23 March 2008

A response to Change is What We Do: Changing Society, Changing Policies

In which I look again at Wendy Alexander's tract.

What does Scottish Labour stand for? It’s a question people often ask us. Our answer to that has not changed. We stand for the progressive values of justice, equality, and community. These values are the bedrock on which our party was founded and have sustained us ever since. They still do so today.

It's a problem that people are asking them. They never used to. They don't ask the SNP. And who is going to say they stand for injustice or inequality? Besides, even Alexander admits that these words, on their own, are meaningless:

But our task as Scottish Labour is to embody these values, and to find ways of giving real meaning to these values, in our own times. For us, it means constant change, not in our values, but in the policies we use to make them a reality. Just as society is constantly changing, so we must constantly re-assess and renew our policies so that we stay in touch with the changes in society.

So society is in a constant state of change. However:

The concerns of Scottish families have not greatly changed over the years. They are to get on in life and improve their circumstances, to make sure their children get the best possible start to their lives, and to live in safe and friendly communities. These are the priority issues in homes up and down the country.

The Leader of the Opposition is now rebutting herself. Everything is changing, but the attitudes of families are staying the same? No, it turns out that things are getting better so we're getting greedier, apparently. Alexander earnstly believes that we want second homes, two cars, and an entertainment system to rival that in our local cinema. But we've also got greedier about the NHS:

Ten years ago, an urgent priority in the National Health Service was to build new hospitals and health centres fit for the 21st century. Scottish Labour led on meeting those challenges – new hospitals, new health centres, shorter waiting lists and faster treatments. Now, rising aspirations mean that people are looking for better and more personalised services from the NHS. They want to be able to see a doctor and get treatment when it suits them, and not when it suits the doctor. They want to get more of their health care needs met locally in their community and not at a distant hospital. How we meet those aspirations without compromising standards of health care and while ensuring taxpayers get value for money is the challenge for the future.

Yes, and every hospital was built on tick, waiting times increased and waiting lists were only shortened by bumping patients onto new ones. And it took an SNP Government to put the principle of localism into practice by shelving the proposed A&E closures at Monklands and Ayr.

Ten years ago, after decades of neglect, there was a crying need for new schools fit for modern purposes. Scottish Labour has gone a long way towards fulfilling that need, and today hundreds of thousands of pupils enjoy learning in new or substantially refurbished buildings that meet modern standards. Sadly, however, the SNP, because of an ideological fixation against private finance, is slowing down the rebuilding programme. While Scottish Labour will maintain the pressure to ensure that all pupils enjoy education in modern buildings, the political agenda for schools must now also look beyond a bricks and mortar programme.

And again, we see the Labour view that Private Finance is a panacea. It's more of a placebo: the school is built, but at a greater cost than would otherwise have been the case and the collapse of a private finance company saw school building projects thrown into chaos. And PFI isn't just opposed by the SNP - Trade Unions such as UNISON oppose it as well. UNISON is affiliated to Labour.

Debate has become too fixated on setting targets for class sizes. For the SNP, it is class sizes in p1, 2, and 3. While class size is a factor helping to determine educational outcomes, the evidence suggests that the quality of teaching in a class and the quality of leadership in a school is more important. Yet where is the public and political debate about the curriculum, now being re-shaped under A Curriculum for Excellence, and whether it is fit for the future? Is our leadership in schools the best it can be and does it have the power and support to shape effectively the school ethos and staffing?

Well proposals on the curriculum are emerging, and class size targets were a part of Labour policy for a decade. Indeed, they were the first to do so, and are responsible for any fixation on the issue.

Instead, we have the easy populism of class size promises (which are increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled) winning out over evidence-based policymaking. The same is true of university and college education. The SNP got elected on the promise, now exposed as entirely empty, that all graduates would have their debt written off even if they were in a well-paid job. Their financial situation has been put above those of classmates who may now be without the hope of a modern apprenticeship to escape from unemployment.

This is simplistic drivel based on the false premise that getting a degree is an easy path to lifelong employment, prosperity and luxury. It can have a benefit, but with more and more graduates entering the labour market, the field is becoming too crowded and there are losers. Quite a few of them, in fact. Now, a degree can boost prospects but that's no guarantee to success. Nevertheless, even if Alexander were right, how many people have been put off applying for University through fear of debt, thanks to Tory and Labour HE policy?

All of us have a duty to take part in debating and formulating the policies that will renew our connection with the Scottish people.

The SNP have a different starting point. They came into being for one reason and one reason only: to achieve independence for Scotland. Everything else is secondary. Having achieved office their goal remains unchanged. It means that the decisions they make are invariably characterised by short-term populism.

This is inevitable given that their overriding priority is whether any decision will help deliver a yes vote in an independence referendum rather than whether it will serve the long-term needs of our nation and its people.

I am determined that we will stand up for what we know to be right. I know that Scottish Labour will have the courage to put in place the type of actions and policies that will benefit us all, now and in the future. One of those areas for action is the constitution.

Again, more of the same. Brave words and beautiful dreams punctured by her own needle. She forgets that the SNP have reasoned that doing the right thing, that showing that Scotland can govern itself, and govern well, is the key to independence: in short, any wrong decision, any decision that rebounds in the medium to long term takes Scotland one step back. In short, SNP Ministers realise that they have to get things right. Labour have, meanwhile, pursued favourable newspaper headlines and on winning their first term in office, started talking about their second. On winning their second, they started talking about a third. After ten years, they started talking about how to stay in Government for another decade. Populism and the pursuit of electoral victory at any cost, this is Labour's territory. Will she risk defeat for the sake of ideological purity?

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