Monday, 18 April 2016

Scottish Parliament elections - Grahame Smith's speech to Congress

Congress, the election on 5 May is the most important to take place since the Scottish Parliament was re-established. 
The next Scottish Government will wield new powers on tax, welfare, employment programmes and Tribunals - powers with the potential to make a substantial, positive difference to the lives of working people in Scotland.
These new powers broaden the canvas on which new, bold and progressive public policy can be written.
The new Government must break from the conservative mind-set that has afflicted successive Holyrood administrations. The next Scottish Government really has to aspire to more than just managerial competence.
Unfortunately, the campaign going on around us doesn’t yet reflect the possibilities offered by these new powers. In all the leaders’ debates, hustings and newspaper features there has been nothing of substance said about economic development in Scotland; no serious programme set out to reduce inequality; and the increasingly precarious nature of employment has hardly rated a mention. 
It is as if the financial crisis, the consequent recession and the years of austerity and stagnation which followed weren’t sufficiently painful to provoke new and radical thinking.
The General Council statement before you today includes 10 key demands of the parties contesting this election. If acted upon, these demands will lead to a fairer, more resilient economy and a more equal and democratic society.
Let me focus on two of these.
The first is tax. Much political wind has already been expended on this issue.
Unfortunately, the proposals we have heard so far have been generally weak and, in some cases, they blatantly contradict the wider social and economic objectives they are apparently designed to achieve.
Tax policy needs to be bolder and more creative – particularly from the parties of a social democratic bent.
We haven’t, as yet, had an opportunity to study the SNP and Labour manifestos, but we have a good idea what they’re likely to say about income tax and local taxation.
To be fair, Labour and the Lib Dems have signalled their intention to increase income tax in an effort to mitigate the impact of public spending cuts, particularly those forced on local authorities.
The SNP’s position, especially the pathetic excuses for refusing to increase the marginal rate of tax on earnings over £150,000, is hugely disappointing.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: the Nordic style society the SNP continually say they aspire to, simply cannot be created and sustained on current levels of taxation.
The second of our demands I’d draw attention to is on inequality.
It is remarkable, and very encouraging, that reducing inequality has, over the last few years, become a mainstream issue and has been given such prominence by the current First Minister.
However, it is deeply disappointing that no Party has come close to presenting a credible, coherent plan for reducing inequalities of income, wealth and power in Scotland.
Too often a welcome focus on poverty reduction has been used as cover for refusing to take action on runaway incomes at the top. An effective strategy must tackle inequality from both ends.
We need bold, ambitious policies that addresses some hitherto intractable problems in the Scottish economy and society, policies based on the evidence of what works rather than their populist appeal or soundbite suitability.
In health, where you live should not determine how long you will live.
How well you do in school, college or university or in the world of work should be about your ability and how hard you work, not your social class.
Some of our communities have not recovered decades after the loss of traditional industries.
Addressing these longstanding issues should be the priority for our politicians.
We should expect nothing less of our political leaders.
All of them need to raise their game.
Current levels of inequality weaken the economy, reduce societal cohesion and undermine democracy.
The Panama Papers have pulled back the curtain on the lives and attitudes of the wealthy to reveal nothing but sneering contempt for their fellow citizens and the rules by which any decent society must adhere.

The rich can shift their wealth offshore and absolve themselves of any responsibility to contribute to the society that allowed them to accrue that wealth in the first place.
And then, of course, they invest that wealth in lobbying for a politics which is increasingly hostile to any substantial redistribution and the role of unions and collective bargaining in bringing that about.
Of course, we won’t hear any talk of offshored wealth from the Tories contesting the Scottish Parliament election – they’re too busy rebranding themselves as cuddly, progressive sorts who have the best interests of Scotland’s workers at heart. Aye right!
Ruth Davidson certainly presents a more convivial demeanour than George Osborne. Hardly a difficult task!
But by failing to seriously challenge austerity, welfare reform and the Trade Union Bill she is entirely complicit in the UK Government’s attack on society’s most vulnerable people, on workers and unions – and no amount of one-liners or photo opps will conceal this inconvenient truth.
Ultimately the Tories attempted transition to the non-nasty party is almost as funny as the malicious buffoons of UKIP in Scotland trying to masquerade as a serious political organisation.
During Congress we will hear from the leaders of our two main parties.
We expect to hear that they understand the real issues currently facing workers and their communities;
  • that they are willing to use the knowledge and experience of unions and their members to shape policy; and
  • that they have a vison for Scotland that matches the ambition of its citizens for sustainable economic and social progress.    
This election should be a marker in the development of Scotland’s democracy. The ability of the new Scottish Government to introduce policies in support of the people we represent is about to be considerably strengthened.
The demands the General Council has set out today provide the template for a new Scotland.
We need a Government with the courage and passion to grasp the opportunity.
Let’s hope such a Government is elected on 5 May.

