I have never been one for blind faith in anything or anyone. I question my views and those of others. By questioning myself, I either find flaws and attempt to improve or reaffirm and therefore strengthen my belief. Over the last few weeks I have listened to speeches by the leaders of the Labour, Conservative and SNP parties. Each one I have tried to listen to trying to extract good ideas and policies that I can back. It was Alex Salmond, when he became First Minister of Scotland that said “the SNP don’t have a monopoly on good ideas”. I took that at face value and believe we all have something to contribute.
Jeremy Corbyn has waited many years for his moment in the sun and is basking in it now but it was a speech to the faithful, not so surprising as it was Labour conference but it should have appealed to a wider audience than Labour Party members. Theresa May’s speech, well where do I begin. Take away the nervous cough, the faulty signage, the sheer incompetence of those around her that allowed a prankster to reach her. The actual content was poor and the delivery appalling. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was calm and concise. It contained big ideas and at the same time policy that directly affects each and every one of us. It wasn’t triumphant in tone but managed to point out the SNP government’s successes.
Cynics will say that of course I would be more impressed by the leader of my party and I understand that but I would ask any unbiased person to measure those three speeches against the leadership maxim laid out by the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” May never got out the starting block, Corbyn came close but he seems to be stuck in third gear. He never really takes off. The shouty bits are contrived. I would say that Nicola Sturgeons commitment to a national lending bank for Scotland, a publicly owned not-for-profit energy company for Scotland, a commitment to fund basic income projects in Scotland, the re-allocation of unused council house funding to councils that need it, lifting the public sector pay cap and increasing free childcare to 30 hours a week, all show that the First Minister can lead while staying engaged with those she is leading. The way ahead is clear and the team are in place to take us there.
In years gone by when I was asked if Inverclyde had a drugs problem, my standard reply was no, there are plenty for everyone. This answer masked both my lack of knowledge and my unease at discussing the subject.
As a population, we do discuss alcohol and tobacco but as recreational drug use is illegal it can become a taboo subject. Anyone seeming knowledgeable on the subject would imply that they partake and therefore that they are a criminal. Fortunately, that attitude is changing and more people are engaging in the topic. And most interestingly the more we discuss it, the more a health issue it becomes and the less a criminal justice one.
It is an issue that affects Inverclyde. The death rate due to drug consumption continues to rise and the surrounding health issues, both physical and mental, leave deep scars on our community. To resolve these problems we must talk openly and frankly about the production, availability, quantity, quality and demand for recreational drugs. We must determine how best to educate and support our citizens and all this has to be achieved without prejudice. Within Inverclyde we have a number of first class organisations that help and support people with addictions but I believe we all have a role to play. Suffering with addiction can afflict any person, from any walk of life and the better informed we are the more we can help.
I shall be hosting a public meeting to discuss the UK’s drug policy along with a panel of renowned experts at an event in the Beacon Arts Centre at 19:00 on Thursday the 5th of October. I am hoping for a large turnout so that our community can have its say in reforming the UKs drug policy and hopefully guide the powers that be to adopt a more health centred approach.
When the government of any country attempts to undermine the democratic process that it purports to hold so dear then it is playing with fire. Democracy doesn’t just happen, it has been fought for and defended over a long period of time. At the heart of this ideal is that government can be held to account. That is why we have opposition parties. That is why government ministers must come to the house and be questioned. That is why we have debates and votes. The alternative would be a government that governed absolutely. In the last week during the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill the Conservative government have perpetrated two outrageous injustices. One on the United Kingdom and the other on Scotland.
First it abused the exit process by planting Henry VIII clauses throughout. This allows the government to amend primary legislation with secondary legislation. This is not new (the hints in the name) and it is used regularly to amend tedious legislation but within section 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill it can be used to alter the substance and effect of the law.
Second, according to the Law Society of Scotland the bill will “remove powers from the Scottish Parliament and erode human rights”. They went on to say “the effect of the bill would be to remove the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament in relation to any matter in retained European Union law.” Needless to say the Conservative MPs representing Scottish seats backed their Westminster bosses, once again the Labour Party were split and went through both voting lobbies. It would appear that the job off opposition has once again fallen to the SNP in both scrutinising the EU exit process and standing up for Scotland.
Inverclyde, an area that is used to being on the receiving end of bad news, has in the last two weeks heard that yet another company, Misco, is pulling out. Personally, I have been in contact with Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and I have spoken to members of the senior management team at Misco. Alongside that, Riverside Inverclyde have been extremely active and are working very hard to retain any jobs that they possibly can. While I appreciate all the hard work that everyone is doing to improve a bad situation and I know Riverside Inverclyde, within their remit, are actively seeking to bring jobs into Inverclyde. Nevertheless, I have grave concerns that existing local business are being taken for granted.
