Monday, 28 April 2014


Most of the major trade unions in Scotland have adopted a positive and sensible approach to the referendum, as have the STUC. This year’s Congress was a real debate conducted in the best spirit of trade union principles – and contrasts significantly with the chaotic contribution of the  Confederation of British Industry. I accept the right of some individual trade unions and the STUC to adopt a position of challenging both sides , whilst welcoming those unions and branches that support a Yes vote.

However todays Communication Workers Union UK Conference decision is disappointing as they have gone down the same cul de sac as the GMB in that their leadership have imposed a line without consultation in exactly the same way as the CBI did – to support a No vote without consulting any of their members.

 The consequences for those trade unions are yet to be seen, but I have heard that individual members are unhappy about a basic tenet of democracy being ignored, and would have wanted to be consulted on this most important of issues – the future direction of our country and the role their trade union intends to take in the campaign. It’s their subscriptions from their hard earned wages which underwrites any campaigning and the leadership “we know best” approach is hardly a 21st century approach to politics.

So it proved for the CBI - registering of CBI for the No campaign without the basic requisite of consulting its own members was only going to have one effect.  Resignations.  Another part of this however, begs the question as to why so many public bodies were members in the first place.

At the STUC Congress, correctly, the decision was taken to challenge both sides.  This was a genuine engagement, and any trade union who has engaged with their members properly will tell you, that whilst they may have an individual view, they wish the trade union to challenge both sides – exactly the course taken by PCS.

These recent events leave the decision taken by the Communication Workers Union , all the more baffling.  Already on social media, CWU members are signalling their resignations, in what was described only a few weeks ago by the Sunday Herald as a “sham consultation”.  Whilst I would never encourage any member to resign, the feeling of being ignored and not consulted is an anti-democratic practice, which, given the importance of the decision is indefensible.

 The approaches all organisations take in this debate, have consequences no matter the result.  Organisations which have taken a view without consultation may very well find after the 18th September that they are left behind in determining the next steps on Scotland’s future, due to mistrust, and a feeling that they do not represent the interests of those they claim to.  This calls for open, transparent, and democratic processes – for the sake of their members who deserve better. After all – who would have ever imagined that the CBI and some trade unions would have something in common ?




Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Wee bit more Devo

Sometimes it’s actually possible to feel very sorry for Scottish Labour Party leaders – tonight it was Johann Lamont’s turn to try and defend the indefensible. The position of the Labour party in Scotland has, since the mid-seventies, been reminiscent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.  A long bloody struggle to hold a line and eventually retreating in disarray, scattering baggage along the way.  There are those who question the impartiality of the BBC in the independence debate, but Gordon Brewer’s forensic, detailed questioning of Lamont on Newsnight Scotland tonight exposed the fundamental contradictions at the heart of Scottish Labour.

With a few honourable exceptions, the Labour party in Scotland has regarded devolution and the granting of more powers to Scotland as a war of attrition – concessions reluctantly made in the face of nationalist advance, but designed to halt any progress towards full independence, rather than a positive choice to empower and let go of Westminster control.

Every advance towards self-determination for Scotland has been made reluctantly – yes, devolution was enacted by New Labour, but only after a second vote (as if the 1997 Labour manifesto wasn’t really serious) and explicitly promoted as a way to “kill nationalism stone dead”.

From the Hamilton by-election onwards, Scottish Labour has been profoundly disturbed by the notion that anyone other than themselves can represent the Scottish people. Their sense of outrage has only increased over the years, leading to the dismal tribal tenor of what passes for their debate in the run-up to the referendum.

What was exposed tonight was the total incoherence of the Scottish Labour position – do we really think that a further set of “a wee bit more “ devo proposals would have been forthcoming if it wasn’t for the re-election of the SNP government (with a majority) and a pending referendum on independence ? The inability of Lamont to answer whether Labour in Scotland could set higher tax rates without reference to a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer cruelly exposed the fundamental misunderstanding of what real powers for a purpose should look like.  That’s if Labour win the 2015 election – that’s the X-Factor we all are being invited to take a gamble on. Trust us – we did such a great job of addressing inequality the last time around.