Congress, I commend the General Council statement to you. 

Trade Union Bill - Pauline Rourke, CWU speech to Congress on behalf of STUC General Council

Congress, Scotland’s trade union movement meets this week here in my home city of Dundee to discuss and constructively debate a huge range of issues that affect the lives of ordinary working people.
The STUC is Scotland’s largest and most progressive civic organization and I’m proud to be part of it. The rights at work now taken for granted by so many are the result of the industrial and political campaigns vigorously fought by our proud forbears.
We are a great civic movement, one that has helped create a better, more just society.
Many may quite legitimately disagree with our objectives and priorities and the policies we will ultimately agree this week. But it takes a very particular and malicious mind-set to perceive the men and women gathered here today as ‘the enemy’. 
I’m afraid that is precisely the mind-set from which the TU bill sprung.
When the majority tory government came to office last May, the new business secretary identified his immediate and defining priority to be an attack on trade union’s ability to effectively represent working people. 
Not how to design and implement an effective industrial policy.
Not defending steel jobs against Chinese dumping.
Not addressing appallingly weak productivity growth.
Not strengthening historically weak wage growth or boosting low business investment.

No, Said Javid regarded an attack on trade union rights to be the single most important issue for his department of business, innovation and skills to address. Has there ever been a more outrageous example of a government getting its priorities back to front? 
Congress, the Trade Union Bill is unnecessary, unjustified and undemocratic.
The attack on facility time, on the political fund, on the right to strike, are all attacks on the right of unions to speak out against austerity; against low wages, to speak up for equality, for fairness in the workplace and on international injustices. 
Resisting this bill, as the General Council has done and will continue to do,  is not just about defending trade union rights, it is about defending fundamental civil liberties and human rights; rights that recognise that the democratic wellbeing of our society demands that workers have a meaningful collective voice in the workplace. 
It is our voice, in and out of the workplace, that this Bill is intended to silence. 
The Tories have quite deliberately set out to tie unions up in endless bureaucracy. Through a level of interference in our activities that goes way beyond what is reasonable in any democracy, they will severely restrict our ability to properly represent our members and to provide an effective voice in the workplace and beyond. 
At the core of this is the right to strike.
Without the ability to strike, workers will have no effective voice at work. They will be left with no alternative but to accept the decisions of the employer, whatever the consequences.
There will be no fairness or justice or democracy in the workplace.

Congress, the General Council has led a dynamic and successful campaign against the Trade Union Bill in Scotland.
We have succeeded in uniting political and civil society opposition to the Bill. 
The Scottish Government and a large number of local councils, have not only publicly condemned the bill, but have pledged not to cooperate with the legislation if it is eventually forced through. 
Working with the Wales TUC we have exposed the incompatibility of key provisions of the bill, including the attack on facility time and check off, with devolved competencies which is likely to result in these provisions not applying in Scotland and Wales. 
We have also received pledges from the Scottish Government, Scottish Labor and the Scottish Greens, that they will refuse to implement any aspect of the bill that conflict with the duty on the Scottish Parliament, enshrined in the Scotland act, to uphold international human rights obligations. 
I can assure this congress, that should any of our unions be forced into a position where they have to defy the law in order to effectively represent their members, they will have the General Council’s full support and the support of the collective, organised Scottish trade union movement, through the STUC.
We know that the most effective way to resist the impact of the trade union bill, to mitigate the impact of austerity, and to achieve economic and social progress is to continue to organise in our workplaces and communities and to find new and innovative ways to engage with non-unionised workers, particularly young workers.
This is exactly what we are doing with through Better than Zero; an increasingly successful campaign focused on the experiences of young workers, run by young workers. A campaign that is demonstrating right here right now that trade unions can make a tangible difference to the lives of young workers.