When a company declares it is leaving, it is usually for one of two reasons. Circumstances dictate that it is no longer economically viable to remain and the company or division is being sacrificed for the financial greater good of the rest of the organisation or operating in another geographical area is preferred because Inverclyde has been deemed unsuitable. The first scenario is regrettable and almost always non reversible, the second is a damning criticism of the lack of care we put in to maintaining what we have.
When Harland and Wolff wanted to extend their shipyard in 1917 the Old West Kirk was moved to its current location on the Esplanade. Yet one hundred years later we see Ferguson Marine being squeezed by a fire station that could be located elsewhere. Inchgreen dry dock, earmarked for city deal money, remains dormant while it should be breathing life into our local economy. Instead of leveraging an industrial solution we have committed industrial vandalism by hastily blowing up the cranes that serviced the site.
There are existing companies in Inverclyde that we should be bending over backwards to accommodate and yet we take them for granted until they announce they are leaving the area or reducing their workforce. We need to be proactive and positive and take pride in our local businesses. Inverclyde requires an over-arching industrial strategy that harnesses our natural resources and enables our existing employers to flourish and complement each other. The alternative, managing decline, is a futile waste of time, energy and money which can only lead to one inevitable outcome, a year from now there will be another Misco and one after that until Inverclyde is no more than a commuter belt and our once proud manufacturing base is no more than research material for historians.
Those of you that have listened to my speeches, read my column and diary in the Greenock Telegraph or are familiar with my musings in Clydelife magazine, Politics Home, House magazine and a few other publications shall be aware that I like a quote.
If someone has polarised an opinion into a neat soundbite that reflects my views or inspires my actions then I am happy to quote them. From Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan I have ripped them all off. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be on the other side of this process but to my utter amazement and delight it was brought to my attention that Guy Standing (great name) quoted me in his latest book on Basic Income. When the guru quotes the pupil it’s a red letter day. It shall be with an extra spring in my step that I address the Basic Income Earth Network in the Portuguese parliament at the end of September.
While I was motivated by my inclusion in Guy’s book I am continually dismayed by the erosion of Inverclyde. Buildings with heritage are left to rack and ruin. The latest being Highlanders Academy and the Asylum at Ravenscraig. To top this off we fail to maximise the potential of our coastline. A coastline that has changed shape a number of times throughout history. Most of the docks that once hosted ships from across the globe have now been filled in. The industries that these docks once sustained, both large and small, have disappeared. In their place we have a range of buildings that could easily have been located elsewhere within Inverclyde but instead they inhabit plots of land that should have been used to promote maritime industry. A housing estate, call centre and a bar diner could all be located away from the shore but maritime industry does by its very definition benefit from and in most cases depend upon a coastal location. In Inverclyde we even have a cinema and bingo hall in locations with prime views but these buildings do not require windows. There are still plots that remain to be utilised but they fall into two categories. They are either ear marked for housing or land banked as an investment with possible developers being spurned. The common land of Inverclyde should be for the common good of its citizens. The opportunities that Inverclyde’s coastal land provide should not be over looked for short term gain nor be allowed to go untapped so multi-national companies can buy them up while providing no benefit for the local community.
We are told we can’t all achieve greatness, not all of us get to walk in space or sing at the Albert Hall. The question is what stops us? Nature or nurture? Opportunity and circumstance? I wasn’t blessed with a great singing voice (or any singing voice for that matter) so achieving success through vocal dexterity was always unlikely. I was reminded of this when I recently went to see Bob Dylan. I am sure when the young Robert first croaked out a song nobody, not even he, thought he would go on to sell over 100 million records. If he had allowed himself to be put off by all the negativity he would never have sung another song. Instead he became a global musical icon and gave pleasure and hope to all of us that never made the school choir. History is littered with such examples, from the Wright brothers to Thomas Edison.
When we set out to build something we can’t be afraid of failure. It’s a down side of our culture that failure often attracts ridicule, which, in turn, discourages others from trying and the first tentative step to achievement is never taken. The twist is that the power then stays with the detractors. As we try to create we shall make mistakes. Winston Churchill once said “perfection is the enemy of progress”.
The naysayers, the boo boys, the purveyors of relentless negativity always revert to the same logic, they claim they are just being realistic. But they have other traits. They only see the obstacles, they manage but they don’t define and they never have a dream of their own.
So, to those people that are trying to invigorate and regenerate Inverclyde. To those who believe we must do better I salute you and promise to do everything I can to help. To the others, as Bob Dylan said “don’t criticise what you can’t understand”. Maybe if this politics thing doesn’t work out I will brush up my application to NASA.
With President Trump now saying he may reconsider his decision to withdraw American from the climate change agreement at Paris it is interesting and encouraging to see how many Americans are buying into climate change and doing something about it. Despite their Presidents sceptical approach many American towns and cities have embarked on programmes to create 100% renewable energy systems. Burlington in Vermont (population of 42,000) has already achieved this through hydroelectric schemes. The entire state of Vermont is aiming for 90% renewables by 2050.
