Insight: The STUC’s views on the Smith Commission

The Democracy for Scotland March. Picture: TSPL
The Democracy for Scotland March. Picture: TSPL
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IN THE FIRST of a new series exploring what civic Scotland wants from the Smith Commission, Stephen McGinty finds out the views of the STUC

When the Scottish Trades Union Congress marches it carries large colourful embroidered banners. One features a female accordionist, a black trumpeter and a violinist playing at the foot of The Tree of Liberty from whose branches curl the maxims: “Unity is Strength” and “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. A second banner features a red-headed girl cradling a wreath and looking out towards a pale blue horizon pulsing with promise on which the lyrics of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye sail by like a flock of erudite swallows. “O come all ye at hame wi’ freedom, never heed whit the houdies croak for doom.”

David Moxham, STUC assistant general secretary. Picture: John Devlin

David Moxham, STUC assistant general secretary. Picture: John Devlin

Alternative national anthem

At the height of the referendum campaign, Henderson’s song, written in 1960, was suggested as an alternative national anthem for a newly independent Scotland. Unfortunately for the Yes campaign, the majority ignored Henderson’s plea and, to many minds, did indeed heed the croak for doom. On a dreich morning in Glasgow, with those golden days of September long gone, the banners adorn the walls of the STUC’s headquarters and David Moxham, the assistant general secretary, is sipping a coffee and picking new powers for the Scottish Parliament.

It will be, he thinks, a thankless task. “We have just had this massive outpouring of Scottish democracy and involvement and we are very aware of the fact that it is not going to be enough for the Scottish people, for the political parties and the civil society big hitters to come up with a plan which is then imposed upon them. We are very vocal about the importance that the newly engaged democratic Scotland is involved in this process.

“We don’t believe that there is ­anywhere near enough understanding amongst the Scottish public about what ‘the Vow’ means and what it does not mean and we are not optimistic about the parties being able to come up with a package based on their current offer which is going to meet the expectations of the Scottish people.”

Satnam Ner. Picture: John Devlin

Satnam Ner. Picture: John Devlin

The ‘Vow’

The “Vow” of which he speaks, a phrase apparently trade marked by the Daily Record and Gordon Brown, is for an agreement among the pro-union parties to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament. In the week prior to referendum day, Brown unveiled a 14-point plan suggesting that these powers include items such as new tax and borrowing powers; devolution of housing benefit and attendance allowance; new power over employment rights; and control of health and safety. Details that may excite the political anorak but will leave the average voter uncomprehending and unimpressed.

Independence was the promise of a brand, spanking new car. The Vow is the same old car with shiny new pistons, gadgets and levers under the hood, which is a tough sell when few people really appreciate what widgets were there in the first place.

The STUC, as the umbrella organisation representing 30 unions and their 640,000 members, roughly 33 per cent of the national work force, split evenly between the public and private sector, has been asked for its recommendations for souping up this motor. But before Moxham rolls out from under the chassis in his overalls and begins rubbing his hands with an oily rag, we talk about the pride which the STUC takes in championing the concept of a Scottish Parliament long before the Labour Party, who in the early seventies said it would prefer Conservative rule from Westminster to a Labour-dominated Scottish Parliament.

Ms Ghozi Joeadigwe. Picture: John Devlin

Ms Ghozi Joeadigwe. Picture: John Devlin

Scottish Assembly

The miners’ union, the NUM, had been pushing for a motion of support for a Scottish Parliament since the 1950s, but it was in 1972, following the success of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that the STUC held a Scottish Assembly which united employers, trade unionists and politicians alike to debate the condition of the Scottish economy. At the time the general secretary James Jack announced his support for a Scottish Parliament which, he declared “will be a workers’ parliament.”

The organisation campaigned for a Scottish Parliament in 1979 and then kept the flame aglow through its Festival of Scottish Democracy and founding membership of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Moxham, who was formerly a parliamentary researcher for George Galloway, said the first fifteen years of the Scottish Parliament has brought benefits to the Scottish worker, particularly the government and local authorities promotion of the living wage of £7.65 per hour, compared to the minimum wage of £6.60.

“The Scottish Government are significantly further forward than the Westminster government in promoting the living wage … frankly it is the envy of our brothers and sisters down south,” he says.

He also highlights the Scottish Parliament’s determination to pursue better protection for victims of asbestosis: “People in Scotland are less likely to die with their claim than people down south because of the action of the Scottish Parliament.”

The STUC remained neutral

During the referendum campaign the STUC remained neutral – an apt call as today it believes, as far as it can know, that the membership was split roughly 50/50. But now the job it needs to do is clear – a big push for significant new powers for Holyrood, within the UK. A commission led by Lord Smith of Kelvin is currently looking at getting cross-party agreement on a stronger Holyrood, and the STUC once more aims to be in the thick of the discussion. But what will they be arguing for?

