I was delighted this week to see my friend Mark McDonald elected to serve the Aberdeen Donside constituency in the Scottish Parliament. The result itself was not the thumping victory some had predicted, and it was disappointing to see turnout down. There was a lot for voters to consider in this by election – the future of local schools, transport infrastructure, the very status of the city of Aberdeen itself – yet only 38.8% of registered voters managed out to vote, down from 47.3% in 2011.
Last Thursday, along with many other SNP activists, I was out all day trying to encourage supporters out to the polls, and picked up on the doorstep various reasons for this apparent apathy; that the SNP would easily hold the seat, that they weren’t able to get childcare, that the householder was working offshore. For each of those folk, their reason for staying home was perfectly valid. They were regretful, but they wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Fortunately, these folk were balanced out by many other voters I spoke to who had already cast their vote by the first round of knockup at 10am, who had organised postal votes just in case and who, despite it being late in the evening, would pop out and vote just because our activists had come and told them it was important. Making the time to vote is a question of priorities; so how do we reach those that don’t feel voting is important?
In various discussions in various pubs over the years, I’ve heard strong support amongst political activists for compulsory voting. The rationale goes that if we dutifully do our bit, delivering leaflets, speaking to voters on doorsteps and repeating the exercise many times over the weeks before an election, voters should be forced to take at least a bit of interest in the whole affair.
At times, it soothes our campaign-weary legs to think that our efforts could be balanced out by statutory obligation where genuine interest in democracy is lacking. It can be incredibly frustrating to knock on an identified supporter’s door on election day to hear them mutter vaguely that they ‘might make it out to vote later on’; generally code for ‘as soon as you’re off my doorstep, I’m locking the door and turning on the tv for the rest of the evening’. Meanwhile, we slog on to the next supporter and hope for better.
The vote and our ability to participate in democracy is a great privilege. Footage beamed from far flung places show voters in war-torn countries standing for hours in the beating sun, facing the very real risk that they could die for daring to vote. As an electorate, we can’t tear ourselves away from Eastenders or Corrie for the brief jaunt to the local community hall to do our duty. It’s feels bizarre that we will vote in the X Factor finals, but not for the person who we depend on to make the right decisions for our street, our town and our country.
Perhaps there are things we can do to modernise the way we vote – for what it’s worth, I would like to see a national e-register of voters, with polling places in high streets, stations and shopping centres allowing you to cast a vote in the area you live, but from wherever you might be on the day. As handy as that sounds, a technological fix probably won’t overcome the real problem though, which is that the electorate seem increasingly detached and disengaged.
The cynicism about politics and politicians is quite genuine, and it is difficult to break down that barrier. With the over 7,000 vote majority he had worked hard to build up over time, Brian Adam was the living proof that with time and endeavour you can overcome at least some of that apathy. I spoke to voters in parts of Aberdeen Donside very similar to the area I represent in Glasgow; many of them knew Brian personally and had either been helped by him over the years, or knew someone who had. Quite a few of them told me that they had been Labour voters, but that they had been left behind by a party that no longer belonged to them; they felt that the party had come to serve itself, not the people.
The experience of those voters is one all in politics should be mindful of. Before reaching for that rather attractive sounding magic spell called compulsory voting, politicians and political parties should work harder to give the voters the representation they deserve. It’s become almost a cliché to say that we shouldn’t take the electorate for granted, but that should ring true every day of the year, not just in the weeks before an election. Knowing Mark, I’m sure that he will do his best for Aberdeen Donside all year round and hold the trust of the electorate.
Some items from the Scots Independent newspaper
Devolution Reform Credibility Gap
How are voters supposed to understand what a No vote means?
So far, Better Together’s referendum campaign has been marked by two distinct trends. First, to cast doubt, uncertainty and fear around the issue of independence through negative campaigning, careful use of the media and relentless questioning about the details of independence. Second, their campaign has been characterised by the failure to come up with a positive alternative to the current devolution arrangements to put before voters. This is where the coalition nature of Better Together comes slightly unstuck.
A recent Yougov poll [1-3 May 2013] on this issue asked voters whether they thought the No campaign had convinced voters that Scotland would gain more devolution powers if there were a No vote? Only 33 per cent were convinced, compared to 47% not convinced, whilst 20% didn’t know. Frankly, I’m surprised that as much as 33% were convinced given the paucity of detail on offer. What they base their confidence on is hard to see.
If you are a voter going into the referendum set to cast a No vote in the hope of getting more devolution, it’s rather unsure what you are expecting. Not least given how little you have been promised. The nearest thing we have to a party political prospectus on more devolution was produced by the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 2011, in the shape of the Home Rule Commission. This offered limited tax power transfers – inheritance tax, capital gains tax and income tax powers and rates – more localism and a federal UK delivered through general election votes and a UK constitutional convention to create a written constitution. If the road to more devolution runs through a complete constitutional restructuring of the UK, then it’s a very long road indeed. In addition, how the tax powers promised will deliver greater economic development and fairness in Scotland is hard to see. But, it is a plan.
Outside of the political parties, there is the Devo Plus group as well as the Devo More proposals published by the IPPR. These offer more tax powers and also more detailed reasoning of the whats and whys of tax power transfers to Holyrood. The focus of Devo Plus is on powers to generate economic development and its proposals saw gradual transfers of tax powers over the next decade to leave Westminster controlling VAT and national insurance, with most other tax powers transferred to Scotland, including corporation tax but not oil revenues. Devo Plus is ambitious but the question is how will it be implemented and how much it will be implemented given it has so little support?
