Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Budget Day

I didn't envy Richard Baker's task today.

Labour has to get its head round the fact that no matter what we think of the SNP's position on the constitution, in day to day Government, they are broadly social democratic. That may, I concede, be for tactical reasons; their true colours may indeed be shown by their stated desire to cut taxes on big business if given the chance or indeed their continued support for a Council Tax freeze benefiting mainly those (the rich) who pay most Council Tax.

That's not however really the point. Today, John Swinney was faced with trying to balance the books against a financial settlement from Westminster which involves significant fewer resources at his disposal. It doesn't matter that we (possibly more sincerely than him) regard the scale of these cuts as unneccessary. If, by some miracle, we had won in May we would still have faced the same challenges.

So what would we have done differently?

It must be the case that faced with a choice between freezing public sector pay and compulsory public sector redundancies we would have made the same call.

The "Tesco Tax", if it works, is surely a good idea, even if the money raised is pretty small beer (sorry).

The decision to prioritise capital expenditure is classic Keynseianism and even the decision that if the Scottish Government can't borrow then Local Authorities might do that for themselves is one that, faced with the initial premise, we would probably also have arrived at.

The commitment to the Christie report is a commitment to a report written Christie, hardly a running dog of capitalism.

Even the jiggery-pokery surrounding the likes of Legal Aid or FE expenditure is only the sort of jiggery-pokery all governments engage in.

And, finally, the decision not to spend money on a Referendum on Independence is in accordance with long term Labour Party policy (even if I don't agree with that policy myself.)

No, the only real controversy is in the treatment of Local Government, and here there is a lesson for us.

There is no doubt that the budget involves very real cuts in the resources available to local councils. There is however no reason to think that this will be unpopular, even if properly understood. Just as there is no evidence that the council tax freeze is unpopular; indeed that policy is so unpopular that in a panic move Iain Gray saw fit to adopt it.

The electorate understands what local councils do. They appreciate the importance of education; roads and lighting; refuse collection; child protection; planning controls and any number of other essential functions. But the electorate believes that all of these functions could be delivered in a more cost effective and less bureaucratic way; that the purpose of local government is to provide services and to provide employment only so far as necessary to do so; and that "local" accountability, outside the cities, might just as well be provided by one Council than the two, three or four as we have at present. And the electorate is seldom wrong.

Lots of my social circle are Labour Councillors. I'm even on reasonable terms with some SNP Councillors and I once met a man at a Party who claimed to be a Tory Councillor (although, admittedly that was in Edinburgh  and, even then, he may have been joking). But, even when talking with these more articulate specimens of the class, I am reminded of the story I was once told by one of the Labour Ministers trying to persuade Glasgow City Councillors to agree to stock transfer. "If the stock transferred" she was asked in all seriousness, "could the Council still have a Housing Committee?" Assured that it could, his support was secured.

There is far too much bureaucracy in Local Government: Too many Committees; too many Councillors; too many Councils; and, above all, too many employees with either undefined roles or at least too many duplicated roles.

The problem with John Swinney's settlement is that it doesn't address this at all.  In consequence,  the cuts will not fall on that layer of lard but rather on the food on the plate.

But while Labour won't address that we are left with the proposition that more money for Councils must mean less for Higher Education; curtailed free personal care; higher Council Tax or an end to the eye catching free bus travel or free prescription charges. In relation to the latter three, I would have other priorities, but I regret it would not be more central government money for Local Government in its present incarnation.

Thank goodness I'm no longer interested in getting a Labour Nomination. And, sympathies, once again, to Richard Baker.

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