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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: the Green Party

Personally, I’m disappointed that Patrick Harvie has been excluded from the leaders’ debates. The Green Party have, over the last twelve years in Holyrood, made a significant contribution to political debate in Scotland. They bring something to our democracy. It’s only right – in my view – that Harvie should be given the same opportunity as the other leaders to get his message across, as well as to be tested and asked tough questions.

I could understand Salmond being excluded from the General Election leaders’ debates, because his party were standing in only a small number of the UK seats. Most people in Britain wouldn’t have been able to vote for him. But it’s different for Harvie because every voter in Scotland can vote Green on the regional list and I’m surprised that Alex Salmond, with his supposed concern for democracy and inclusion, hasn’t made more of a fuss about the Greens’ absence from the debates.

The Greens have managed, quite effectively, to put across their message via the media and their manifesto has been generally well-received. So what does it have to say? What solutions to the Greens have for Scotland’s problems?

As ever, the positives first. I really like to tone of this manifesto. There’s a lot in it that my liberal instincts sympathise with. There are some sound recommendations on areas such as the environment, tackling climate change, education and public services. It’s also very positive, depicting a Scotland that we might actually want to live in. Intrigued? Read on...

The Greens commit to “education that’s free for all, based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay, and funded from general taxation; to investment in cutting household energy bills in every community in Scotland; and the willingness to introduce fair, progressive taxation to pay for these policies and others.” I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this, although what the Greens mean by “progressive taxation” may not necessarily concur with my definition of “progressive”

The manifesto leads with “an alternative to public service cuts”. Unlike the far-left parties, the Greens aren’t deficit deniers. They are appreciative of the need to get to grips with Labour’s legacy of national debt. But they say that “the size of the deficit is no excuse for social vandalism.” The alternative to cuts? The Greens want to “invest in a low-carbon economy... introduce a Land Value Tax at just over 3p in the pound to replace Council Tax, and 8p in the pound to replace business rates. [They’ll also] combine income tax and LVT to make Scottish tax policy fairer...” They also believe that using the Scottish Variable Rate (SVR), in conjunction with other tax measures, will raise nearly £5billion which can be invested in Scotland’s public transport and universities.

I’m almost in agreement with them. I salute the Greens for proposing the land value tax. While it is not Lib Dem policy, many liberals have been promoting this for some time and there are definite advantages this has over the localised income tax. Much of this is positive and the ideas behind it are certainly to be welcomed. Here is a party that, unlike Labour who simply snipe from the sidelines, actually have a considered alternative to what the UK and Scottish governments have been doing. In calling for tax rises to fund increased public spending the Greens are being intellectually honest: lower taxation and increased public spending are mutually incompatible.

However, I’m not quite convinced by the argument that SVR would only affect the higher earners. The Lib Dems have promoted (and are delivering) tax fairness through gradually increasing the threshold at which income tax is paid to £10,000. SVR , however, would surely apply to those at the bottom of the income tax ladder and I’m not sure the sums actually add up: the Greens talk about higher rate earners paying £15 per month extra in tax – I’m not sure how many such people there are in Scotland but I can’t see them bringing in the required £5billion. I’m sure there’s been some serious number crunching but this doesn’t appear in the manifesto and £5billion simply looks like an arbitrary figure.

The Greens make the same mistake as the far left in asserting that modern governments should replicate the reforming Labour government of 1945-51: “the government of Clement Atlee [sic] was faced with a larger budget deficit than exists today, but instead of pursuing a short-term market-first agenda they made it their priority to tackle the ‘Giant Evils’ of their society. Want, squalor, idleness, ignorance and disease were targetted and the foundations of the modern welfare state were laid.” There remain giant evils of inequality, social deprivation, child poverty and unemployment, which urgently require solutions. But what the Greens fail to realise is that the Labour government of 1945-51 funded its ambitious programme by taking out a loan from the USA. The terms of the Anglo-American Loan were so harsh that it was not fully paid off until December 2006. Following a world war, it was necessary to go down this route to rebuild our country. However, in the aftermath of a recession I’m not sure we should really be looking at mortgaging the futures of our grandchildren, which was the only way Attlee managed to deal with the “larger budget deficit”. And, lest we forget, the 1945-51 years represented a period of real austerity, not a golden era of plenty.

Moving on and the Greens make some welcome noises on empowering local communities: they want to decentralise and devolve democratic control to the most local level possible. The Greens aim to introduce a Common Good Act which would “transfer assets to community control, hold at least 10% of land in regeneration areas [and] support investment in community-owned revenue generating activity such as renewable energy, recycling and community work hubs.” This is a useful suggestion that sits well with my liberal inclinations. It has real merit and should be considered by any incoming government.

