Nick Hopkins says the reason he’s voting Labour in tomorrow’s election is simple: maths.
The maths facing the foodbank where I help out is as stark as that facing my political party. If we can’t bring in grant funding from the Scottish Government, from our cash strapped local authority, or from oversubscribed charitable trusts, we face the prospect later in the year of losing the worker who has done so much to develop the way we operate, and so much to increase the number of people that we reach.
The day-to- day maths facing users of the foodbank, some of Scotland’s poorest families is even more stark. Benefit delays, sanctions, withheld or late wages, homelessness, the onset of illness, domestic violence, the triggers for crisis for people coming to our door are many. State help is available through the Scottish Welfare Fund for some of our clients, but it’s often us that can respond quickest, and it’s other parts of the voluntary and public sector that in the longer term provide the safety net that stops a temporary crisis becoming permanent.
The organisations, systems and services that make up that safety net face their own difficult maths. Over £3bn of cuts are planned for Scotland by George Osborne, ideologically committed to shrinking the state under a fiscal policy with no macroeconomic rationale. And the party that the polls tells us will form the next Scottish Government is setting out tax plans that will do only a little to blunt Osborne’s axe.
I was at the SNP’s conference this year, and it wasn’t just the number of people there that struck me. It was the hollow eyed cultists, the sessions opened with chanting of Nicola’s name, the fringe meeting I was at exploding in applause as a minister got torn into the Red Tories, the cybernatterati everywhere made flesh.
Except it was nothing like that. The room I was in for the fringe was filled with decent people. Probably many people working in the public and voluntary sectors, active in their communities, all too aware of the consequences of cuts for those communities, and angry at a Tory Government that does not seem to care. And there was no mention of Labour, as Red Tories or otherwise. Anger about welfare reform, at ATOS, at sanctions was aimed squarely at the ‘late’ Iain Duncan Smith and the Chancellor.
If you wanted to know why the electoral maths is so difficult for my party at this election, you could do worse than talk to the many people in that room who would once have voted Labour, and understand why there now seems to be a gulf between them and me, them and us, when we agree on so much apart from the constitution.
But coming away, thoughtful, from the conference, I was also left wondering about the contrast between the views and ambitions in that room, and the balance sheet of the tax and cuts policy developed by John Swinney and others who were elsewhere at the SECC. I was left wondering why thousands and thousands of workers in the public and voluntary sectors, and thousands of other people to whom social justice and decent public services matter, will turn out on Thursday to vote for a party that will do so little to change the maths facing our welfare state.
There is no point in pretending that the fiscal and political numbers in Scotland don’t leave me angry and depressed. I am angry at Nicola talking the game she does about poverty, aspiration, education, the NHS and housing, whilst she and John Swinney pass on Tory cuts. I am angry at the way talk about the alleged betrayal of Scotland by the Smith Commission and about another referendum are used as distractions from that reality. I am angry at the real betrayal of the central purpose of devolution, to allow Scotland to go a different way on tax and public services. And I am depressed that a party that professes to be centre left uses the language of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, to attack my party on tax to cover their own caution and inaction. And that it seems to work.
But anger persuades no one. Anger at foodbanks and poverty didn’t stop David Cameron becoming prime minister, and it didn’t win a referendum. Many of my colleagues at the foodbank, the other people I work with across the voluntary and public sectors, and those who think like them, aren’t going to be convinced by me spitting anger at the people in whom they’ve started to place their trust.
Perhaps maths might work. Last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report suggesting that every year 1,250,000 people in the UK experience destitution, the Scottish numbers will be over 100,000. Destitution happens when systems fail, when the safety net does not do its job, and the welfare state does not build people’s resilience. It happens at the point at which all the challenges people face come together and become overwhelming.
There is a simple equation here. Failure to use tax raising powers means less money for public services and benefits, which means a much weaker safety net, which means more vulnerable people, and ultimately more destitution.
In the end, the maths is only important because this is about more than numbers. Destitution, poverty, ill health, illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness can all be quantified, but they can only be experienced by individuals.
If the Scottish Parliament is about anything over the next five years, it should be about those individuals, and about using our powers as far as we can on their behalf. That’s why I will be voting for the party has a deliverable plan to protect us from the cuts, that truly gets the maths.