Ewan Crawford: Embracing the c-word: Change can be good

Efforts to alter the welfare state may be one step too far for voters previously prepared to stick with the status quo, writes Ewan Crawford

Efforts to alter the welfare state may be one step too far for voters previously prepared to stick with the status quo, writes Ewan Crawford

MOST electoral contests in the end boil down to a choice along the lines of “time for change” versus “don’t let them ruin it”.

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If the Conservatives are to have any hope of winning the next UK election, they need to convince enough people that their plans for deficit reduction are sensible, on track and will be put at risk by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.

For the two Eds, success will only come if they appear to offer a credible alternative. But in devising their strategies, oppositions tend to be wary of making an appeal based on change that can appear too radical.

The two best recent election slogans from parties trying to unseat governments I can think of were Labour’s “Enough is Enough” against the Tories in 1997 and the SNP’s “It’s Time” in 2007.

Neither slogan explicitly used the word “change”. Instead, they captured a public mood when many voters had basically run out of patience with incumbents and their ideas.

Barack Obama did use the c-word in his successful 2008 run for the United States presidency – but only a particular type of change, one “we can believe in”, in effect recognising the danger of presenting the concept without qualification.

In the UK, in another context, experts in voting behaviour have pointed to the apparent advantages for the side in a referendum which supports the No campaign or the status quo.

Polling guru Peter Kellner says that months before both the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain inside the Common Market and the 2011 vote on whether to change the Westminster electoral system, polls showed majorities in favour of change.

But on the day of the referendum itself, the status quo prevailed as people decided to stick with what they knew.

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For next year’s independence referendum this may bring comfort to the No campaigners.

Indeed, it was interesting watching No supremo Alistair Darling giving broadcast interviews last week in which he seemed to be answering at break-neck speed such was his desire to fit in all the many, many problems he had identified that would confront an independent Scotland.

As well as Mr Darling’s “listening tour” (although it wasn’t clear exactly what Mr Darling wanted to listen to, given that he doesn’t appear to have a completely open mind on the issue of independence) the No campaign also started the year by highlighting the issue of Trident.

“Don’t even think about getting rid of the nukes” was the message, “no good will ever come of it”.

Indeed, over the course of the week we saw even the pretence of a belief in multilateral nuclear disarmament being effectively jettisoned. Disarmament clearly comes a long way down the list compared with the much greater tactical importance of scaring people about potential defence job losses with independence.

The strategy is clear: to protect the status quo at all costs, playing on understandable nervousness about change.

However, the difficulty here is that change is coming no matter how people vote next year. The choice confronting people in Scotland will, therefore, not be the conventional change versus more of the same argument, but what kind of change do we want?

In particular, while Mr Darling was touring the country spreading alarm, the Westminster system he insists must be protected decided to press ahead with a profound change that strikes at the very basis of the case for a No vote.

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Supporters of Westminster control of Scotland say the current UK political system means a pooling of risk. But both the rhetoric and the reality of last week’s House of Commons vote on changes to the welfare state amount to a further dismantling of the pooled system of social security.

The language of those making these changes is deliberately calculated not to encourage solidarity and cohesion and to promote risk-sharing, but to divide citizens into different fixed categories.

It is a further step along the road to ever-more means-testing, which academic studies tell us leads to greater inequality and further cuts to public spending as the better-off demand to opt out.

Be in no doubt that this is a substantial change to a way of organising society that many Scots have until now valued.

We know this because four out of five Scottish MPs voted against these changes – but because of another product of the Westminster system (a government few here voted for), they are going to be imposed anyway.

The notion of the contributory principle in which citizens pay in to a system and expect something in return is being steadily undermined.

In addition, the collective idea of people making a contribution in order not just to help those less fortunate than themselves but also because it is a form of insurance – the recognition that those with good jobs might face difficult circumstances in the future and can rely on social security while they get back on their feet – is also under attack.

It has long been the case that the Westminster system has failed to share rewards – as shown by appalling levels of inequality – and now the idea of sharing risk is also on the way out.

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The independence referendum is, therefore, not a choice between change and the status quo.

The main issues chosen by the parties campaigning for a No vote in the first two weeks of this year tell us they do indeed wish to keep some things – such as spending billions of pounds on maintaining nuclear weapons on the Clyde – but they either want to, or will accept, the abandonment of others, such as the principles which underpin social security for all.

So, keep Trident but ditch social protection. Is that really the type of change many people in Scotland believe in?