Friday, 6 September 2013

Equality Network debate

My opening remarks to last night's Equality Network debate on Scotland's Future:

I’m pleased to be here among people on both sides of the debate who I’ve known and worked alongside for decades, and I am proud to call them friends. If we disagree on independence, so what? It’s not the most important thing in the world. 
Human rights - including LGBT rights - matter more. War and peace matter more. Education and health matter more.
In those terms I’m confident that there are many more things we agree on than disagree on in this room. I think that’s worth bearing in mind. 

My view of the independence question is simple - I’m looking for the best outcome for the most people. 
I have nothing ideological in me about the union; no sense of nationalism for the UK. My politics is not based on geography, it’s based on the values of fairness, equality and social justice. 
And it’s simply my judgement that we get the best outcome for the most people through Scotland staying in the UK. 

I believe that partly because I believe in the redistribution of wealth as a principle, and Scotland staying in the UK enables that to happen to a far more significant extent than if we were separated. 
I believe it also because I care about people across the UK, and I know that within the UK we can do a lot more for them than just set examples. 
Some people say the UK can’t be reformed and we need to give up and start afresh. I fundamentally oppose that sort of defeatism. I want a progressive, inclusive and fair society for everyone in the UK, not just those of us north of Berwick. 
But I don’t think we should be sitting back and waiting for it, and moaning when it doesn’t come - I think we should be out fighting for it. All the gains we’ve made as an LGBT community have come from fighting, not sitting back. Progress is not inevitable, but it is achievable.

Social justice has always been achieved by bringing people together in common cause, not dividing them. That’s never more true than in this community. 
When we defeated Pat Robertson in his attempt to buy into Scotland’s banking sector, it was an alliance of LGBT groups, women’s groups, church groups and political groups that beat him. It was by coming together that we achieved that. 
And I think unity, rather than division, has been key to many of the victories we’ve had as a community.

There is an argument that a socially progressive Scotland could be an example to the rest of the UK come independence. In my opinion, devolution is a far better place from which to influence the rest of the UK on LGBT equality. 
The actions of foreign countries have a much weaker influence on us than the actions of parts of our own country. 
And within the UK the influence can go two ways, as witnessed by the distinct whiff of one-upmanship when England and Wales passed equal marriage before we did. The reality is that nothing like the same sort of influence happened when our closest neighbours the Scandic countries did it. Devolution is a far better platform for setting examples.

Much of the debate so far has been about reinforcing the apparent political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. 
The truth is all democracies have areas where different views prevail - that would be the case in an independent Scotland as it is in the UK. The central belt overrides everywhere else. 
If we were to divide up the UK along political lines, we wouldn’t be splitting at the England/Scotland border. We’d be drawing a line from Wales to Hull, or thereabouts.
In any case, there’s a name for redrawing boundaries because you don’t like election results - gerrymandering.

This vote is about where national power lies; nothing else. We must not pretend it is about policies - that’s what elections are for. 
Independence would create a new island of self-interest in the world. And a new island of self-interest creates competition not co-operation. Competition to attract multinationals with tax breaks. Competition which favours corporate interests over the interests of people. 
I don’t want that. I want to be part of a reforming movement which aims to improve the whole of the UK. I want us to continue to work together for social and economic justice and for LGBT equality. And I think we can do so, better, together.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

On Blair

I had a real-life political argument today.

I was on a United With Labour street stall promoting the Scottish Labour campaign for Scotland to remain part of the UK. On the stall we also had information about the DebtBusters campaign (challenging the legal loan sharks who sell payday loans and charge exorbitant interest) and our local campaign calling for action against the Bedroom Tax. All great campaigns rooted in Labour values.

Some of the folk who approached us wanted to talk about other issues than the ones we were focused on. And that's great - one of the reasons we do stalls and other public engagement is to listen to what's important to people and feed it into our campaign work. We had some informative conversations.

But this couple wanted to talk about the Iraq war and Tony Blair, and I must confess, dear reader, that I did not. Not because I'm in denial, not because I have no answers, but because inevitably every such conversation seeks to find a way to change the past, and every time it fails, because we cannot do so.

I opposed the Iraq war, and I marched against it at the time. It was wrong. The Labour Party has since elected a leader who agrees it was wrong, and I'm proud to have voted for him. None of that changes the fact that it happened.

But this couple said the Labour Party had to go further to address this past mistake. They said only one course of action would satisfy them that Labour had learned its lesson: the expulsion of Tony Blair from the party.

On a busy shopping street on one of the hottest days of the year, I'm being told that unless I agree to call for Tony Blair's expulsion from the Labour Party, my arguments about the referendum, payday loans, bedroom tax and everything else are worthless.

And here's where I made my mistake. I responded with passion. I responded bluntly in reaction to the utterly idiotic logic of it. I told them I thought their idea was petty, personalised the issue rather than addressing it, and was utterly without merit.

This didn't go down well.

