Monday, 22 May 2017

Care

My wife Maureen has now very late stage Alzheimer's type dementia. She showed the first signs of it in 2004 and is now completely bed bound and incapable of eating unassisted. She also has the other symptoms of the late stage of the disease which I need not spell out here but which will be familiar to those who also have knowledge of it.

It is not an experience that I would wish on anyone but, here is the thing, the one way in which it has barely affected us is financially.

That is partly because we live in a big house. It has four bedrooms and two bathrooms, so our own former bedroom has been capable of being turned into what is in effect a hospital room and the bathroom close to it into a wet floor room with a disabled shower. Few are so lucky.

Maureen requires 24/7 care, which I provide from 6pm to 7am, Although, since she now largely sleeps during that period, that is not the task it once was. Outwith that, we receive a "Self Directed Payment" from the local authority as part of Scotland's free personal care regime introduced by Holyrood's first Labour/Lib Dem administration. That pays, more or less, for the monthly cost of the carers who are in the house all of the time I am routinely not there. The only time we have to seriously dip into our own money is if I want a night out or a holiday and, even then, Maureen's own personal income, a teacher's pension, a PIP and now a state pension more than covers the cost of that.

We are very fortunate in that regard to be living in Scotland. In England we would be paying for all of this care from our own pockets. We are not poor people, far from it, but I doubt we could afford that. Out of income at least.

There has been much controversy about the Tories plan to address the funding of social care in England and Wales, not least because of the shambolic way in which it has been handled. But in one respect it is undoubtedly right. In the interest of inter generational fairness, never mind the willingness, possibly even the ability, of general taxpayers to stump up, the ever increasing costs involved in providing social care should not be funded from general taxation, direct or indirect.

For, in a UK context, between 2015 and 2020, over a period when the general population is expected to rise 3%, the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12% (1.1 million); the numbers aged over 85 by 18% (300,000); and the number of centenarians by 40% (7,000). And while it might be nice this will consist largely of elderly golfers "shooting their age" we have to be realistic as to what this actually means. Over the age of 84, the prevalence of dementia is more than 25%. And medical progress in this area is slow. Believe me, that is something I am also well informed about. Not least because Maureen's brother, Professor Michael O'Donovan, is one of the UK's leading medical experts in the field.

Anyway.
A form of inheritance tax is the fairest way to address this issue.

I personalise this only because it is a good way to outline the general point.  You see, Maureen and I are baby boomers. Only very much at the margins have we enjoyed inherited wealth but we both received a free university education. She then benefited from a very generous teacher's final salary pension while I enjoyed the "golden years" of Legal Aid. She, now aged 64, has a "triple locked" full state pension while I will in time enjoy a private pension significantly subsidised by being able to claim higher rate tax relief against my earlier contributions. Oh, and we own a big house with a negligible mortgage due to be paid off entirely well before my own retirement. We are very comfortably off. The point is however that for people of our generation, particularly perhaps those retired from a lifetime career in the professions or in the corporate or public sector, we are far from untypical.

And, in normal circumstance, we might both have anticipated living to a ripe old age. But if we did, there would inevitably come a point when we needed some help.

So who should pay for that? Those struggling to raise a deposit to buy a first home? Those having to pay off a student loan? Those claiming tax credits while paying income tax?

No, the obvious answer is that, through taxation, we should. Those who of us who have had such a fortunate period of time in which to have lived,  We baby boomers, who are only where we are because we enjoyed all these advantages outlined above and yet are being told such advantages are increasingly "unaffordable" for those who come after us.  And if that taxation only kicks in when we're gone we won't even notice it. Because we'd be gone.

So a levy on assets of the deceased is the fairest way for these costs be met. But here's what isn't fair about the current Tory proposals.  For liability for that taxation to be based on a lottery whereby those with a slow decline become liable to pay this tax while those who are taken quickly will not be. The risk should be, to coin a phrase from a different debate, "pooled and shared".

Now, in a Scottish context, the last stroke of good fortune Maureen and I have enjoyed is that we have benefited from free personal care before the money ran out. (And, as always, a bit because we were middle class, articulate, and knew our rights),

But when free personal care was introduced by the Labour/Lib-Dem coalition it is an open secret that our then Health Minister, Susan Deacon, opposed it. Not because she didn't see its merits but because she could see that, given the demographic changes I highlight above, in time, and within the limited revenue raising powers of the Scottish Parliament then prevailing, it was, in the long term, unaffordable. Even now, if people understood their rights properly, it would collapse overnight,

But the revenue raising powers of the Scottish Parliament have moved on since then. There is no reason now that Holyrood could not address this issue before the current policy hits a financial wall. Social care, free personal care, or whatever you want to call it, could be paid for a blanket inheritance tax, levied not just on those unfortunate enough to suffer a lingering departure but on all of those who die widowed and beyond a certain age.

