Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Meet the Edinburgh Central candidates

It's hustings central here at the Daily (Maybe) at the moment, although this one is a change of pace from all that Green Party stuff. I'm based in Edinburgh at the moment and in the upcoming Holyrood elections the Greens stand on the second, proportional representation, ballot paper but not in the First Past the Post constituency lists.

This presents people like me, who'd naturally vote Green on any ballot paper put in front of them, with a dilemma - which of the other main parties to vote for? I could, of course, spoil my ballot but I've never been quite that tribal. While there are disturbing similarities between the parties some candidates are always going to be better than others.

To help resolve this conundrum I wrote to the four candidates for Edinburgh Central with three simple questions. They're busy people so an in-depth questionnaire was unlikely to get any response.

The SNP and the Liberal Democrats (in that order) got back to me really quickly with very friendly emails. I heard nothing from the Tory, even after a follow-up email, although in fairness his answers would have had to have been pretty damn good to get on my short list!

Labour's candidate didn't get back to me but someone else did with a terse email asking for my address. I'm not quite sure why that was necessary but I supplied it anyway - that was the last I heard from them. My vote's clearly not worth very much to her then, at least not as much as knowing my address is.

Anyway, thanks to Marco Biagi of the SNP and Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Liberal Democrats for their responses. Here's what they had to say, both really interesting I thought - for different reasons.

Marco Biagi of the SNP

1) The cuts are dominating the headlines at the moment. Are you in favour of using the Scottish Parliament's tax raising powers to off set job losses and protect public services? If so please do give a specific example.

I support fair and progressive taxation. The existing income tax power is neither. As Holyrood can only change the base rate the burden would fall on virtually all those earning. A 1p rise in the Scottish Variable Rate would mean a £60 per year for a full-time minimum wage worker - and frankly people working for £5.93 an hour 40 hours a week should be paying less tax and not more.

Even using the full 3p of the power would not have been enough to cancel the £1.3bn cut happening just this year. The SVR was intended never to be usable and its designers did their job well. Don't even get me started on Council Tax. It was invented by a Conservative Party who were trying to go as little distance as possible from their beloved poll tax and is even more regressive than VAT. Freezing it is progressive but I'd rather replace it entirely.

The Scottish Parliament's tax raising powers however also cover business rates. In the SNP policy team I helped conceive the Large Retailers Levy as a way of trying to find ways to raise revenue from sources who could even now afford to pay a bit more. Unfortunately this fell under yet another alliance of convenience of the other three big parties.

Other revenue options at a local level are worth exploring, such as scaling empty business relief. Personally I also think we should be courageous and make use of the provisions to introduce a carrier bag charge under the Climate Change Act, provided the money goes straight to green jobs schemes. I'd also like to see money that is Scotland's by right - like the Fossil Fuel Levy or consequentials from the London Olympics - coming to Holyrood. Unfortunately when it comes to enforceability the Barnett Convention isn't worth the paper it isn't written on.

2) I received a free education, my Dad was in the same job for almost all his life and it seems that everywhere I look services, like local libraries, are being closed down. are we moving backwards as a society?

There's a trap here of falling into a giant postmodern discussion about the meaning of progress. Yes, there are fewer libraries in the country than fifty years ago but there are more nurseries (as just one example).

Services change based on the demands of the public and their willingness to pay, and many things the government provides now weren't even thought of back then. Employment has changed almost unrecognisably too - more fragmented and less unionised yes, but also with better rights in workplace safety and minimum pay.

Movement though isn't something that should happen *to* people, it should happen because of them. There can be a better future if people are willing to engage and be part of it - and if people go against those who present dystopia in the language of progress (not that I'm thinking of any Big Society in particular).

The SNP restoring free education by abolishing the Graduate Endowment was the embodiment of a group of motivated people choosing to put one their principles into action and reverse a direction of travel - towards ever more charging - that until then had seemed unstoppable. We chose party politics.

Some people prefer to lobby politicians through interest groups, but it's a lot easier to win an argument with an elected representative if that elected representative agrees with you in the first place. And, incidentally, when it comes to free education, wild horses couldn't shift me - no tuition fees. End of story.

3) I'm voting Green on the list. How would you pitch for my vote on the constituency paper?

That question is a bit of an elephant trap and it would be very easy to be cynical. I'm standing for the party that ended PFI, froze an unfair tax, increased the police to record highs and took class sizes down to record lows, restored free and funded higher education, abolished prescription charges, and focused our support for industry on small business and the new, emerging low carbon technologies.

