Divergent Political Priorities

Just before Christmas, I spoke to a working mum in Dundee who saw a drop in her household income. She was prepared, and had budgeted for, £80 less each month when the Universal Credit uplift ended. However, having enquired further, she discovered the reason she was a further £40 down was her daughter had turned six meaning they were no longer eligible for current levels of Scottish Child Payment. This, she had not anticipated, which made for an unexpectedly austere festive season. 

Due to the current travails at Westminster and conduct of the presiding government, Labour was catapulted into a 13-point lead according to one poll last week. On these metrics, if a General Election were called, Labour would secure a governing majority of over 100 MPs. Sir Keir Starmer looked starstruck when the utterance of his name elicited uproarious affirmation at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. However, what followed was the most pitiful scrutiny of a premier I have ever observed.

The smug and self-satisfied hubris emanating from opposition benches and Sir Keir himself, whose attention has been captivated by the allure of Downing Street, was unpleasant. In addition to him, a further seven MPs including the Conservatives’ own David Davis, called for Boris Johnson’s resignation to the exclusion of more pressing issues. Take, for instance, the sobering findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) on increasing levels of UK poverty, which elicited not one question.

By contrast, during First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood a day later, SNP MSP Fiona Hyslop raised the increasing cost of living. Scotland’s First Minister responded saying: “If a government is so busy trying to deal with self-inflicted sleaze and scandal as well as daily defections and deflections then their focus is not on the cost-of-living crisis, it is on themselves.” She added: “This is deeply serious because they are neglecting the real issues that people are facing right across the country.”

The JRF report reflected on the rising cost of living, frayed social security system and government policies affecting low-income families. It stated 19 per cent of Scots – a little over one million men, women and children – live in poverty. JRF commended a suite of measures applied in Scotland to mitigate against the “poverty-increasing welfare reforms of the last decade”. It also lauded both the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment and aspirational child poverty targets.

On the positive, these measures suppressed poverty levels between 2010 and 2020, having previously dropped four per cent from 2000 under Labour. Scotland, therefore, has the second lowest levels of poverty in the UK, with Northern Ireland lowest at 18 per cent. The report cited the two-child limit, five-week wait for Universal Credit and benefit cap as aspects of the current benefits system which increases poverty.

Neil Cowan, the Policy and Campaigns Manager for Poverty Alliance, said: “The JRF findings were shocking but not surprising because they are the logical consequence of policies almost designed to pull people into poverty.” He spoke in the same month as Poverty Alliance launched its ‘Scrap the Cap’ campaign. He said: ’The benefit cap is particularly pernicious because it breaks the link between what people need and what people receive, which is a founding principle of the social security system.”

The benefit cap, which limits the financial support families experiencing hardship can access, affects 6,437 households across Scotland. In Dundee, it affects at least 765 children – around 410 in Dundee West and 355 in Dundee East – and the SNP has since backed the campaign. What events this week reveal is the uncoupling of political priorities at Holyrood and Westminster and each time this happens another poll shows an increase in support for independence, as we saw again last Friday.