Whilst Devo Plus is a Scotland-only report, the IPPR’s Devo More offering takes a more UK-wide perspective, in seeking to balance its proposals for Scotland with Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as England. Devo More proposed devolving all income tax as well as assigning VAT revenues. It also examined other tax powers but was concerned that they would either be unstable sources of revenue or difficult to collect due to evasion.
Whereas the reports from the IPPR and Devo Plus provided some detailed discussion of the potential reforms to the current devolution arrangements, Labour’s devolution commission provided almost none. It was ‘minded’ to examine more powers over income tax but really, that was it. The commission report spent a lot of time explaining how difficult it was to devolve any other tax powers like corporation tax or welfare. Why the commission thought it a good idea to call the report ‘ Powers for a Purpose’ is difficult to see, as it doesn’t really offer anything. Indeed, it seems to think the Calman-lite devolution settlement established by the Scotland act 2012 is ticketyboo. Scottish Labour has the opportunity to revise this position before the referendum itself and may need to if the polls move in favour of independence.
Last into the field will be the Conservatives, who are in a curious position on devolution. Scratch underneath a Scottish Tory and you will probably find an abolitionist rather than a devolution-reformer, but the party joined the Commission parade in March 2013 despite rejecting Murdo Fraser as party leader in 2011. Whether the Scottish Tories are serious is open to question, though Conservatives in the UK government are also involved in examining devolution reforms. Why they didn’t do this right after the 2011 SNP victory to negotiate a devolution-reform package to forestall an independence referendum is the real question here though?
Now, back to the average voter and how they are supposed to understand what a No vote means. First of all, they will be faced with at least 5 different alternative proposals to independence, worked out in varying levels of detail with varying levels of devolution reform too. And given public support for taxation and welfare powers, there is a credibility gap in some of the proposals. Second, unlike Calman, there is no Unionist consensus on devolution-reform, so the average voter will have little clarity about what No means until after the 2015 UK general election: a real credibility gap for Better Together.
Peter Lynch is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling and Director of the Scottish Political Archive. The archive collections on Scottish politics can be viewed at
Follow his blog at http://scottishreferendumexperience.wordpress.com/ and on twitter at #ScotReferendumE .
Bedroom Tax – an abomination
Margaret Burgess MSP Housing and Welfare Minister
London gets £56.5 m in DHP funding – Scotland a measly £10 m
On 1 April, the UK Government brought in new rules for people claiming housing benefit for their council or housing association homes. The ‘bedroom tax’ puts a limit on the number of bedrooms housing benefit will help to pay for.
The Scottish Government is opposed to the bedroom tax and Scottish Ministers have said that the policy would be revoked in an independent Scotland.
The bedroom tax is a socially divisive measure and I am deeply concerned that it will increase social inequalities across Scotland.
The Scottish Government is totally opposed to this policy which is why we have said we will revoke it if Scotland votes for independence in 2014.
The bedroom tax is affecting 16,000 families with children in Scotland. It is hitting our most vulnerable citizens, including disabled people, extremely hard in these challenging economic times.
The bedroom tax takes no account of circumstances in Scotland. Of the estimated 105,000 households in Scotland which will be affected by the penalty, around 78,000 would need to move to one bedroom accommodation in order to avoid the penalty. Last year there were also 23,000 homeless applications which would require one bedroom accommodation under DWP’s criteria. However there are only around 20,000 social lets of one bedroom properties each year.
This policy is penalising tenants in the social rented sector for living in accommodation which is deemed to be too large for their needs. But most tenants did not choose to ‘under occupy’ and there is not enough alternative accommodation available. This is because the Scottish Government supports the building of Homes for Life – that means the building of properties with two or more bedrooms.
It is quite clear that this is a policy devised in London on the basis of housing benefit increases and overcrowding. It does not take into account our policy environment or devolved powers here in Scotland.
I have made our case against the bedroom tax abundantly clear to the UK Government on several occasions. Since the policy was introduced I have also said that Scotland must get its fair share of funds to deal with both the human and the financial impact of this measure.
It is imperative that we receive our fair share of Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) funding. While Scotland and London have the same number of households hit by the bedroom tax, the UK Government has said it will award London with £56.5 million of DHP whereas Scotland will only get t £10 million.
The small levels of DHP being awarded to Scotland is woefully inadequate and it puts us in an extremely difficult situation to deal with the impact and scale of this policy.
Despite our ongoing campaign against the bedroom tax, it has, unfortunately come into force, and we are doing all we possibly can to mitigate its impact.
We are providing an extra £2.5 million to social landlords for advice services to ensure there is support on hand for people who will lose housing benefit due to the under occupancy measures and other housing benefit cuts being introduced by Westminster.
I also recently wrote to all social landlords in Scotland to encourage them to use all reasonable means to prevent evictions of housing tenants struggling to pay rent due to the bedroom tax. I encouraged them to consider the example of Dundee City Council, which is protecting tenants who genuinely cannot make up the shortfall in rent caused by the bedroom tax from the threat of eviction.
While we already have strong safeguards in place to ensure eviction is an absolute last resort, we do not want to see tenants run up debts they cannot pay. It is important, in what will be challenging times, that extra consideration is given to people who are having housing benefit taken away.
The UK Government’s agenda is completely at odds with the values of the people of Scotland and the aspirations that this Government has for our nation. Only through independence can Scotland have the levers required to create a welfare system that is aligned to Scottish needs and values.
This illustrates that rather than simply trying to cushion the blows in Scotland, we need the powers of independence to cut them off at source. It would be far better to control benefits and welfare so unfair policies like the bedroom tax are not even considered, let alone implemented.