What was announced today was the proverbial mish mash of try and please everyone (within the Scottish Labour tribal tent) and end up pleasing no-one. Incoherent, full of inbuilt contradictions (employment law reserved but employment tribunals devolved) , with a vague attempt to present as socially progressive and fiscally redistributive but taking fright at actually stating that a future Scottish Labour administration would really be coming for the wealthy – and in many ways, that’s Johann’s tragedy. She probably does want to be more open about that, but can’t say so as theUK leadership dominated by the Blairite Progress group won’t let her.
Not so much wee things, just a wee bit more.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


Last weekend I visited the Plaid Cymru Spring Conference, along with SNP Trade Union colleague Ross Cassie (pictured), and it was probably just as well we weren’t there this Saturday after that rugby score. However, am happy to report that despite giving Scotland one of our worst defeats ever, our Celtic Comrades are strongly supporting us in our joint campaign for self-determination!
This was my second visit to a Plaid event having visited Wales six months before the 2007 election, and perhaps it is a good omen that I was down six months before the referendum.

There is always some curiosity between Plaid and SNP members as to why our electoral performances are so markedly different just now.  It was during this recent visit that I began to really appreciate the scale of the task facing our Celtic Comrades.  Just prior to the conference an opinion poll showed that their one European seat is under threat in May, and astonishingly UKIP already have an MEP for Wales.

The stark reality of the struggle hit home when I was addressing the UNDEB (Plaid Cymru’s Trade Union section).   Whilst the majority of Trade Unions in Scotland are fairly neutral towards independence, and many individual members are voting Yes, the feeling in Wales is that TU’s are still firmly embedded in the Labour Party machine. It was a well-attended meeting and I do know that there are many Plaid activists who are trade union members, but who feel that their voices are yet to be listened to by their union leaderships.  I encouraged our Plaid colleagues to keep on arguing the case for alternatives to the Labour status quo, and promote a positive vision as to why their political party – with democratic socialist values- is best placed to represent them in parliament and local government.  For many workers, and public sector workers in particular, pay, terms and conditions are decided in an England and Wales context, which also makes the case for strong local representation. The sense of frustration at the extent of Labour led authorities in Wales implementing Coalition Cuts without much of an attempt to alleviate or fight back was very clear,  It begs the question that although there are cuts that Labour in Scotland are implementing in the councils they run, and a continued squeeze on terms and conditions for our members – how much worse would it be if Holyrood was Labour led as well ?

Another major challenge, which was brought home to me in our discussions, was the in media.  In many parts of Wales, newspapers and other media are London focused, with no Welsh editions of newspapers, and our colleagues were very upfront that the only media coverage about Scotland’s referendum is through Westminster based media eyes.  We should appreciate that despite the many challenges the newspaper industry face, that regardless of their views on Independence, we have a major advantage in a Scottish based newspaper industry and media, that covers political stories from a Scottish angle. Not to mention the journalists and commentators who report without party bias or favour.

We spent many enjoyable hours in the company of the great Welsh Historian Dr John Davies, who remarked that he was quite offended when listening to the radio where it was suggested that should Scotland vote YES, then all that would be left of the UK is England and its “bits” …….John didn’t take too kindly that Wales was regarded as “a bit”. Having written the definitive history and encyclopaedia of Wales, that’s understandable – and I was intrigued to discover that the copies of his works that are held in the Mitchell library are from the late Edwin Morgan’s  collection – both writers of international renown.

Another curious factor, was that the coalition with Labour from 2007 to 2011 may have electorally damaged Plaid in the short term.  Many Plaid activists feel that in that coalition, Plaid taught Labour how to be Welsh, and to drape themselves in the Welsh flag. 

What is clear is that Plaid are supporting Scottish independence, and that a YES vote would be a boost for more powers for Wales.  Plaid Cymru are playing, (correctly in my view) a long game.  This undermines the solidarity against self-determination argument put out by No supporters who keep insisting that a YES vote would be a disaster for other parts of the UK. That argument would have more force if there weren’t alternative voices in both Wales (and England) saying that Yes in Scotland gives an opportunity for an alternative vision for the rest of the UK.  

I really enjoyed the weekend, and strongly believe that there are positive actions for Plaid Cymru to take forward, particularly their trade union section.   A  strong values based campaign saw them handsomely retain the Ynys Mon by-election, the party has a clear democratic socialist vision for Wales, with a popular leader in Leanne Wood and they should take Scotland’s advances as a clarion call for more powers leading to independence. We should be very clear that the Yes campaign has resonance and meaning beyond Scotland’s borders and people are looking to us to provide hope and example. I lost count of the number of times Plaid activists told me to let everyone in Scotland know how important it for Wales that Scotland votes Yes !

So with that – I also look forward to welcoming Plaid activists who fancy a busman’s holiday in Scotland in September…!


