Friday, 05 October 2018 13:26

How can we build trust in politics?

Has our political system failed is probably the starting point to this article?  The answer is no, as the reality is we have had good and bad politicians for centuries, we have had a disconnect many times between political views and large areas of the population and economic challenges, wars and financial issues over the years.

So why does it feel so different?

The reason lies with the cultural and celebrity obsessions with mixed up reality television presenting normality as living in a gold fish bowl.  Politicians are embracing this phenomenon and are getting lost in the obsession.  Celebrities were a minority and exposure were such that everyone knew the few and politicians were Politicians NOT Celebrities.

Can you imagine Churchill on Strictly Come Dancing, or, Attlee starring in Celebrity Big Brother? No.

But did the press and media influence or support political parties in the past, Yes.  The communication through the media has always been an influencer in election campaigns but what is more significant now with the internet and social media is the communications can be more easily managed by the political office of a Politician.  So why do they get things so wrong? Quite simply they have become reactionary to political commentary and easily lose their focus on manifesto promises and the day to day delivery of their agenda.

If you are to argue that they are only human, then you have to consider that their advisors and civil servants should have a greater role to play. The issue is that the advisors and civil servantshave also become very self motivated and crave the 15 minutes of fame or being in the spotlight.

Electoral reform may also be a consideration but on this no system is perfect and there are many fundamental changes that are not based on a total reform which will reap benefits.

So back to the original question.

Politicians need to grow up, be honest and do what they are elected to do which is represent their constituencies, the UK public, and honour a democratic process that has put them into a privileged position that is more important than the number of likes and shares on social media. 

The Government must have a clear policy and manifesto in terms of what their government is doing, planning to do and achieving.  Failures and shortfalls should be explained, and resultant actions communicated.  The promises of the Government should be accountable.

Opposition parties must hold the Government to account and do it in such a way of demanding transparency and accountability.  It is also important that respect is always shown and the management of the soap opera in the commons is professional and diplomatic.  If the public see elected representatives behaving like spoilt brats, then expectations are such that respect is impossible.

The need also exsts that all parties need to be transparent and answer direct questions not a scripted alternative response.

Can things improve, yes but politicians need to take things seriously and also they want to make things better in terms of re-establishing trust. 

Politics is for grown-ups and not spoilt brats!

Monday, 26 June 2017 08:20

The Truth about the SNP

It is fantastic when you are a party in opposition, you can sling mud from a distance and hope that some of it sticks on the incumbent party.  As you are not in power nobody really challenges your ability, your messages or your actual policies with a fine-tooth comb.

Problem for the SNP is the whole issue of serving MP’s in Westminster but they are in power in Scotland and have been for the last 10-years.

So, let’s look at some of the things that are going on and when questioned the SNP will not answer or will answer by stating party soundbites and spin.

Starting with small but significant areas where the SNP make significant noise about the fact the Conservatives are doing it wrong but when exploring their devolved powers, you actually start to see things differently.

Legislation

The SNP Government has in a year introduced no major legislation.  If you watch First Ministers questions in Holyrood it is not about delivering new legislation it is more about independence.  You would not expect change all the time but to manage a country you need to change the way things are delivered. This just is not happening!

Fox Hunting

The SNP are vocal about the vote in England on whether the ban should remain in place for fox hunting.  Yet in Scotland it is still not banned and the SNP continue to fail to bring legislation to ban it and instead would prefer to resolve to bring in unworkable monitoring and controls.

Named Person

The proposed legislation of appointing a named person for all children is the sledge hammer to crack a nut approach to ensure young people are protected.  If anything, those that are identified at considerable risk are now more likely to be lost in the system and the parents coming to terms with the state questioning their abilities as a parent.  Ill thought out and over cumbersome to protect those few that are in most need of support. Criticised by parents, schools, councils and the police.  A back down and fundamental changes in the details around information sharing. It has still not been introduced due to areas missed in terms of the initial draft.