The Nats won't confront this as they won't confront any difficult choice for fear of shaving off any part of their fragile Yes coalition. But Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie are serious politicians. As are many of the Greens once you get beyond their yes Nicola, no Nicola leader. As will Scottish Labour (hopefully) be again at some point later this year.

So here is a proposal. Let's ignore the Nats and get together to try and work out the detail of a long term viable solution on this matter.  I'd happily write a scoping paper. I do have some experience to draw on.







Saturday, 20 May 2017

Can McGill win?

So, I start with a declaration of interest. Iain McGill, the Tory candidate in Edinburgh North and Leith. is a pal of mine. But that's not in fact as unusual as you might think, not because I am a secret Tory but because Scotland is a small place and friendships do exist across the political divide,

Even in the context of Edinburgh North and Leith, Mark Lazarowicz, its Labour MP for fourteen years, is one of my oldest pals. Indeed we once went on holiday together, While, before Mark was blown away in the 2015 "Tsunami", the person who had previously run him most close was Lib-Dem Kevin Lang (now Councillor Kevin Lang). Who is also a pal of mine.

So I declare my interest only to forestall some cybernat pointing it out, although I accept that I have picked out Iain's seat as, because of that personal connection, it is indicative of my wider conclusion. The Tory revival might be at a further tipping point.

Edinburgh has five seats. East, in current circumstance, is probably safe for the Nats. (I don't say that just because it's MP, Tommy Sheppard, is also one of my oldest pals). South will be a unionist (if not exactly a Labour) bastion for Iain Murray. West has effectively already gone to the Libs and South West to the Tories. But North and Leith? North and Leith is the one to watch.

The Tories start theoretically third, where they were in 2015. But at the local government poll on 4th May past it was a different story. The Nats "won", certainly, with 27.6% of the first preference vote but in second place, with 25.9%,  were the Tories. More interestingly still, the combined Labour and Lib-Dem vote didn't even (just) get up to the Tory mark.

But freeze that and the brutality of first past the post will do its bit. So the question becomes, will that freeze persist?

And my answer to the question? I genuinely don't know.

But the answer to that very question will decide the narrative of this election in Scotland. Can the Tories advance just that little bit more in their own right? Even if they can't, can Ruth rally, however temporarily, Lib-Dem and Labour voters to her unionist flag where she needs to ? If she can't, she can't. But if she can? Then it won't just be North and Leith that falls but, by my calculation,  another half dozen or so seats.

And that would be on top of the fifteen seats Ruth has already flagged up as those where the Tories were in the lead on May 4th. Excepting Edinburgh South (be serious!) and Gordon where, much as I'd dance round the room were it otherwise, the celebrity of its MP will probably see him hang on.

And then, if the Libs take not just Edinburgh West but East Dunbarton (done deal) and NE Fife but also at least one of their former Highland seats? Game on. If only Labour, despite our leadership, can do our bit for the Popular Front.

Obviously Jez and Kez are a problem but they'll be gone soon and in advance of a proper revival and by the same logic by which McGill might take North and Leith, Martin McCluskey can take Inverclyde for us, Lesley Laird Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Martin Whitfield East Lothian, Hugh Gaffney Coatbridge and Chryston, Paul Sweeney Glasgow North East, Angela Feeney Motherwell and Wishaw and, particularly if in at last minute panic Patrick Harvie doesn't declare people shouldn't actually vote for him, the great Pam Duncan in Glasgow North.

In the UK, the Tories are going to win this election. As will the SNP in the Scottish bit of it. But in five years time if we want a Labour Government Scotland can't sit it out as we did in 2015. The starting point is to crush the Nats and return Edinburgh North and Leith to a seat we need to win in the context of a continued Union. Were I a younger man, I might even then seek the Labour nomination myself. Sorry Iain, but politics is politics. And, as I recall, its your round.






Sunday, 14 May 2017

24 Days out.

So, three and a half weeks to go and in my fourth election blog I thought I might take a bit of stock in relation to the election in Scotland. I might write later in the week regarding the UK contest but for the moment I will only observe that its strategic outcome is clear, The Tories will win with a significantly improved majority and that in itself will impact on Scotland.

But to Scotland itself?

Let's consider each of the players in turn.

The SNP.

They are clearly on the defensive. All talk of seeking a mandate for a second referendum mandate at this poll has disappeared. Let's not forget that, less than a month ago, one of the speculated "next moves" by Nicola, following the Prime Minister's rejection of a second independence referendum, would have been to get all her Westminster MPs to resign and seek re-election on that specific premise. Now they have been "resigned" by Theresa May, whether they wanted it or not, it is clear that the 56 will not be back. The only question is how many will. I will say more about that below.

