London's loss, Caracas' gain

Ditched by Londoners, it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from Ken's years of experienc

With his successor doing his bit for Anglo-Chinese relations with his flag-waving "ping pong's coming home" performance in Beijing last weekend, it's nice to see Ken Livingstone back in work this week as a consultant to his old friend Hugo Chavez. London, it seems, is just not big enough for these larger than life political characters.

Apparently Livingstone's brief is to get Caracas moving. Having visited the Venezuelan capital a couple of times myself, I can say that as a regular Tube traveller Ken should at least find the underground system to his satisfaction. Speedy and reliable, cheap and clean, the Caracas metro is among the best in the world; its air conditioned platforms just about the only place in the city you can find any peace and quiet. It was built by the French, of course.

Above ground though, it's a different story. Traffic gridlock, brash unsightly skyscrapers and a headache-inducing haze are the inevitable consequences of a society in which oil is cheaper than water and the automobile has ruled unchecked for decades. Much of the centre of the city was hollowed out to make way for US-style freeways and flyovers – now crumbling – during the last oil boom of the 1970s. Trying to ban Chelsea tractors was one thing; attempting to introduce a congestion zone in Caracas would be like trying to persuade lions of the merits of vegetarianism.

Despite its numerous other achievements, Chavista socialism meanwhile has so far made little progress towards getting the majority of residences out of the barrios that suffocate the city on all sides and into proper housing (though Ken, in one of his redder moments, will surely have privately enjoyed the decision a couple of years ago by the mayor of Caracas to appropriate a couple of private golf clubs to create additional living space). Caracas residents continue to endure levels of violent crime that make South London's knife crisis look like an episode of Trumpton.

All of which means that Ken has his work cut out - but it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from all those years of experience at the GLC and in City Hall. It's a wonder he still has time for his own radio show. Let's hope he hasn't been taking broadcasting tips from Chavez, whose own radio and TV broadcasts have been known to run into hours and days...

An unusually tanned and relaxed Ben returns from his summer holidays - if those are the right words to describe Scotland in August - next week.

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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.