Peter Jones: False expectations, broken words
There will be job cuts, it will be painful, and no party should be telling voters they can prevent that pain
TO HAVE dreams and aspirations is an excellent thing. But in politics, when those hopes turn into expectations, problems can arise, especially when those expectations are not met. This seems to be becoming a major feature of this Holyrood election campaign, not something that any politician will admit during it, but it will become a nasty big headache for the eventual winners, whoever they may be.
If you can drag yourself away from the thrilling excitement of current campaigning for a moment, think back to the heady days after the 1997 general election. The newly elected Labour government plunged straight into a referendum campaign at the end of which the Scottish people didn't just say they wanted a Scottish Parliament, they banged the table and demanded it.
Moreover, the majority cheerfully demanded that the parliament should have the power to tax everybody, including the power to make Scots pay more income tax than everyone else in Britain. Imagine trying to win a "yes" vote to that today.
One of the reasons the endorsement was so positive was that politicians encouraged people to expect great things of the Scottish Parliament. There would be a better health service, better education and more jobs. There would be no more Westminster-style yah-booery or confrontation; instead there would be consensus and the people would have a real say.
But of course, many of these expectations went unfulfilled. Yes, things did get better, but not by half as much as people expected. The Scottish Labour Party paid a price for that, steadily losing support and votes during the first eight years, until it lost the 2007 election to the SNP.
What topped the list of the people's great expectations was that a Scottish Parliament would banish forever the spectre of Thatcherism. No more would the writ of unelected Conservative rule extend north of the Border; if the Tories dared to meddle with cherished Scottish institutions, they would first have to win popular approval for it.
Now comes the testing time for that particular nostrum. The Tories are back, albeit with a Liberal Democrat bolster, and the spending cuts they are making are huge, as big as the cuts of the early years of Thatcherism, cuts which kicked off the revival of the campaign for Scottish home rule.
And indeed, Labour and the SNP are playing true to the script. Each is boasting that they will protect Scotland from the Tory cuts, and each claims to give shelter from the fiscal storm.
It cannot be true. It is inconceivable. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, knows it.
Last June and with great fanfare, he published a forecast by his chief economic adviser, based on the UK government's spending projections. It predicted that by 2015-16, the final year before the next Holyrood elections, that the Scottish Government's spending power would be 4.8 billion less than it was in the peak 2009-10 year.
So how are the parties going to deal with that? What spending programmes are going to be cut? How many jobs are going to be lost? To these questions, no answers have come except partially, to be fair, from the Scottish Tories and to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems.
But from Labour and the SNP, there has been mumbling, shuffling of feet and no eye contact. On BBC Scotland's televised economy debate, the economy spokesmen of each party were asked how many jobs would go.
It is a fair question. From the audience, David Bell, professor of economics at Stirling University, said there were about 530,000 public officials and on a 9 per cent reduction in public spending by 2014-15 that meant that 45,000 public jobs would go.
Presenter Glenn Campbell reminded the politicians that the Independent Budget Review set up by the SNP government reported last June and predicted that over the next four years, job losses could amount to between 30,000 and 50,000.
This is not just an academic numbers debate. There are serious political issues to be debated here. People need to know where politicians stand on these matters. The key question in the jobs debate is on the question of pay restraint and whether public sector workers are prepared to see their pay frozen or even cut in order to preserve jobs.
The Fraser of Allander Institute has put that question in stark numerical terms. If there is no pay restraint, then public sector job losses could add up to 90,000 and a further 37,000 private sector jobs could disappear as well, a total of 127,000 lost jobs. But if there is pay flexibility, then the public sector job loss reduces to 78,000 while there is a 14,000 gain in private sector jobs, ie a net loss of 64,000 jobs.
So how many jobs would go? It was the wrong way to ask the question, said Labour's Andy Kerr. There will be no compulsory redundancies, said the SNP's John Swinney, as did Mr Kerr. And of course there will be efficiency savings, which everyone is in favour of because it sounds like a good thing. But translate it into reality, and it means lost jobs.
Oh dear. Much of the mood music coming from the parties is not about lost jobs and how the process will be managed, but is about the opposite: either about how they are going to preserve spending, especially on the health service, or how they are going to spend more money on this or that jobs creation fund.The Lib Dems have had at least the wit to show how they might raise 1.5 billion by turning Scottish Water into a different sort of publicly-owned body, although there are questions about whether the Treasury would actually let Scotland have the money.
That adds up to a false expectation being raised that perhaps this cuts process is not going to be painful at all, that perhaps it will pass people by and leave them unscathed. But the hard reality is that unless public workers accept pay restraint, there will be big job cuts. Even with pay restraint there will still be job cuts.
And when the new government gets to work it will have to start telling people that reality. To most people, it will sound like a broken promise, at which point they will start to get very angry indeed.Whoever is in government is going to face some very turbulent times.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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