Imagine that a hydroelectric scheme providing all the electricity required for a town with the population of 42,000. If only we didn’t allow Inverclyde’s abundant water supply to be wasted year in year out. We talk about it and to be more precise we pay lip service to it but we never actually hitch our wagon to this splendid natural resource and do something about it. In Las Vegas all municipal buildings are powered 100% by renewable energy. When an administration has the foresight to lead by example it makes it much easier to encourage commercial enterprise to do the same. Many companies and individuals would buy into such schemes but the UK Government is not interested and Scottish Government has room for improvement. I note that homes being built by River Clyde Homes beside the Gourock rope works have solar panels and I would hope all new builds in Inverclyde, homes, businesses and public buildings would be required to fulfil ambitious environmental targets both in their build and in their own energy generation capabilities. We have the capabilities within Inverclyde and we shouldn’t be afraid to lead.
The Welsh Government implemented a soft opt-out policy for organ donation in 2015. The Scottish Government has recently indicated it will do the same. When I asked the Secretary of State for Health in the Westminster parliament if he would do the same, I got an encouraging response.
The Scottish government has also said it is working towards legalising cannabis for medical purposes. A group of Cross party MPs and Members of the House of Lords are actively encouraging Westminster to do the same. Although I applaud both policies I am frustrated that Westminster, which sees itself as the mother of Parliaments is slow to lead. There is so much good it could do, such as the Nordic model on prostitution, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) set at a maximum of £2 a spin, a Universal Basic Income, to name just three. But Westminster is stuck in a state of paralysis, incapable of moving forward for fear of letting go of the past. This happens when your establishment is so rooted in history and rigid conformation. It is the 21st century and only this week were men allowed to ask a question in the House of Commons chamber while not wearing a tie. The world is changing quicker than it has ever changed before and governments have to start acknowledging that and adapting their working models and systems of government to reflect that. Citizen’s assemblies and greater spending power at local government level could encourage and engage more people and lead to policy changes that are proactive and empowering but for that to happen central government has to be brave and confident and at this time Westminster is neither.
Occasionally, I find myself guilty of referring to politics as “this game”. It’s an easy mistake to make because it’s competitive, there are rules and there are winners and losers but it’s not a game. That would be too trivial a description. This was made crystal clear during the recent General Election when ninety one MPs lost their jobs. The media pontificated at length about who would retain their seat but didn’t give a passing moments thought to the MPs staff members whose jobs were also on the line. In the end around four hundred also lost their jobs. It’s particularly cruel this time around as Parliament was convened on the understanding that it was for a fixed term of five years. Across the U.K. people made life choices based on the known facts and then Theresa May rampaged through them. What I found distressing was the glee with which these job losses were received by those not affected. Labour activists cheering a Tory win because Alex Salmond lost. My own staff being asked at the count “what will it be like when you lose your job on Monday?” The dehumanising of people in public service is not a new thing but the advent of reality TV and social media has encouraged everybody to express their opinion, no matter how ill-informed or spiteful it is. We all sit in judgement, often from the comfort of our own homes, wielding a keyboard and too often we are quick to judge.
The public image of politicians with jobs to fall back on and expense accounts dripping with expensive lunches, living the high life, isn’t one I recognise. I lost good colleagues, many that gave up careers or took a drop in salary to get elected. I know too many of their staff too well to not recognise their hurt at being discarded with the minimum of redundancy. Politics has its fat cats, I don’t doubt it. But the majority of MPs are only in their post for a short period and their mortgages and bills require paying regardless. Their parliamentary staff serve the public, they work long hours, often under difficult circumstances, they don’t judge and they don’t discriminate. They have earned respect. The day we take the humanity out of politics, that’s when we reduce it to a game and that’s the day we all lose.
This shall be my last column (hopefully just for a short while) because as of midnight on Tuesday 2nd May I cease being an MP. Theresa May in her haste to protect Conservative MPs that are under scrutiny for election fraud, combined with political opportunism to kill off the divided and rudderless Labour Party has called a General Election. I have every intention of winning the Inverclyde seat back but I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the local community for their incredible support over the last two years. Businesses, organisations, private and public have been open and honest with me and I have responded accordingly. The frustration now is that the rug has been pulled from under my feet and the working relationship we have created must now be put on hold. They say a week is a long time in politics and it can be, but two years can be too short when we are trying to move mountains. My short term in office has been based around constituents. Issues you have brought to me have become campaigns I have promoted. The casework my team have taken on has been at the heart of everything we do. Every case won, every constituent we have helped has been a victory. So if the electorate will it, we shall speak again. Whatever the outcome, it has been a huge privilege to serve you and an opportunity I would not have missed for the world.