As the shopping streets fill up again in the run-up to Christmas, it’s a good moment to stop and think about what we’re buying, from whom, and where it all ends up.
Given the bombardment of advertising we’re all subjected to it’s really easy to go with the flow and assume that this time of year has to involve endless spending, often leading to people just racking up unmanageable debts. It doesn’t have to be that way. It certainly doesn’t have to reach the level that’s seen almost every year now with people climbing over one another, even coming to blows, to reach the latest bargains as some stores deliberately whip up a grotesque shopping frenzy.
There’s more choice out there than ever before, especially with the growth of online retail, but it’s important to remember that we can make a real difference when we choose where our money goes. The ‘big box’ retailers which dominate the high street are more likely than most employers to use zero-hour contracts, and to pay their staff poverty wages. Some of the biggest names in retail not only exploit their staff, they also jump through every loophole to avoid paying their taxes too. They’re happy to benefit from other people’s taxes, which pay for the physical and social infrastructure we all depend on. But their highly paid tax consultants make sure that their own Corporation Tax bills are brought as close to zero as they can get away with.
The high street in this country is dominated by these giant multinationals, but there are other options out there too. Shifting even some of your Christmas spending into small, independent businesses can help to level the playing field, and ensures that money keeps circulating in the local economy too. Small Business Saturday, an annual event to encourage people to opt for local independent companies, is coming up on Saturday 5th December and offers an opportunity to highlight the successes of the local economy and the value of shopping locally.
There are many factors you might want to take into account, from a company’s climate change record to whether it’s owned co-operatively by the workforce, or how it treats suppliers in poorer countries.
And at the end of the day, when the festivities are over what happens to all that stuff? How many Christmas presents end up gathering dust on the shelf, or heading to landfill or a waste incinerator within months? Looking for gifts which will last, or which don’t generate heaps of waste should be a big priority.
For many small businesses Christmas is their make or break time. What better gift to give than voting with your feet and trying local stores?
There’s a very long list of actions the UK Government is taking which are hostile to the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens.
Its attempt to cast itself as a government for working people, while at the same time slashing the incomes of those same working people, adds insult to injury.
But the assault they are pursuing against people’s right to organise collectively at work goes even further.
Not content with the immediate attack against people’s living standards and working conditions, the Trade Union Bill currently proposed at Westminster will strip the last defences away from many of the people most at risk of exploitation at work.
For the first time, employers will be given a legal right to use strike-breaking techniques like using agency workers to replace strikers.
The organising of pickets and protests will be micromanaged, with restrictions on people’s freedom to communicate and campaign.
Some in government even want criminal sanctions used against peaceful protesters who fall foul of these rules.
There will be measures to make it cumbersome and bureaucratic for unions to undertake their basis duties such as representing their members, collective bargaining, and administering membership dues.
Perhaps most controversially, in many public services the Bill would introduce new artificially high thresholds when a union ballots its members for industrial action.
A government which gained barely a third of the votes at the General Election, and the support of less than a quarter of the whole electorate, is effectively demanding that a union must gain the support of 80% of the members who cast a vote, before they can go on strike.
Taken together these proposals represent a fundamental attack on the right to strike.
This attack will be felt throughout our society, but most particularly in the public sector at a time when further dramatic cuts to vital public services are planned.
Most people faced with losing a service they rely on due to industrial action don’t like it. Strikes are generally inconvenient for the public.
But the alternative, a world in which we don’t have the ultimate option of withdrawing our labour, would be a thousand times worse for everyone.
And let’s remember that this country has a relatively low level of strike action; it’s not something people do often, and it’s not something people do without good reason.
It tends to be a last resort.
The case for opposing this legislation is urgent.
But if it is passed there is also a clear case for a determined programme of non-compliance by all public sector employers.
This would test the resolve of the Scottish Government, but if they believe in the importance of our rights at work, nothing less will do.
Two years ago Holyrood was in the middle of a long-running debate about the bedroom tax. It had been going on throughout 2013, and it continued during scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s budget in the first months of 2014.
Most of that time had been marked by displays of ranting, finger-pointing and hostility between Labour and SNP politicians, while the Tories and LibDems who had imposed the hated cuts to housing benefit sat there happily out of the line of fire.
Whichever side of that Labour/SNP divide you were sympathetic to (and yes, of course, few National readers will need much thinking time on that question) the most depressing aspect was the tribalism between them. These two parties both opposed the bedroom tax, but each had long since stopped listening to the other and each had come to regard their opponents as utterly shameless and untrustworthy. It was the Scottish Parliament at its worst.
Eventually, after long and fractious debates, and much public pressure, a deal was done. In the final days of the budget’s passage through Parliament, a proposal was developed on which everyone who opposed the bedroom tax could agree. The effect was that this pernicious policy was effectively neutralised in Scotland. Interestingly this came just a couple of days after Parliament had overwhelmingly passed legislation to create equal marriage; perhaps love was in the air, but something had certainly changed. This was a memorable moment; this was Holyrood at its best.
Now as Scotland and the UK wait to find out what George Osborne will do in the wake of the tax credits defeat in the House of Lords, we seem to be back in that toxic frame of mind. The debate held this week at Holyrood saw all those worst instincts let loose once again. Both the two biggest parties oppose the UK Government’s attack on working households. Yet throughout almost all of that debate, the vitriol on display was almost exclusively between Labour and the SNP.
Yes, I know that Labour did more than any other party to oppose the devolution of welfare during the Smith Commission. A different result there would have left us in a far stronger position. And I know also that they are trying to put a cost on a policy which hasn’t yet been announced. But to see each party using that debate merely to mock the other’s position was profoundly dispiriting and I can only imagine how someone who’s personally faced with losing a four-figure sum they cannot possibly afford would have felt if they’d been watching.
Just like the bedroom tax, this issue will be coherently addressed only when we focus on the real goal of acting in the interests of people targeted by these cuts, instead of only on the electoral goal of proving that our opponents are unworthy.
The SNP are right to say that there is still scope to oppose the tax credit cuts before they happen and that even if they do take place, we need to know the scope and pace before we can put a plan in place to respond. Labour were also right that the intent to do so should be spelled out in advance – and on that point there is actually so little difference between the two parties that the pantomime tactics are completely unnecessary. Labour are also right about not scrapping air passenger duty, but that’s one for another day. Greens have always (whether during the SNP Government or the Labour/LibDem coalition before it) tried to balance being constructive with being challenging and keeping the focus on what we’re trying to achieve rather than why “the other lot” are baddies. It’s an approach that pays off, by working with others despite our differences and being more interested in the common ground than in ideological battles. It moved the old Scottish Executive to do more on climate change and renewables, to back off from UK Labour’s authoritarian ID cards scheme and to begin to address the excessive powers of the supermarkets. It’s also an approach that helped push the current Scottish Government on home energy efficiency, on community ownership and on fracking.
This kind of politics isn’t about pretending to have all the answers. But by articulating clear principles and seeking creative solutions which can be found on the common ground despite other differences, it can achieve a lot.