Land and Buildings Transaction Tax 

This is a Scottish Tax that was introduced to target those in more expensive houses.  What the SNP have failed to understand is how it impacts the housing market.  The reform to Stamp Duty was probably necessary but as average house prices in cities and some towns have increased this tax has increased the tax to a point people are struggling to sell.  This is another SNP policy ill thought out and that does not provide the revenue stream the SNP government desire. Wider it has an impact on the economy and firms establishing in Scotland.

So, what about some of the bigger matters!

The Barnet Formula

This has been castigated over the years as being unfair and has an England bias.  Looking at the figures it tells a different story and with the cyclic decline in the oil industry, or maybe permanent decline scrapping it would be catastrophic for Scotland.  Per person Scotland gets around £1,500 more per head of population than England and Wales.  Remove that and the public services across Scotland would lose £7.5 Billion in funding.  The Scottish Government with devolved powers can spend their allocation on what they want.

Further Education

Scotland attracts students from all over the world to its first class University system.  This is correct, but the SNP claim “Free Tuition Fees” for all and as a result further education is available to all. Wrong and this is another smoke screen.  Consider you have 50 seats on a bus and there are 100 people want to get on that bus.  The only way to provide this is to buy another bus.  So how do you afford it if you cannot charge fees to the people wanting to get on the bus.  You find 100 people that are willing to pay or are forced to pay.  I appreciate that this is a yes or no example but looking at the figures.  The fee in Scotland is £1,820 and if you come from the other parts of the UK the University will charge you this sum.  If you come from Scotland you will not be charged this sum, equally if you come from an EU country you will not be charged. The allocation from the Government to compensate the Scottish students and EU students is somewhat short of the £1,820.  Therefore, the reality is Scotland is funding Europeans to attend and this is funded by the rest of the UK.  So how does it work?  The reality is the SNP impose a cap on the number of Scottish and European students based on their designated budget so when the University considers applicants they will consider applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland as they know they can secure uncapped fees.  They can flex numbers for rest of the UK applicants to get students through the door.  Scottish students will get squeezed and many will not get that free further education place, and many are not based on this process.

Recently the phrase used has been “positive destinations” but if Universities are limited what about colleges?  Well the latest figures published by Audit Scotland show a decline in the numbers attending college.  So where are these positive destinations?  Also are Scottish schools preparing our young people for these positive destinations?

School Education

School education is failing and amongst the reasons are funding, subject focus and recruitment into the profession.  There are many people employed on salaries a lot less than those in teaching, with worse holidays and poorer pensions.  So, what is wrong? Why can’t they recruit into the profession and why can’t the retain good qualified teachers?  The squeeze is from all sides and as teachers enter the profession senior teachers are squeezed out from the top. Lower grades equals lower pay, removing higher grades on higher pay. Solutions a budget saving! 

Curriculum for Excellence is a disaster in choice provision, designed to give wider choice it is in fact reducing choice. So why is literacy and numeracy surrendered at the expense of providing a broad range of social subjects that once at University continuation of study requires a standard in either or both to be able to progress.  A recent SNP politician (Mr Mason) defended the decline by justification on breadth of knowledge and a surgeon not being able to spell is that a problem?  I would not want to be treated by someone who then wrote prescribed after care and got that wrong!  The Universities are looking for students with attainment at Advanced Highers to then be comparable with the English students who do 3 subjects to an advanced level (A-Level).  What has been delivered is broken and with failure to rectify the failing trend in attainment as per the benchmark statistics now means 5 – 10 years to deviate, improve and deliver an effective education system.  It is not just one generation that has been failed but potentially two.

Compounding this is the proposed reform and more devolvement of powers and budget to the head teachers away from the Council’s. The regulatory controls and accountability will be lost.  One reason this is viewed as favourable is that the private fee-paying schools have this autonomy and in the main results are better.  The reality is that the school is better resourced and the fees are the control.  If a private school does not get the pupils attaining high standards then the numbers fall and the number of parents sending their children to the establishment declines.  In a state school, the budget is set on school size not attainment.  The headteachers will also protect their underperforming staff if no controls are in place.

