Richard Leonard: The evidence our economy doesn’t work for the people

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Happy New Year. That is not just something to say to mark the start of 2019, it is also an expression of ambition and hope. And one which is in our power to realise in what is a milestone year for Scotland.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. It is therefore an ideal opportunity to assess where we are as a country, whether we have achieved all that we thought we would and what we will need to do differently.

Workers like Tam Lang, told he would no longer have a job on Christmas Eve, deserve better (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Workers like Tam Lang, told he would no longer have a job on Christmas Eve, deserve better (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Like thousands of others in the Scottish Labour Party, the trade union movement, and wider civic Scotland I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament and I was proud to do so. The Parliament we wanted – and still do – is one that provides a platform to lift families out of poverty, to tackle injustice. Ultimately, to change and improve people’s lives. We wanted a Parliament for real change, to exercise power for a purpose, not just for its own sake.

The late Donald Dewar – former Labour MP and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister – reflected this in his speech at its opening. That speech was full of ambition and of hope. He said the Parliament was about much more than politics and the laws that would be passed by MSPs, he said that it was about “who we are, how we carry ourselves”. This was a vision of a Parliament for Scotland not just as an end in itself but, he said, as “a means to greater ends”.

Twenty years on, what has happened to that ambition? How can we carry ourselves with pride and purpose when one in four children spent this Christmas living in poverty? When our public services are so under-resourced that health boards are on the brink of going bust; when teachers and parents are having to sound alarm bells about the state of our education system; and when 300 workers at the Kaiam computer plant in Livingston can be told on Christmas Eve that they no longer have a job despite, we now know, ministers knowing weeks in advance that the firm would likely close.

Labour has called for an inquiry in the Kaiam closure. We want to look at it as a specific case but also the questions it raises about how the Scottish Government uses financial assistance, how the money gets spent, what systems are in place to account for it, who is responsible and how sustainable it is.

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That’s why, in the last few days, I have met with workers from Healthcare Environmental Services (HES) in Shotts who, in a viable business they have helped to build, find themselves without pay, without a job and facing the need to take court action to secure what they are owed. We really need a fundamental review of the balance of power between workers and owners in a situation like this: and we need to find a solution to rescue what we can to safeguard these jobs and good standards of public and environmental health.

Labour has a vision for the future, of how to rebalance our economy to prevent these closures from happening so we are not just reacting to industrial change – because Kaiam and HES are far from the first and, if we carry on as we are, they won’t be the last. Over the last 20 years, Scotland’s manufacturing base has shrunk and the service sector has grown – and at the same time we have witnessed a rise in insecure work, low pay and worsening terms and conditions.

We need a much more proactive, forward-looking planned approach that involves workers, instead of regarding the threat to their livelihoods as the unfortunate consequence of the inevitable decline of industry. We often talk about this as being an ‘industrial strategy’ but really it ought to be common sense.

And that applies whether it’s Michelin in Dundee or Ferguson Marine, Tata Steel, and BiFab – where this time last year Labour and the unions were applauding the Government for stepping in, but where now we are left with three yards, only with no workers in them.

It goes without saying that we need a better approach, one that ties together investment in yards like these – so they have the right infrastructure and the workers have the right skills – with investment in offshore renewable energy technology. Our approach would bring together industrial leaders and trade unions to plan ahead.

For too long, politicians have allowed ‘the market’ – which in reality means big business and wealthy speculators – to run our economy. It hasn’t been run in the interests of people.

Labour would do things very differently. We want to give workers the right to buy their business if it is put up for sale or facing closure. This is common in other European countries, they’ve had something like this in Italy for 30 years.

READ MORE: Kaiam boss tells workers: ‘I’m sorry, I failed’

We also want to see more democracy in our economy. We live in a country that was once at the cutting edge of the co-operative movement, where workers own and run their enterprise, sharing in the gains and ensuring everyone benefits, not just a privileged few. I would like to see Scotland becoming a beacon for this kind of ownership model once again.

These are big challenges that risk being overshadowed and overlooked. Over the last few years, too many politicians have been guilty of offering one-trick solutions to multi-sided problems, whether that’s independence or Brexit.

But Brexit actually makes all of these things more immediate and important. It is why I have consistently said that we can’t allow it as an issue in and of itself to divert our attention from issues like housing shortages and homelessness, or the rise in the use foodbanks, and generally from the transformative changes we need to make to our economy.

It is also why I believe constantly trying to revive the idea of another independence referendum is an unnecessary and dangerous distraction. To view everything through this prism is an abdication of responsibility. The last thing we need is more instability and chaos, what we need is real change of the kind many of us hoped and campaigned for 20 years ago.

I believed then in devolution and I still do. No one can predict what this year will bring. But Scottish Labour will put that spirit of ambition and hope that marked the start of the Parliament in 1999 at the heart of everything we do in 2019.