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

At one time known as "The Tories" but now at least as well known as "Ruth Davidson". There are two sorts of "Unionist" in Scotland. There are those of us who belong, for other reasons, to Parties whose philosophy logically support the union. Labour, Lib, Tory. Who knows, who possibly even owe allegiance to the "Supporting Christ's Lordship Party" who did, after all, beat the Trot-Nats at the last Holyrood poll. 

But there is a second sort of unionist. One who is not Labour or Lib or even Tory. One who is just a unionist. Who believe you can eat one flag just as surely as Nicola's troops believe you could eat another. And they are (very much only) part of Ruth's core constituency. Because the Libs are above all a European Party and Labour is currently led by an SNP volunteer who, in one of her many inadvertent "errors",  declared that she might, in certain circumstance,  even support independence herself.  

Ruth is, to borrow a phrase, strong and stable on the Union. So these votes are hers. To what result is again a point to which I return.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Their problem, bluntly, is that they should be doing better. They should take Edinburgh West and East Dunbarton. North East Fife is another matter to which I will return but in the three West Highland and Island seats they are the only viable challengers and I fear they are not really challenging. In none of these seats did the Nats get 50% last time but they could hang on if they poll in the mid thirties unless the Libs can get their act together. If only Charlie Kennedy was living at this hour.

Scottish Labour

Despite the best efforts of Kezia Dugdale, who spent part of last week campaigning in Stornoway (!), stopping only on the way to give an interview to the Guardian once again talking down our prospects, we are in this. Not everywhere but in certain places. I'm not giving these away but it's not difficult to work them out if you look at the local government results. And the Tory surge notwithstanding, they remain uncompetitive in much of urban Scotland. Even Corbynism (if not Corbyn personally) might help us here. There is a section of the electorate who have persuaded themselves that the SNP is to the left of the Labour Party. That is simply unsustainable at this election, a problem compounded by the SNP, wary of the Tory surge, being unlikely to produce a manifesto even pretending to be a left wing Party. So, lets wait and see.

The Problem.

The problem is first past the post. In 1983, Labour got (only) 35.1% of the vote in Scotland. Yet we still got 41 out of 72 seats. The problem with the Tory surge might be its very success in confusing unionist voters as to what they need to do to get the Nats out. North East Fife is but one example of that. In the end we need information. Last time, Lord Ashcroft did us all a public service with his constituency polls. Maybe we should be appealing to him to dip into his deep pockets once again.

And that's all for the moment.




Saturday, 6 May 2017

Back in the Game

Great result for the Tories. Alright result for the SNP. The Libs did well where they needed to do well. Labour got gubbed.

That's the conventional narrative about Thursday's election but I'm not sure it is entirely accurate.

One curious feature about the volunteer's custodianship of the Scottish Labour Party has been her continued willingness to talk down her own Party's prospects. But over the last 48 hours this has gone further. She has talked down our actual result.

You see, we went into this election fearing that Labour might disappear as a serious political force in Scotland and that simply hasn't happened. Certainly we lost Glasgow but only to no overall control and, no disrespect to the Tories, while we remain distinctly challenging for power there, they are still well off challenging us for second place. Despite the double handicap of Kez and Jez, Frank and Anas not only got our horse round the track, they have it safely stabled for the next outing. And that's quite an achievement.

And that pattern has been repeated elsewhere across much of urban Scotland. Labour remains the single largest Party in East Lothian, Midlothian and Inverclyde. We are tied for first in North Ayrshire and are only one seat short here in North Lanarkshire, as well as in West Lothian. Excepting, I concede, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, we otherwise remain the second largest Party in practically all of Scotland's urban authorities.

Now, all of this is poor fare compared to the dominance we once had but it is hardly indicative of a Party that is "finished".

Two weeks past, Kez had no ambition at all except to hold Edinburgh South, have a tilt at East Lothian and, apparently, fund a frankly quixotic attempt to regain East Renfrewshire, where we came third on Thursday past. Indeed it appears the only benefit of the Labour vote holding up at all there would be to allow the SNP to hold on. Why would she want that, I wonder?

Thursday has however changed that, no matter how much she might be about to use her best efforts to obscure it. In 2015, Labour was blown away, by massive margins, in most of our heartland seats. But on Thursday, in terms of first preference votes, we were back to being the largest Party in a good few of these seats. And the Tory revival vote, capable of being embraced risk free in an STV election, is there for the unionist squeezing in places where these voters know they have no chance under first past the post.

The current received wisdom is that based on their 276 Councillors, the Tories might get ten Parliamentary seats. Well, here's the thing, despite everything, Labour has still got 262 Councillors. So why shouldn't we be looking at a similar number of Parliamentary seats as the Tories?

Over to Kez to explain that.