Energy, Oil and Gas

This may not be the fault of the SNP party but more the consequence of world markets and the requirement for energy.  The USA has gone from a net importer to a net exporter with their “fracking” strategies and more recently the reopening of open cast coal mining.  The Middle East is now producing high grade crude oil which is flooding the market and the roll out of renewable energy schemes in the developed countries is decreasing the demand.  North Sea oil is high quality but with high extraction costs in comparison.  The market needs to have a demand first and then secondly the investment to open-up new fields probably to the west of Scotland.   The problem when it comes to the SNP is that reliance on oil was communicated as a buoyant sector which it can be, but equally it is cyclic and for the periods of boom there are often significant periods of bust. 

The economy must be able to smooth the peaks and troughs and does require other business sectors to take up the strain when prices drop.  There are significant energy infrastructure projects that could be invested in but do not have the same employment requirements and therefore can plug the energy gap or provide export opportunities but does not employ thousands or people as it has done in the past.

Care Costs branded as the Dementia Tax

The dementia tax as branded is the care provision in the Conservative manifesto (2017) where the value of £100,000 is protected in the value of your estate where anything above is payable towards the care provision.  As an example, if your house is valued at £500,000 there would be a liability of up to £400,000.  If your care cost £500,000 the maximum recovered from your estate would be the full £400,000.  If the care cost £100,000 then this would be recovered from your estate, leaving your family to inherit £400,000.  Two key factors are, firstly, that the house is not sold whilst you are alive and the sum recovered is after you die.  This means that you would still be able to reside in the house with care provided in the house. The second factor is an increase in the current levels.  Scotland under SNP has the system where your house can be sold and funds used to cover your care costs when you are still alive and the threshold is only £26,250.  Scotland has a deferred payment scheme which must be agreed with the local authority, so imagine someone with dementia negotiating with the Council to defer the sale of their house and equally the threshold remains low!

Going back to the example of the rest of the UK the next thing to understand is there will be a cap in place.  This means you will pay the annual fee less the benefits you are entitled to. If the cap was £70,000 then it might equate to £10,000 to £15,000 per annum as a contribution from savings the rest from benefits and pensions. Taking the lower figure after 7 years you will have spent £70,000 from your estate.  Once the Cap is reached the contribution significantly reduces so costs may be £5,000 per year.   In Scotland, there is no Cap so the same example means if you are in care for a long period the costs continue at the higher rate.  So overall the costs can be significantly higher for early dementia sufferers!

Police Scotland and claiming back VAT

A business case was made to save monies and improve efficiencies by consolidating to one Scottish police force and it would be assumed that the business case was agreed by the SNP government.  With any business case of this nature and size it would be expected a cost benefit analysis was conducted and should have indicated the move from local to central government was more cost effective.  Demanding VAT to be paid back is SNP trying to cover up a failing in their decision process.  Blaming a Westminster government to change VAT conditions is wrong on so many levels.  What if companies start demanding that the rules are changed so they do not pay tax when they are liable!  Or you as a member of the public knocking 1/6th off your purchases when you hand over money. 

NHS

Where to start on this.  If Scotland has managed this service for the past 10 years then you cannot blame others for your issues.  If you are saying that the allocation to Scotland is wrong and more money is needed then understanding the allocation is £1,500 per person greater north of the border but also the extra £7.5Bn could be spent on the NHS. If you look at the decisions taken by the SNP on free prescription charges it would be a consideration that to reverse back to a set fee for all repeat prescriptions.  Another consideration is the cuts in nurse training numbers and now the gap in qualified staffing.  The out of hours service and the inflated rates for GP cover.  Salaries across the grades and progression of staff.  There is a pay discrepancy, the SNP Government has managed the discrepancy or not as is the case.  In addition, the failure to deliver results on multiple projects results in massive overspends.  These overspends are moving resources away from patient service delivery.  The NHS is a massive company and the management is complex and challenging but culture and service are areas that cannot be ignored.