And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that unions are fighting and winning industrial disputes across the country: since congress met last year Dundee hospital porters, Glasgow care workers, further education lecturers, railway and ferry workers have all taken industrial action and won.

Congress, the Trade Union Bill is a wholly unwarranted attack on the working people of this country. The General Council is resolute in its opposition and stands ready to support and coordinate ongoing resistance to this affront to democracy. I ask you to support this composite.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

It’s a funny old world

It’s a funny old world when the Trades Union movement and the ancient House of Lords combine to defeat a reactionary Tory Government, not once, but three times!

But that is what we did on 16th. March on the Trades Union Bill, which is attempting to shackle the Trades Union movement and slash TU funding of Labour in a way even Thatcher baulked at.

This Bill, the brainchild of Cameron and Osborne, is being pushed relentlessly by the right wing ideologue, Nick Boles MP, and the hapless Baroness Neville-Rolfe who has no authority to make concessions in the Lords.

So we have mounted one of the best coordinated assaults on a Bill I have ever seen. There has been unprecedented cooperation between the TUC, STUC and Labour Peers.

At a meeting with Frances O’Grady she identified the key areas we should fight on as the threshold in strike ballots, political funds, facility time and check off.

John Monks, Former TUC General Secretary, who made one of the most powerful speeches against the Bill at Second Reading suggested this strategy.

We then established we had the support of the Liberal Democrats, thanks to the leadership on this of Ben Stoneham, formerly of the SDP.

So we now had to work hard to get support from the Crossbench Peers who hold the balance of power in the Lords.

This was done through a meticulous canvass, planned by the movement, to approach as many as possible to explain the arguments and seek their support.

As an example, I worked closely with Karen Whitefield and Michael Wheeler of USDAW with a list of potential supportive Crossbenchers I had identified.

The arguments were then made. Why is it possible to elect MPs, councillors, Police Commissioners with no threshold but there must be one for strike ballots. Why can there be electronic voting for the Tory candidate for Mayor of London but not for TU ballots?

Why take action on the funding of Labour but not other parties as had been agreed previously. How can we have facility time elsewhere in Europe but not in the UK.

The first success was when we defeated the Government and set up a special Select Committee, chaired by former top civil servant, Lord Burns, to look into political funds. This produced, as we had hoped a compromise proposal.

But the master stroke came on 16th. March when we were due to vote on this and other amendments at Report Stage.

Our Labour Bill Committee met and agreed the strategy put forward by John Mendelsohn. All the arguments had been made in Committee. We needed to get to the votes quickly so there would be no Labour speeches from either the Front or Backbenches. The Liberal Democrats went along with it.

It had also been agreed that the key amendments would be moved by Crossbenchers. Lord Burns moved his Committee compromise on funding and another former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, moved the other two.

The tactics were spectacularly successful. On the two Kerslake motions on Ballots and facility time we had majorities of 140 and 88 respectively. On the Burns amendment on funding it was 148, the largest Government defeat I have seen in the Lords.

The second day of Report stage is on 19th. April when we debate and vote on Check off and we expect another victory then.

So far the Government remain defiant in spite of these defeats and it is expected they will overturn them with their majority in the Commons, although Jeremy Corbyn has promised vigorous opposition.

We will then have what is called “ping-pong” between the two Houses. This is when the Lords is expected to eventually give way to the elected Chamber where the Government claim they have a mandate.

Usually the Crossbenchers cave in under this pressure of precedent. But with such huge majorities it is not certain this time and we can try to extract compromises.

Foolishly the Government have imposed a deadline by announcing that the Queen’s Speech will be on 18th. March May so they must get their Bill through by the week before that.

Now is the time for the STUC to redouble their already powerful opposition to this Bill and to put pressure on the Crossbench Peers to stand by the principles they so powerfully displayed last month.

One thing is certain. Labour Peers will be there in large numbers to continue leading the opposition to this despicable measure. We defeated the Tories on their plan to cut child tax credits and showed that we can do it again when we think the Tory controlled Commons is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I still want the Lords replaced by a Chamber with democratic authority, like the Senate of the Nations and Regions Labour proposed in our Manifesto

But while the Lords exists and we can muster majorities to defeat repressive and regressive legislation we should continue to do so.

George Foulkes
Former MP and MSP and GMB member