Monday, 17 February 2014


“My hunch is that poking Scotland in the chest while telling it what it can't do won't help the No's”

Billy Bragg – 12th February 2014

Considering that’s the view of a passionate, patriotic (in the finest sense of the word) Englishman, it makes you wonder what the reaction among voters in Scotland to George Osborne’s scolding lecture will be in the weeks and months ahead.

The First Minister’s response this week was measured and positive – and although many Scottish voters would be tempted to respond “Aye do you think…” to the “No you can’t” diktat from the unionist parties, he opted for the “Yes, we can” message.

Let’s consider Osborne’s track record as Chancellor and credibility. He promised that the UK would keep its AAA credit rating – failed.  Reduce the deficit? – failed.  We are meant to believe that Mr Osborne is omniscient in economic matters, especially when it comes to the issue of a currency union – and of course, he is guided by the most impartial advice the civil service can provide. A view provided by the mandarins will inevitably incline towards caution, as change is always suspect and the status quo is the default preference at all times.  Was the UK Chancellor correct on this occasion? Let’s consider the report from Professor Christine Bell of Edinburgh University.

Legally under international law the position is clear: if the remainder UK keeps the name and status of the UK under international law, it keeps its liabilities for the debt.  The UK took out the debt, and legally it owes the money.  Scotland cannot therefore ‘default’.   It can be argued that international law does, however, contemplate that on dividing, the two resulting states.”

Some economists have been making dire predictions that Scotland ‘defaulting on the debt’ is irresponsible – and ignoring the  actual response from the Yes campaign which is to set out a reasonable negotiating point – that if assets aren’t to be shared, then why should liabilities?  Why is a Scottish government not allowed to its negotiate in the event of a “Yes” vote ? That, in effect is the position of the 3 main unionist parties – to deny the right of elected representatives to secure the best deal for Scotland in the event of a “Yes” vote – a blatant denial of the democratic right of the Scottish people to determine their own future. “

Just consider what has actually happened last week –  the Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems position as articulated last week is to state clearly and unequivocally that there will be no reasonable negotiations around our joint economic interests  in an attempt to bludgeon voters into voting “No”.

In a nutshell, the Better Together message boils down to – there’s no point in voting “Yes” because it’s not going to work ( because we say so) and there’s no possibility of an alternative future. There’s no such thing as political will, there’s no point in expecting your elected representatives to articulate and fight for the possibility of change and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the political and economic systems in one of the most unequal countries in the western world. The fact that those who are articulating the “no change” message have a personal stake in business as usual as the system has worked very well for them (Westminster MP’s) gives them not a moment’s pause.

I watched the first in the “Scandimania” documentaries last night, where Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall travelled around Norway and expect he’ll be accused of pandering to the “Yes” campaign by showing a small successful country that’s made good use of natural and human resources to support a society that looks fairly decent – not perfect, but sustainable. One of the more depressing aspects of the nay-sayers is the petty sneering at our Scandanavian neighbours whenever the prospect of a different society in Scotland is discussed.

I fully expected the big red panic button to be pressed in the run up to September 18th, but am curious as to why now – presumably to halt any sense of momentum in the “yes” campaign, but all this has done is give people time to discuss and consider why there is No Future. The conventional wisdom is that negative always beats positive and that fear always beats hope – that’s tired old politics and my next post will be on how that’s the politics of self-destruction for the unionist parties in Scotland who may find they are destroying their own hopes in order to Save the Union. It’s still in the balance for the referendum, but voters will wonder why in future elections should they vote for parties that are insulting their democratic right to express an opinion, and insulting their intelligence at the same time.



Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Just Scotland

I’ve been meaning to blog for a good while now on the issue of what makes a Just Scotland, as well as reflecting on the journey many people in Scotland have made and are making from the Labour Movement towards supporting Independence. This was very much on my mind recently - as many of you will know, our Convener of Govan SNP, Steve Butler, sadly passed away in December after a very short illness.

Steve was the Constituency Officer Manager for Jim Sillars, and so when I joined the SNP on the back of the 1988 Govan By-election and the Anti-Poll Tax campaign I got to meet him for the first time. I was aware of his background in the trade union movement and am proud to say he was my mentor and someone whose values I shared.

Steve became a good friend and colleague and his contribution, and kindness to many people will never be forgotten.  A typical story about him comes from when he was covering the polling station in Priesthill in 2011.  A conversation with the local Minister resulted in him helping to repair the church organ. He believed in action and his many small acts of assistance were as big a contribution to his community as a lifetime of political debate and activism.