They want to back local businesses and observe that “empty office space in our town centres can be transformed into the seeds of a nationwide network of community work hubs. Having more people working locally would relieve pressures on our transport infrastructure, have a positive impact on carbon emissions and bring life back to our local communities.” In pledging to “protect” the Post Office, the Greens promise to “turning them into viable businesses with ‘one-stop’ access to a wider range of public services and agencies.” I have no objection to these proposals, although there are no simple solutions to ensuring the future of the Post Office network. The Greens should also have enough understanding to be able to distinguish between Royal Mail and Post Office Limited when proposing remedies.

There is some positive substance on creating a more sustainable economy. The Greens promise “an end to property speculation”. As someone who has grave concerns about an economy based on speculation rather than production, and who doesn’t feel ever-increasing house prices are good for Scotland’s economy, I like this idea. The LVT could have a positive effect, but there’s a painful lack of detail about how the evil of speculation can be eradicated altogether. They also promise to reform financial services, moving on from “the failed financial model of the past” and onto an approach that “supports young people to see their creative ideas for small businesses turned into reality.”

The Greens’ manifesto is good in the areas you’d expect it to be good – they aim to increase public and community ownership of green energy projects, while pressing for 100% of Scotland's domestic electricity to be renewable by 2020. They want to export clean energy to our neighbours. They oppose new coal and nuclear power stations. They advocate action on climate change. And they promote increased investment in public transport and, in particular, new electric transport. All sound, sensible ideas I wouldn’t possibly disagree with.

They’re also one of the few parties to say something positive about animal welfare, advocating a complete ban of snares and a new Animal Welfare Unit.

The Greens have the right views on education, arguing that free Further and Higher Education is necessary for the good of society. Unfortunately, however, the Greens don’t say enough about improving access to Further Education. The debate about delivering a fit-for-purpose education system has to be wider than how tuition is paid for. The sentiment from the Greens is fine, but there’s not a lot of detail in how they would actually improve Scottish education.

What else have they to say? They’ll oppose the market-driven agenda of the NHS. Good. They want a free and locally based NHS. Who doesn’t, apart from the Tories? Unlike Labour, who are supporting the merging of health and social care services, the Greens simply say that “we’ll only support change if it benefits the quality of the service.” Which is the sensible approach. There may be some merit in this idea and the gap certainly needs bridging, but I personally haven’t yet seen enough evidence to make my mind up either way. The Greens want to improve the quality of food in hospitals and do more in providing advocacy, something I passionately believe in. There are some excellent proposals on changing the alcohol culture and a welcome emphasis on societal health. But nothing on mental health? Or cancer? Or on improving staffing levels? Or dentistry? Or more effective use of pharmacists? Neither is there anything explicit on moving towards a more preventative system of care.

The Greens talk a lot of sense when it comes to crime prevention. I applaud their zero tolerance policy towards “crimes based on prejudice like sectarianism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny”. Like the Lib Dems, they emphasise the importance of preventing crime and are opposed to a single Scottish police force. However, in some respects they go further, “putting mediation and restorative justice at the heart of the system” and promoting environmental justice.

Some other details I found interesting: the commitment to Fair Trade and an internationalist Scotland. I am delighted the Greens do not feel the same need for small-minded nationalism as the SNP or the far-left parties. Like myself, they are internationalist rather than inward-looking and want an EU that works effectively rather than in the interests of elites and bureaucrats. I am also pleased that they are keen to promote the rights of asylum seekers.

This is a manifesto I really like. There is clearly a lot of common ground between the Greens and my own political views. The main difference is that the Greens are evidently keen for people to take on board their opposition to spending cuts – any spending cuts. I find it regrettable they’re playing the unrealistic “no cuts to jobs and services” card because there is a need to tackle the budget deficit – my only concern is that we do it responsibly, being mindful of the potential human consequences. At least the Greens are saying there’s a need to increase taxation to pay for improved public services (whether that is positive during a recession is another matter) but in doing so they make themselves look like yet another tax-and-spend party. And I’m not convinced the sums add up, although I’m happy to change this view if someone from the Green Party can provide some detailed statistical analysis.

On health and NHS reform I feel there’s some positive rhetoric but insufficient detail. They could have put forward a more positive agenda for delivering better health. The omission of any pledge for action on mental health is regrettable and I can not take seriously a strategy for improving our nation’s well-being which does not even refer to the challenges of tackling mental ill-health.

Overall though, I like the positivity as well as some of the forward looking, creative and localist ideas contained within it. For me, there is a huge question mark about whether such an ambitious programme can be afforded, but the Greens are at least being innovative and have a manifesto that clearly defines their ideology and vision.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bloody good analysis.

I wish elections were between the Lib Dems and the Greens.