Exports

Currently Scotland exports 4 times as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland than it does to all other EU states.  It is appreciated that independence would not wipe out all this trade but for goods and services that can be sourced elsewhere it would be a significant risk.  The other consideration is the cost of exports.  At present the goods to the rest of the word go via container ports in England and the transport to and from these ports is via road and rail.  Scotland does not have a suitable container port so would be subject to infrastructure or trade costs to ship.  The UK is a service based economy and not manufacturing.  The EU Common Market does not cover services but products.  This is appoint missed by all parties in the debates.

Currency

Scotland does not have an issuing bank so the continued use of sterling is subject to agreement by the rest of the UK government.  If via independence the objective is to use the Euro then the terms of entry are to run your own currency for a minimum of 2-years.  If this ruling is removed the issue of moving from sterling to the Euro has costs associated with it.  There are many reasons why the rest of the UK will not agree to the use of sterling but Scotland would also have no control of setting its value and would be subject to market influences out-with Scotland’s control. It just would not work without agreement and entertained with significant economic risks for both parties.  The SNP would need to be clear on how and what agreements are in place to protect its economy.  The divorce is initiated by Scotland and they would therefore need to have contingency plans agreed in advance.

Nationalism

Purposely leaving this to last having covered all the areas where devolved government failures have happened it does indicate that the SNP are not fit to govern the Country.  Excuses that “we would do it differently” if everything was devolved the Barnet Formula would immediately give a £7.5bn funding gap.  With this funding gap, you would need an economy that is growing significantly greater than the 0.2% compared to the 2.2% of England. 

Honesty is “the SNP want an independent Country”, what is missing is that with independence comes significant challenges and the potential to impact the economy significantly.  What maybe should be the SNP statement

“The SNP strive for an independent Country who will face significant issues and challenges but in the long-term the SNP believe independence is our right to self-govern.”  If you support this vision, accept the risks and are prepared to live in a Country that potentially will be bankrupt within a couple of years it is your choice.  Scotland was bankrupt prior to the Act of Union in 1707.  

Bankrupt means no public services, an inability to trade and rationed services and food.

Wednesday, 07 June 2017 10:27

How do you cut through political spin?

With great difficulty is the easy answer!

Also has politics been dumbed down for the masses? This is another dilemma which with run up to the General Election in 2017 is obviously apparent.

The media is driving this and with social media fuelling these flames, where debate and canvassing become soundbites, slogans become hollow promises and politicians are more likely to do a U-turn than justify areas of their manifesto.

We recently wrote an article that asked about the state of UK politics over the last 40-years which focussed on the ground political parties looked to occupy.  Still worth a ride. When the UK was a manufacturing centre of excellence the class system would typically dictate your political allegiances.  Now with the call centre culture, financial sector dominance and the service orientated economy it will have a group of co-workers with all political parties supported by the small group.

So, if employment, heritage, history and loyalty of the voter has changed is it not the reason why the parties have changed? No.

The addition at the last hour before publication of a manifesto pledge will typically be the one that causes the party to come unstuck, equally, a significant deviation from the past should raise alarm bells of “are these just vote winning soundbites?”  Equally if a politician believes it is in the best interest of the country they should be able to justify and standby their political policies even when independntly scrutinised.

Consider also, televised debates are now as much forums for audience members to take the spotlight just as much as for the politicians to be held to account.  How many that come to take part are undecided voters that want to have questions answered to help in their deliberations? We would suggest very few!

Getting back to the spin element what we as citizens of this great country need to do is demand better from our politicians. Manifesto words are justified by advisers and their calculations should be in the public domain too and easily accessible.  Our democratic duty is to analyse thoroughly and make an informed choice.

We would recommend the following for the voter, media and the politician.