For the wider political picture  I would recommend an interview with a young Steve Butler from 1975 -  with an equally young Christopher Hitchens for the New Statesman, which sums up a lot of Steve’s political thoughts …………..” Steve Butler, a young shop steward from Rolls- Royce in East Kilbride, told me why he had left the Labour Party in Glasgow and signed up with the Nationalists (for whom he hopes to become industrial organiser). ‘Self-government would be a step towards socialism,’ he said. ‘I used to identify with people like Foot but since they took office I’ve given them up.”

Anne McLaughlin reminded me of this interview and has also written a very moving tribute and in blogging it would be remiss of me not to direct you towards that at …

When I first heard of Steve’s sudden illness, I had just attended two meetings organised by the STUC as part of its campaign “A Just Scotland”, which is looking at the significant challenges facing Scotland, as part of its approach for the Referendum campaign.  The comparisons with other countries as part of this process gave plenty of food for thought.

Senior Trade Unionists and Academics made rational and measured contributions.

Among the key findings I noted were ;

(1) The infamous IFS report does not suggest that an Independent Scotland would have less money to spend, and should have compared an Independent Scotland with Scotland in the UK, and not Scotland v the UK.

(2)  More importantly, they state that the key issue in terms of finances is one of demographics - an issue that remains whether YES or No is successful.

(3) Income Inequality - the UK has one of the highest gaps in Europe

(4) If all workers not in receipt of the Living Wage, were to be paid it, there would be increased income tax revenues of £550m.

(5) Only in 9 out of the last 69 months have real wages risen.

(6) Workers whose pay and conditions were covered by collective bargaining in 1979,have gone from 81% in Scotland to 23%.

(7) Trade Union membership in Scotland now stands at 32.3% of workers, in Sweden that figure is 69%

These are fascinating statistics, and demonstrate the real challenges the country faces, and the STUC should be thanked for facilitating these events. 

It does however reveal key weaknesses in the Better Together armoury.  As John McInally of the PCS put it.........."if No means more cuts,  austerity, and more privatisation then Scotland will leave the UK.  “ As Ed Miliband has just confirmed that a future Labour government in Westminster would still sing from the same austerity hymn sheet that hits the poorest hardest then what was a concern has just become a reality – a No vote means more of the same with NO possibility of change. That is only tip of the iceberg – and I’ll address that in a future blog post, but at the moment it’s sad to reflect how far the Labour party has moved away from its roots and fails to recognise the opportunities for real change through supporting workers rights and building a new dynamic in an independent Scotland.

The key message that trade union activists recognise is that employment law affects pay, conditions, and the wider economy including welfare. A Fair Work Commission, and a National Convention on Employment and Labour Relations would be a good place to start on addressing these challenges. That opportunity is there to be grasped, and increasingly many people are participating in shaping and discussing what makes a Just Scotland and what is our Common Weal and thinking outside narrow tribal party interests. A YES vote isn’t a vote for the SNP , it’s a vote for the possibility of change and for opening the door to new opportunities. A NO vote is a vote for more of the same diet of austerity and squeezing of public services that hasn’t served the workers of Scotland well in the past decades.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Consulting the Members

The blog is back! and firstly I should note my delight that a former leader of the best employer I ever worked for, Strathclyde Regional Council, has endorsed Independence.  Well done Charles Gray!

I am moved to share my thoughts on the continuing debate within the Trade Union movement on Independence given the mysterious decision of the GMB to announce that they back a No vote. Mysterious in the sense of lack of clarity about how this decision was reached.

The GMB position as announced by their leadership is curious.  Here's a resolution that the GMB put the Scottish Trades Union Congress this year;

"That this Congress notes the continual contraction of the Scottish Economy, the rise in unemployment, particularly youth unemployment and the clear evidence that Austerity is NOT working. What jobs there are, are temporary, insecure, part-time and low wage....
Congress believes that there is an alternative path based on a people-centred economics, which puts democracy at the heart of it.
Congress calls for the development of credible, popular alternative based on common ownership. Investment in public services based on need, a manufacturing renaissance and full and fulfilling employment as an urgent macroeconomic goal, greater industrial economic democracy, including co-operatives, pension fund reform and proper investment in and the reconstruction of, our industrial base. This requires a wide- ranging STUC led campaign, building on the platform of, There is a Better Way."

Also reads like the Common Weal project to me. 

Last week the Scottish Council of the GMB voted to support the No campaign.  How does this motion square with the statements by both Labour and the Tories that over £2 billion of cuts are on the way in 2015? 

