New Times,
New Thinking.

26 March 2015

Leader: The SNP at Westminster – and the toll of benefits sanctions

Despite losing the referendum, the SNP still have a spring in their step. The NS Leader looks at Jason Cowley's interview with Alex Salmond, and the problem of benefits sanctions.

By New Statesman

Despite losing the independence referendum just six months ago, the Scottish National Party has the swagger of a winner. Since September, support for the Labour Party has collapsed, although it won 41 of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland in 2010. The most recent polls of Scottish constituencies suggest that the SNP (which has only six MPs) will win by a landslide in May and could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.

The Tories have been using this fact to run an aggressive and cynical campaign against Labour, warning that Ed Miliband could end up being a puppet of Alex Salmond and the SNP. The former first minister is poised to return to Westminster as the MP for Gordon in Aberdeenshire, the long-time seat of the Liberal Democrat veteran Malcolm Bruce, and says he will not be there merely “to make up the numbers”.

Under pressure from the Tories and some of his own MPs, Mr Miliband has been forced to say that he would not enter into coalition with the SNP. In their desperation to traduce Mr Salmond and the Nationalists, the Tories have put short-term partisan interests before the long-term interests of the Union: it is the SNP that gains most from being presented as the power brokers in a hung parliament.

There had even been speculation among Conservatives to the effect that Mr Cameron would seek to strike a deal with the SNP. Yet in the former first minister’s widely reported interview with Jason Cowley, which was published on our website on 24 March and is republished on page 24, Mr Salmond said that he would not negotiate with the Tories. More than this, he would seek to bring down a minority Cameron government by voting against a Queen’s Speech, opening the way for some kind of pact with Labour.

It is our view that Labour must be prepared to work in good faith with the SNP. To do otherwise would be an act of disrespect to the Scottish people (who have long had right-wing Conservative administrations imposed on them) and a political error that could deny it the chance to form a government.

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Further devolution for Scotland is inevitable and must be accompanied by broader constitutional change, including the abolition of the House of Lords, which should be replaced by an elected second chamber, perhaps of the nations and the regions. Having previously described the September referendum as a “once-in-a-generation” event, Mr Salmond now says that a second vote is not a matter of if, but when. The best hope of securing the future of a reconfigured federal – or neo-federal – union is a centre-left government that carries out far-reaching economic, social and constitutional reform.

Should the Tories retain power, perhaps in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionist Party, there would follow a period of great turbulence, with even greater spending cuts and the UK potentially voting to leave the EU in 2017. But the SNP’s stance makes it much less likely that they will. 

The toll of benefits sanctions

When David Clapson’s body was found by his sister Gill in July 2013, his fridge was almost bare – and because his electricity had been cut off it was useless for storing the insulin that he needed. He had just £3.44 in the bank and 5p credit on his phone.

The 59-year-old had died of diabetic ketoacidosis just two weeks after jobcentre staff stopped his benefits, saying that he was not taking his search for work seriously enough. Yet close to his body his sister found a pile of printed CVs.

Campaigners have pointed to Mr Clapson’s death as a sign of what can happen when the benefits regime is unduly punitive and capricious, and on 24 March the Commons work and pensions select committee reiterated its call for an independent inquiry into benefits sanctions. The MPs involved noted that “sanctions are controversial, because they withhold subsistence-level benefit payments from people who may have little or no other income”. They also recommended that jobcentre staff receive training to identify vulnerable claimants, such as those with mental health problems or learning disabilities, and to make sure single parents are not penalised by the system. These actions are long overdue.

 

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