We've done a lot and we'll do even more if and when we're able to make more of the big decisions about the economy, jobs, pensions and our relations with the rest of the world from here in Scotland. That's the same list of achievements I'd give to anyone on a doorstep, and I'd be doing you a disservice as a voter if I did otherwise. We have an environmental record that is second to none, and I'll expound it any time and anywhere you want. But that's not what you asked.

My answer in a nutshell? I think you should vote SNP on both.

Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Liberal Democrats

1) The cuts are dominating the headlines at the moment. Are you in favour of using the Scottish Parliament's tax raising powers to off set job losses and protect public services? If so please do give a specific example.

We live in unprecedented times, the UK's structural deficit was costing us £120 million a day in interest payments alone, that's the equivalent of ten new primary schools a day going straight into the pockets of international financiers. So whilst I didn't get into politics to make cuts, I recognise that in this instance something had to give. Labour have a nerve when they suggest that the cuts the coalition are making are deliberately targeted at the poor and vulnerable.

By their own admission, they were going to cut public spending by 16% whilst renewing trident and keeping ID cards, the coalition are only cutting 19% but not renewing trident and scrapping ID cards, so under Labour vulnerable groups would have suffered just as much, because they depend disproportionately more on public spending.

With regard to raising tax in Scotland to offset the need to cut public spending, I'm not convinced. With inflation at 4% and the cost of living soaring as a result, the last thing hard up families need is to pay more tax. I do agree however that the poorest should in fact pay less tax. That's why I'm proud that Lib Dems in government in the UK are moving the income tax threshold to £10,000 meaning that over 90,000 Scottish families will soon pay no tax at all.

I think we can be more sophisticated in Scotland about where the cuts fall and it doesn't have to mean job losses or service closures. Public sector pay is a major area that could provide a saving, I think it's outrageous that hundreds of public sector bosses earn more money than the First Minister and with no accountability. Similarly In think that by delivering services in partnership with the voluntary sector, we can do a lot more, more efficiently and for less money.

2) I received a free education, my Dad was in the same job for almost all his life and it seems that everywhere I look services, like local libraries, are being closed down. are we moving backwards as a society?

A lot of the problems we face are being experienced in many developed countries around the world, but they are worsened in the UK by the size of our deficit and the burden of debt repayment we face. But everywhere I see reasons to be cheerful- in the determination of community groups and charities pulling together to get through these difficult times. Sometimes adversity brings out the best in people and you can see that in local campaigns springing up, like the successful campaign to save Dalry swim centre.

We will come out of this slump with a greater sense of community and an understanding that we need to be more responsible with public spending in the future, to me that suggests we are in fact moving forward as a society, despite the problems we face.

With regard to free education, Students in Scotland pay no tuition fees, because the Lib Dems in Government in Scotland scrapped fees after Labour first brought them in. We intend to preserve free education in Scotland as it should be a right and not a privilege.

3) I'm voting Green on the list. How would you pitch for my vote on the constituency paper?

As a Quaker, a voluntary sector worker and a committed environmentalist, I have always had a great deal of sympathy with the green movement. Our manifesto for the forthcoming elections is packed with policy to make our country and our economy more sustainable and cognisant of our responsibilities to the world around us.

This includes a dramatic refocusing of our economy towards the renewable energy sector, something which, if done correctly, could provide thousands of new jobs. We are also committed to the full implementation of the Climate Change Act. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party consistently to argue for the 42 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, and we are proud of the role we played in securing the inclusion of cumulative emissions, sectoral targets and tough annual targets within the Act. Concerted effort is now required to meet those targets, and we recognise that sustained, early action over the course of the next parliamentary session is crucial.


Matty said...

Scotland doesn't use PFI? Jesus, they do everything better than England.

Anonymous said...

Tough question. Dear SNP candidate: why should a Green voter back a party of motorway builders, carbon target u-turners and coal aficionados in this constituency?

Daft answer. Don't even bother 2nd voting Green where you're most likely to get a Green MSP in all of Scotland. Vote for the party of Stewart Stevenson, who it's believed used to go by 4x4 to his own bathroom.

Tim said...

I rate Alex Cole Hamilton as someone who at least starts from the right place

Jim Jepps said...

Matty: they just abolished prescription charges too...

More generally: I thought both of these responses were pretty good for different reasons.

I particularly liked Marco's refusal to answer the questions I put refering to them as traps (that's not sarky, I *do* like that). I've long been an admirer of Shirley Williams who is never afraid to tell off a voter for being stupid - much better than the vapid, all things to all people, approach of much of main stream politics.

Alex I thought was also very articulate in his responses and I was interested in the fact I got a newspaper thingy from 'him' this morning in my block of flats.

I have to say I'm rather tempted to vote SNP simply on the basis that I've never had the chance before, but that seems a silly reason to give someone my vote so more thought needed!