  1. Voters need to change how they plan to vote, anyone who turns up at the polling booth and votes without doing their research are accountable and actually promote second rate politicians who have little or no respect for their constituents once in power.  It is harder to remove someone than not to elect them in the first place. 
  2. Politicians must publish all supporting information to the public and these facts and figures should be independently audited and rated as “sound”, “concern”, or, “unjustified” when we are in a general election campaign.  The audited manifesto can be updated throughout as scrutiny identifies gaps or justifications.
  3. The media should report on campaign activity, challenge unjustified figures and drive for the politicians to substantiate their overall policies.  With published justifications it becomes easier and journalists should report and not create the news!
  4. Political impropriety addressed as a priority, so any politician under investigation externally should be suspended until the investigation concludes.  These elected representatives should be role models not objects of ridicule. A party losing one seat should not be put above the party delivering a sound, professional, honest and ethical campaign.

Will it happen is the big question? As politicians and media are more focused on their image and self than doing what we should demand from them.  It is our responsible to demand the change in our political system and those that are veted in!

Sunday, 21 May 2017 15:54

Scottish Education what is happening?

The headlines are "everything is failing within Education and it is all down to the SNP"!

Is it right? Are we trying to compare Apples with Pears?

The recent headlines are without doubt shocking and concerning but it is important to understand what it really means, some of the factors and then judge if it is damning or not.

  1. Education is devolved to the Scottish parliament so if anyone says it is a UK problem they are wrong.  Scotland has operated its own education system well before the set up of the Scottish parliament.
  2. The structure and control of Scottish schools is they are operated as part of the Local Council and are therefore constrained by Council budgets. In most cases a Council budget is predominantly made up of Education, Social Care and then the rest of the services.  Education typically would be more than 50% of the total Council spend.
  3. In 2010 Curriculum for Excellence was introduced and it was designed to provide a wider choices and ultimately a breadth of knowledge for young people so they are better prepared for adulthood.  This was assuming though a level of attainment in literacy and numeracy would still be achieved.
  4. The McCrone Agreement in 2000 was introduced by the Labour and Liberal coalition and its aim was to protect the pay and conditions of teachers covering areas such as class teaching times, pay, working hours, etc.  It also introduced a level of protection to the profession but although budget was devolved to the Councils numerous conditions were to be nationally managed such as pay, main duties of teachers, class sizes etc.  The devolved management has led to a focus on reducing the number of senior teachers as a cost saving, i.e. good teachers leaving the profession replaced by junior teachers on lower grades to realise the saving.
  5. Attainment through tutors is also a significant factor and further highlights the shortfall in delivering subjects such as English and Mathematics.  This has caused a further divide between those children of parents who can afford to employ a tutor and those that cannot.
  6. Statistics can often be used to represent both a positive and negative but for both the literacy and numeracy figures and attainment are quite clearly a deterioration.  They are also run every couple of years so they are probably masking further detail. The SNP do not disagree with the figures but would rather stress the attainment at higher levels with benefits and higher number of “A-Grade” passes but what about all those children not presented for examination?  Dropping statistical measures and replacing with a new benchmark is now being discussed which would be catastrophic if trends are to be reversed, i.e you lose the basis of the requiremnt to change. The existing statistical measures should be run in parallel for a number of years with any new.
  7. Teacher shortages are an underlying problem but it is equally important the correct individuals are attracted to the profession.  Just making up the numbers is not the solution!
  8. Without English and Mathematics, the broad subjects and teachings will eventually suffer and ultimately impact students in employment and further education.
  9. Further education available to all Scottish children will not happen without fixing the underlying problems.  Universities already have limited places and have English A-level students entering at year 2 versus Scottish students with Highers entering in first year.  Are Universities really looking for rounded individuals with a broad education attainment with multiple subjects or are they looking for high attainment in 3 or 4 traditional academic school subjects?  Financial burdens may have been reduced in comparison to those of English students but if attainments in English and Mathematics are not there then it is a bigger problem.