For the STUC, devolution of employment legislation is crucial as this would allow the parliament to tackle the iniquity of zero-hour contracts: “The parliament has done what they can with the existing powers.” The other key point is that jobs are only as good as their security and wages. Moxham, whose favourite novel is The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, is keen to stress that the STUC’s ultimate goal is not better terms and conditions for its members but social justice and a fairer society for all. If he had access to one key lever it would be “improving pay at the lower end and securing work. Economists of the left and economists of the right now agree that the biggest problem that the UK is facing is not the number of jobs but the amount of money those jobs are paying. Strong trade unions and strong minimum wages are probably the most direct way to deal with it. Stick more money in people’s pockets and welfare and tax become less critical in tackling inequality.”

I ask him if all of the STUC’s plans could be waved through, like Lenin’s personal train on route to St Petersburg, what would he like to see?

“Well, here are the headlines: The first thing to say is that we identify real potential problems with what some people describe as ‘full fiscal autonomy’. We are not convinced that the UK Government would accept it and we are not entirely convinced that it would be the best option for Scotland either. We have already proposed a tax set up in which a larger proportion – and we are arguing at least two-thirds of all Scottish expenditure should be raised in Scotland.

‘Positive action on social justice in Scotland’

“A significant devolution of welfare, although we find it difficult to imagine how the whole of the welfare system could be devolved, which is why we are interested in looking at block grant mechanisms that can increase the power of the Scottish Government to take positive action on social justice in Scotland short of full devolution. It is worth pointing out that there didn’t seem to be much appetite in Scotland for pensions to be devolved and that’s by far the biggest aspect of the welfare system.”

Powers in the workplace are an obvious priority, he says, but the big levers of the economy may be beyond Holyrood’s reach.

“We are very interested now in the potential for the full devolution of employment rights and health and safety. There may be some powers on economic development and job creation over and above these that we would be in favour of, but they are more limited than people realise. Essentially there are the big job creation powers that we were not even going to get under independence, which is the ability to vary interest rates, to borrow enormous sums of money at times of economic downturn, these were always likely to be limited or completely outwith the control of the Scottish Government even under independence.

“You have then got a range of job creating powers – economic development, skills, education, which were already fully devolved, so the gap between those powers that are up for grabs that could be devolved is actually quite small. We are interested in the idea that there could be the devolution of tax credits for research and development because R&D is very low in Scotland, the system does not seem to work to the benefit of Scotland.”

Moxham says the process must be open to ideas that have not yet been part of the devolution debate.

‘Cautiously investigating’

“We are cautiously investigating – but I need to underline the word ‘cautiously’ – whether the devolution of National Insurance would allow the careful use of that power to promote economic development in Scotland.

“We wouldn’t want a blanket reduction as a means of racing to the bottom, we’d like to see how it could work in conjunction with the better employment protections – how the Scottish government might want to promote a particular aspect of industry.

“The final one we are looking at is equalities legislation – it underpins quite a lot of employment law but is linked to better representation of women in the boardroom and so we are increasingly attracted to the idea of full devolution of equality.” He then stops for breath, smiles and slowly takes another sip of his now cold coffee.

A few hours and one heavy downpour later, and I’m talking to Gozie Joe Adigwe, a senior preventions officer with the National Royal Institute for the Blind and a member of the Community Union for Life. She is attending the STUC’s Black Worker’s Conference at the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld and looking out of the room’s window with its attractive view of the car park. A Yes voter, she describes herself as “disappointed” but insists she’s not as bad as her friends, some of whom remain “hidden under their duvets”. This evening as chair of the BWC she will be putting forward an emergency motion to ensure that they apply pressure to the current process and “to make sure the politicians get the right deal for the right people in Scotland.”

While supportive of greater control over welfare, and employment law, what she ideally wants is unlikely to happen: more money exclusively for Scotland. “The big one for me is purely economic and this would be greater revenues from North Sea oil in order to capture Scotland’s greatest financial asset and make the most of that for the people of Scotland.” A grand idea, but I can’t help but feel it falls into the category of “new car”.

Babcock Marine & Technology

Also in attendance at the Westerwood Hotel is Satnam Ner, 50, a shop steward with Prospect, the engineering union, and a scientist specialising in radiation safety with Babcock Marine & Technology, based at Rosyth. It is little surprise to hear that he and his members are relieved by the No vote, given that independence would have led to the eviction of his company’s principle employer, the Ministry of Defence, and their nuclear submarines.

“Yes, it has been an anxious time over the last few months as this led to huge uncertainty for both workforce and management.”

He explains that as an equality rep, “I would like to see the devolution of the implementation of equality legislation as I think we are a little bit tied by Westminster and want to look at new ways for how we can go forward.” He would also like to see greater assistance for apprentices and to re-ignite Scotland’s skills in manufacturing.

“We need to do more,” he adds.

In the STUC everyone is aware that the public will be watching whatever rolls out the garage come St Andrew’s Day, when the Smith Commission plans are expected to be unveiled. When I ask Moxham for his favourite moment during the referendum campaign his answer is instantaneous.

“It was finding out that all the STUC’s predictions that there was going to be a ‘missing million’ who would not register were completely wrong. We were completely wrong.”

He smiles and adds: “What a great and positive thing.” «

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