Having spoken to many GMB members over the last two days, I can say that they are in shock at this decision.  Claims of an extensive consultation appear wide of the mark - a consultation can only be a consultation if members feel involved - and can be described as patchy at best.

Here's some of the questions GMB members have been asking;

(1) How were consultation meetings advertised, and why do so many members claim they didn't know about them?
(2) How many attended meetings?
(3) Were both sides of the debate asked to send representatives to engage in hustings?
(4) Was a vote taken at these meetings?
(5) Why make the decision now, before publication of the White Paper, and the Labour Party's report on further devolution of powers?
(6) What was the level of engagement?
(7) Why were members not balloted on an issue of such importance?
(7) How does this square with the STUC stance of asking both sides questions, and keeping a neutral approach?

GMB members deserve answers to these basic questions.  If the process has been found to be flawed, they have a duty to re-open the consultation.

We now have 5 Trade unions, traditional full time official led - as opposed to lay member led - making decisions on members behalf on how their money will spent on the Independence Referendum.  In each case, the level of  trade union member engagement and consultation is open to question.  In most cases, these Trade Unions have lost members - usually to other Trade Unions.

Other Trade Unions should think very carefully about how they engage with their members on this issue, and should serve as a warning that top down diktats will alienate their members.

In a time of deregulated markets, a low wage economy, attacks on health and safety legislation and cuts to the public sector, the role and function of Trade unions is as important as ever.  The Trade Union movement, as the largest part of Scottish Civic Society, has a duty to full engage with members on the biggest political decision in decades.  Those Trade Unions backing No appear to have done members a disservice.

Finally, I am curious as to where Trade Union funds will go.  It was my understanding that United with Labour was created to give trade union activists and labour party members some space to campaign to remain in the UK in the absence of Conservatives.  What exactly is the relationship between United with Labour and Better Together?

Union members are entitled to know where and how their money is being spent on campaigning and what exactly is funded by whom to do what. In other words...follow the money ?

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


Hoping to claw back some semblance of control as the Falkirk debacle unfolds, Ed Miliband has launched  a "reform" of trade union levies going into the Labour Party.

Whilst the aim of "opting-in" is entirely laudable, and to a certain degree already operates in practice within UNISON, a key statistic not widely reported in the media is that over 360,000 UNITE members do not pay the political levy to Labour.

Other Trade Unions correctly take the view that their political fund should be used to fund campaigns of candidates of various political parties - for example the Fire Brigades Union who have funded campaigns of the last two parliamentary elections campaigns I have been involved in.  The RMT similarly fund campaigns in this way, both unions choosing to support candidates who have a track record in supporting fairness at work.

The problem,( depending on your point of view), is that explicitly funding a candidate of a political party other than that of the Labour party results in that trade union being expelled by Labour.

I am prepared to wager that the above scenario will remain the case in this so-called Labour reform.

UNITE have a point when they criticise their arch-nemesis Progress for indulging in the same sort of candidate fixing that they are accused of in the Falkirk case. Actually, a glance at any Left labour blogs can provide chapter and verse on the inglorious history of New Labour fixing to purge any candidates with anything other than strict adherence to centre right orthodoxies. Ironic that Falkirk is the seat under the spotlight as the deliberate exclusion of Denis Canavan in the run up to 1999 is the prime example of this so the double think airbrushing of history that the current leadership are hoping to achieve.

All of which leads to the following conclusions;

Firstly with New Labour, supporters of austerity, taking a similar path to the Tory-led Government, why shouldn't trade unions, in this age of multi-party politics not fund campaigns of those seeking political office whose views and values are sympathetic to the Trade Union Movement - SNP, Plaid Cymru, the various Socialist Parties, and indeed Labour candidates. It's tempting to label those as "what's left of the left" in the Labour party, but it's simplistic and trite to label those who support  workers rights, decent working conditions and fair pay as "Left" - but let's leave challenging the language of the right wing media for another day.

Secondly, if candidate fixing is ok for Progress and not the Trade Unions, what legitimate voice and role remains for the trade union movement in todays British Labour Party?

Thirdly, if this is a step to reduce trade union influence (openly admitted by the leadership) then surely it is time for unions to look elsewhere? Members may wonder what precisely their hard earned subs are going toward if unions will carry less influence than a think tank or lobbying firm when looking to advance their cause of protecting jobs and conditions ?

Surely now, more than ever, it is time for trade unions to ditch New Labour.