"Petty? You think opposition to the Iraq War is petty?" No, I'd have said, if they'd let me get a word in. That's not what I said and it's not what I meant. What I think is petty is to demand Blair's expulsion as retribution. I think it's dysfunctional, and counter-productive, to pretend that that would fix anything. Blair took a decision later backed by a majority of parliament on the basis of information believed to be accurate at the time. It was, in my opinion, the wrong decision, but it was his call.

"He's a war criminal!" At this point I'm on familiar territory. I point out that to be a criminal a person has to be convicted, and he has not even been charged. "Well he should be!" Well I'm sure that gives you the right to convict him without trial then, super. I imagine you're an expert in international law, yes?

You can see how this is going. Not well. Light is not being shed. Minds are not being changed. The past is once again destined to remain unaltered.

It went on for a while, and in the end we agreed to disagree on the idea of expelling from the party one of Labour's most successful leaders ever. And as is the way of such things, I realised afterwards what I should have said. It's very simple.

Under Tony Blair's leadership, Labour went to war in Iraq and made some dreadful mistakes on civil liberties. I think we were wrong on both counts.


Also under Tony Blair's leadership, Labour delivered the winter fuel allowance, we delivered the shortest NHS waiting times in history and we cut crime by a third.

Under Blair we created SureStart, we delivered the Cancer Guarantee, there were record results in schools, and more students than ever.

Under Blair we implemented the Disability Discrimination Act, we delivered devolution for Scotland and Wales and we created Civil Partnerships.

Blair's commitment was critical to the Good Friday Agreement which delivered peace in Northern Ireland.

We implemented the Social Chapter, improving working conditions for millions, and we lifted half a million children out of poverty.

Under Blair we also ... Och, sod it, I'll let Gordon tell you the rest (list starts at 0m55s):

The point is simple. Are there things Labour has done that I opposed? Yes. But our achievements are still great. I'm still proud of the huge amount of good we've done, and excited and motivated by the huge amount of good we still can do in the future. And anyone who calls Tony Blair a bad guy based on Iraq, or makes lazy assertions about New Labour being right-wing, is also dismissing every single one of the achievements Gordon lists above.

I'm proud of those achievements, and keen to do more. That's why I'm Labour.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

On Trident

I am strongly in favour of unilateral disarmament of the UK's nuclear arsenal. I want to see the missiles dismantled and the warheads destroyed, and I certainly don't support the commissioning of a new generation. And I know I share that view with very many people across the UK.

People arguing for Scottish independence like to paint this another way. They like to pretend that Scots want rid but the rest of the UK wants to keep them. Any number of opinion polls show this isn't true. And that leads them to propose one of the most audacious pieces of false campaigning I have ever known: the idea that a Yes vote in 2014 means no more Trident.

It's simply not true. And in reality it's an absolute gift to the politicians who want to push through Trident renewal. Here's why:

  • Even if, on day one of a putative independent Scotland, a Scottish Government forcibly evicted HMNB Clyde, all that would happen would be that the weapons would be moved a few miles south. They wouldn't be disarmed, and they wouldn't be destroyed.
  • And that wouldn't happen anyway. An independent Scotland simply would not get away with attempting to forcibly and undemocratically damage the defences of another sovereign state, let alone its closest ally. In reality what would happen is a period of negotiation, and the most likely outcome of that negotiation between two NATO member states, under the watchful eye of the US for whom Faslane is a strategically critical site, would be an agreement to lease the site as the UK's nuclear base for as long as it was required.
  • On top of this, what a Yes vote in 2014 actually does is remove the influence Scots currently have - by dint of our having the same vote in UK elections as folk everywhere on these islands - over UK defence policy and Trident renewal. If we're sending anti-Trident MPs to represent us at Westminster now, it stands to reason that fewer would be there to argue against renewal were we to exit the UK.
  • And while we should be engaging in the UK-wide debate, fighting for the obscenity of nuclear weapons to be consigned to the dustbin of history, many of the strongest fighters are instead engaged in promoting independence as if it were the answer to the problem. People are being told they can stop Trident by voting Yes in 2014. And they can't. And by the time we wake up to the fact that we're being sold a pup by folk who merely want to hijack anti-nuclear sentiment to promote their goal of Scottish separation, it could well be too late.
A Yes vote in 2014 is not a vote to get rid of Trident. It's a vote to wash our hands of the problem, to walk away from the disarmament campaign, and to actively reduce the chances of disarmament happening in the UK.

If we want to disarm Trident, we need to stand and fight within the UK, not walk away.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Yes campaign launches The Magic Ballot

The Yes Scotland campaign has unveiled its new design for the ballot paper to be used in 2014.

"The beauty of this new design", says campaign supremo Blair Jenkins "is that we can now truly be all things to all people. Until now we've had to tell progressives that an independent Scotland would be founded on social justice, while we told multinationals that we'd give them corporation tax cuts. And we were telling Labour folk that it will be a left-wing hegemony, while assuring those on the right that independence would see a resurgence in the comforting conservatism which many crave but currently feel unable to vote for."

