider the down sides or they don’t care because independence is worth any down side.

I don’t think the majority of people in this country think that way. From my months on the doorstep, people want to know about how the independence would affect them and their loved ones. They want to make an informed choice.

I don’t believe that Scotland needs to take a leap in the dark to be better. We can and do prosper as part of the UK.

With the further devolution coming next year and more promised by all of the unionist parties, we can have more control over the decisions that effect us with a strong, devolved parliament at Holyrood.

We can have influence on the world stage by virtue of the UK’s leading role in the EU, UN and Nato.

We can have unfettered access to a jobs and trade market ten times our own.

We can have strength and security for our public services by pooling and sharing resources with the rest of the UK.

Next month, some in this country will vote Yes because they believe in independence come what may, with all the pros and cons, no matter the consequences. Although I disagree, I can respect that.

However, don’t chose Yes on the basis that everything you like will stay, everything you don’t will go, that it will be all pros with no cons. Life isn’t like that and independence wouldn’t be like that either.

I believe that Scots and Scotland have a bright future in the United Kingdom; our journey as a nation is not over. We are constantly evolving together and finding new answers to our problems. For me independence is not an answer to our problems, this is why next month, I’ll be voting No.

Salmond And Yes Campaign Can’t Give The People What They Want: Answers

Last week, I was sceptical about the impact the debate would have. I wasn’t convinced that we would see or hear much that we hadn’t before or that many outside of the ‘bubble’ would be interested; Alistair Darling would present the calm and measured case for the Union; we would get the usual rhetorical flourishes from Alex Salmond; the substance would come second place to style.

How wrong I was.

On Tuesday night, a staggering 1.7 million people tuned in, Alistair Darling gave a full blooded, passionate and aggressive performance and substance did matter.

But most importantly, Alex Salmond, First Minister and figurehead of the cause for an independent Scotland, faltered on the issue which is now at the heart of the referendum campaign: what is the plan B on the currency.

For the last six months, I have been speaking to voters about the referendum several times a week. The people I speak to for the longest are those that are undecided. I ask them what the issues are that matter to them and what will make up their mind one way or another. Time and again, the response I get is ‘I don’t feel I have enough answers about independence yet.”

The currency is key on the doorstep. You don’t have to have a Nobel Laureate in economics to appreciate that currency has an impact on jobs, trade, pensions, mortgages, interest rates and the economy – basically every other issue in the referendum debate. Uncertainty over what you would get paid in and what you would spend in the shops has been the biggest issue for the undecided voters I have spoken to.

Six months ago, these voters were willing to give the Yes campaign time to give them the facts they needed before they ruled out a vote for independence. They thought they would have them before they went to the polls.

Fast forward to August and I am still being told, “I don’t feel I have enough answers about independence yet.”

That we have got to less than six weeks until the referendum vote and the Yes campaign have failed to address the key issue for these voters is a problem of their own making.

A surprising number of the undecided voters I have spoken to since last Tuesday watched the debate. They are obviously keen to hear the arguments in their search for answers. They have not been impressed with Alex Salmond’s failure to give them the answers – and the reassurance – that they want and need. That the first poll post debate showed such a massive increase of lead for the No campaign shows how important the debate – and its content – has been for voters.

I am confident that the Yes campaign will lose the referendum for the same reason Alex Salmond lost the debate: lack of answers on the issues that matter most to voters.

This is not to say that the Better Together campaign and everyone working for a No vote can or should rely on a weakening opponent. There is no room for complacency, after all.

I don’t want people to just vote against independence; I want them to vote for the Union. Our positive vision for a strong Scotland in the UK, with enhanced devolution for Holyrood, needs to remain integral to our campaign as we go into the final stretch.

I have my own radical vision for Scotland: a strong and proud devolved Scottish Parliament which uses the powers it has to improves the day to day lives of those that live in this country and stands up for its interests; better Governments with better policies that make lives better; a parliament that uses cooperation and consensus to makes laws rather than one that relies on a government majority; politicians who focus on the issues that really matter – jobs, health, education, housing, transport – rather than the constitution.

This shouldn’t be radical, but in the summer of 2014, it seems that way. This is the Scotland that the majority of voters yearn for. If there is a No vote next month, lets all get to work on giving them what they want.

Does banning e-cigarettes send the wrong smoke signals?

A few months ago I was on a bus with a young man using an e-cigarette. It was pretty unpleasant. It filled the bus with an awful smelling cloud. 

Their use on buses has been prohibited since June 2013, but it made me think about their use in other public places: I may find it unpleasant, but if it isn’t harmful to me, should they be banned?

E-cigarettes are a booming industry and smokers are turning to them in their millions as a ‘healthy’ alternative. But medical opinion is divided on whether they really should be seen that way.

On Tuesday the Metro ran a story about a new study that suggested that e-cigarettes ‘may cause cancer like normal cigarettes’. On Thursday, the Times had another new study that concluded that doctors should recommend e-cigarettes as a ‘harmless way to help smokers quit’.

It is early days for research into the impact of ‘vaping’ but how should public policy respond?

The Scottish Labour Party is rightly proud of introducing a smoking ban in public places in 2006. It had a transformative effect on public spaces and our attitudes to smoking. Decreases in child asthma, heart attack admissions to A&E and premature births have all been attributed to the smoking ban.

But should the public ban be extended to e-cigarettes? No. Or at least, not yet.

Cigarettes were banned in public places the grounds of their impact on the health of non-smokers. So far, there is no body of evidence that the same can be said for passive vaping. Such evidence would be needed before such a ban could be justified. Otherwise, the grounds upon which the 2006 smoking ban was based become hugely undermined. The state cannot ban e-cigarettes just because we find them objectionable, like I did on that bus.

There also appears be a health case to support holding back from a ban.

About 25% of all deaths in Scotland are linked to smoking tobacco. But smoking related deaths amongst the poorest in Scotland are more than double that among the most well-off. Moving smokers from tobacco to vapour, with a view to quitting entirely, would have a momentous impact upon the overall well-being of Scots as well as tackling this huge health inequality.

If e-cigarettes can be used as an effective replacement therapy that can prevent some of these deaths, we shouldn’t be putting up the barriers to their use, we should be keeping them down.

None of this is to say that e-cigarettes shouldn’t be regulated in terms of safety, standards and advertising and there are plans afoot for this to be the case. And if they are classified as medical products then this opens up the possibility of them being available free on NHS prescription in Scotland.

The smoking ban was one of the greatest achievements of the first decade of the Scottish Parliament. With the evidence and the public on their side, Holyrood enacted legislation that has been, and will continue to be, of tremendous benefit to health of our nation.

But unless the same solid evidence is there for e-cigarettes, we should resist a ban on their use in public places.