In addition to fully appreciate the issue, it is important to consider the following:

  1. Is the problem with Curriculum for Excellence and should this be reviewed as the underlying problem?
  2. Should education be managed fully by a central body or fully devolved to the Councils?
  3. Should the McCrone agreement be scrapped and updated terms and conditions agreed that keeps qualified, focused and dedicated teachers within the profession and removes those that have joined for a job and not as a career.
  4. Further education consulted on requirements of entry and the levels of numeracy and literacy to succeed at College and University.

Going back to the original question on whether the SNP are wholly to blame?

The answer is not fully, but blaming historical other political party decisions should not be a get out! 

What cannot be denied is that the deterioration has happened during their watch and what may be more of an issue is they have not understood and addressed some of the underlying issues and problems in their 10-years of Government. 

The questions of funding, controls, devolved versus centralised management, Curriculum for Excellence too broad an agenda, attracting the correct teachers in to post and aligning with further education are reforms that the SNP should be focusing on in governing the Country.

No small task to reverse the trend and will require policies, statute, management reform and the Government Governing!

What does the future hold?

Years ago, the demographics of the voters was clear, with traditional classes typically mirroring the political allegiances. The middle classes falling across the main parties and where the liberals would pick up a share of the votes.  The mirroring of classes therefore tended to be left wing, right wing or centre ground. Simple!

Somewhere in the late 90’s and early noughties things changed with a shift from the right to the centre and most significant was the shift from the left to centre ground.  The predictability then of polls becomes a lot less clear as the variations of swing within an election campaign is a lot less to determine the result.

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s the mantra was that what worked well was the 2 term Conservative to the 1 term Labour where the economy was the focus for eight years followed by 4 years of focus on the people.  Building the economy to a state that could then fund spending on conditions, the poor and the public services. Political views across terms remained the same and the people voted accordingly.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s the paradigm shift happened where Labour struggled to offer a cohesive opposition as people were benefiting from the boom in the economy and a change in the GDP where the country moved away from traditional and historic manufacturing to service based industries.

The solution in the late 90’s was to move to “New Labour” which fundamentally was a shift to the centre ground a decade too late but the result was an effective opposition that was electable as the commercial and economic vision was what would have been expected of a historic Conservative government.

The economic boom and bust was a worldwide phenomenon and the political landscape changed more based on the ability to react than anything to do with policy or manifesto.  The shift was somehow inevitable and the change would have happened whoever was in power because it was not just big companies that got their fingers burned but the ripple went all the way down to the man in the street.

So, what now?  The 2017 General Election is being run on the ability to be in a strong negotiating position with the EU.  People want to be better off and have the ability to live a life with options and disposable income to make life choices.  So, what do the manifestos say for the ground each party is trying to gain?

Firstly, the Labour party is trying to step back to the left with a vision fundamentally based on improving public services through nationalising railways, water, utilities, etc.

Secondly the Conservatives have made a notional step across the central ground to the left with some policies intended to target the labour voters who are concerned about the direction of labour occupying their traditional left position.

Thirdly the Liberal Democrats are caught in the middle as usual but with a mixed bag of policies that are reactionary to the other two parties.  They are also under threat from the small “other” parties like the SNP, UKIP, Greens and Plaid Cymru who have picked up voters with demographic shifts of the two main parties.

Looking to the future what can we foresee?

The Liberal Democrats need to communicate their future vision if they are not going to be surpassed by the “others” and we will then have two party politics and protest vote parties.

The political map needs to be redrawn with the occupying of the centre ground by the main parties.  To report on demographics becomes blurred and very difficult to predict in a society that votes on the personalities often.

The “others” are not going away but will not pose effective opposition in coalition.  Politics needs both effective leaders and opposition, and politicians need to remember they are voted in and voted out and it is not ALL about them!

In conclusion, the 1970’s and 80’s where the analogy of 2 terms Conservative to the 1 of Labour is probably resigned to history but the politics should not be forgotten or ignored and the balance of economy versus public services should be forefront of every parties manifesto as they all occupy that centre ground which wins voters.

So is it Good or Bad?

Neither it is evolving and only time will tell but politicians will need to change on the new playing field.

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