"And of course we've been desperately trying to redefine the concept of 'independence' for Devo Max supporters to mean fiscal powers within a single monetary system, and the sharing of a head of state. Meanwhile we are telling our core fundamentalist supporters that we were still on the road to 'frreeedom' for which they have fought for so long. Frankly it was getting unsustainable, and something had to give."

Campaigners are hoping that by allowing everyone to pretend that independence will deliver their perfect vision of Scotland, they can cruise to victory in the September 2014 poll. Indeed they are so confident of the success of this new approach that the new design doesn't even have a No option. "If you can make up the thing you're voting for, why would anyone vote against it?" asks Jenkins. Why indeed.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Labour and SNP: can we work together against the Bedroom Tax?

In two days, one of the most damaging, heartless and ultimately futile elements of the UK government's welfare reform package comes into effect.

The Bedroom Tax, as it has been dubbed, will penalise people if they have more bedrooms in their social or housing association home than the government deems appropriate. Families with disabled children will be particularly badly affected since they often require additional space for medical needs. Disabled adults are also targeted by this law, alongside those serving in the armed forces and hundreds of thousands of other families across the country.

The government hopes to use this brute force method to free up social housing stock by moving people into smaller properties. There is a fundamental problem: the smaller properties simply don't exist. And yet even if there is no smaller property to move to, families will still have the Bedroom Tax imposed. It is as illogical as it is unfair.

Both the SNP and Scottish Labour strongly oppose this policy. Up to now, however, we have spent more effort discrediting each other's approaches to opposing it than we have to mitigating its effects. And the truth is we can mitigate its effects to a significant extent. Local authorities can adopt policies which protect tenants, and the Scottish Parliament can find funds to offset the losses councils will feel.

While we fight each other, the UK government is laughing up its sleeve. This is madness.

So here's a challenge. We've found ways to disagree on this, and we've found ways to turn it into yet another argument about independence. How about we set those aside and instead find where we agree, and how about we unite to protect social and housing association tenants from this dangerous, bad law?

An assumption against evictions is a good start, as promoted by SNP councils, but we need to be honest about how far that goes and not pretend it is a guarantee or a solution. We need to find real money to fund discretionary housing benefit payments from councils to tenants at risk. And we can justify this by looking at the costs of an eviction, and realising that preventing evictions and rehousing in the same stock is cheaper than allowing them to happen.

We have a choice. We can shout at each other and let people suffer, or we can work together and mitigate the worst effects of this law. In Edinburgh, Labour and the SNP have found a great deal of common ground in local government, and the Capital Coalition is successfully delivering a progressive vision for the capital. We can do this.

The SNP-Labour Alliance Against the Bedroom Tax. Who's in?

Monday, 11 February 2013


Since I noticed my follower count on Twitter hit 1,972 (the year I was born), I've started sporadically tweeting things I remember from the year it shows. One thing I've noticed is that my follower count goes down as well as up. A lot! I suspect it's mostly Grant Shapps following and unfollowing me on his various accounts.

But today it hit 1988, and I tweeted this:
And it's true, that's a real, abiding memory I have of 1988. Sunshine, handsome boys, cheesy music and spectacular diarrhoea.

But there is more to say about 1988, to the extent that I'd feel dishonest about not having said it.

In 1988 I was a 16 year old at a Catholic school, and Section 28 was introduced. As the youngest of four brothers I was laden with familial and gender-based expectation. I knew what was expected of me. And I was successfully suppressing the knowledge that I fancied boys so deeply that I could make it imperceptible even to myself if I wanted. And I wanted.

I wasn't sporty or strong, but I was smart, and I could be funny, and this was my armour. Friends looked to me for advice on things. I was a leader. I was confident. I was exactly who I wanted to be, as long as I forgot about the fact that when I had sexual fantasies they were about Marcus from the year above and Paul from the year below and Bluey from Fields of Fire that I used to watch on the little black and white TV upstairs away from everyone else.

So I did forget about it. And Section 28 was introduced. And in the playground and the classrooms we laughed and joked about the "new gay laws". And we poked fun at the boys who walked differently. We poked fun at those who were a little more effeminate than they should be. We poked fun at those who were a little more sensitive than they should be.

And one day at lunch I told my friends to watch and I went up to a boy called Carl, in the year above me, and  I pretended to be holding a microphone and said "So, how do you think the new gay laws will affect you?" And he looked angry, and shocked and a little hurt and I ran away laughing.

I'm surprising myself by having to hold back a tear as I remember this. This is the root of homophobia. People say it's a misnomer because it's not about fear. Of course it's about fear. It's about the fear of being found out.

Carl, I'm so sorry. When I grew up, I tried to atone. I threw myself into voluntary work with Pride Scotland and the Equality Network and I so desperately want no-one else to have to be treated the way I treated you. I hope you can forgive me. I'll never forgive myself.