Fighting sanctions in Scotland

One year on from the Scottish independence referendum the need for an organised working class movement remains the key to smashing the Tories’ brutal benefit sanctions regime. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures released in August show that almost half of all benefit sanction decisions against JSA and ESA claimants across the UK have been overturned under challenge. Between 22 October 2012 and 31 March 2015 there were 1,824,877 adverse sanctions against claimants. 575,901 of these decisions were challenged, with 285,327 being overturned, a staggering 49.5%. This shows the importance of appealing against benefit sanction decisions.

In Scotland during this period, 7,668 sanctions were applied at Dundee’s Wellgate Jobcentre making it the worst jobcentre for sanctions in Scotland. In Glasgow, Springburn Jobcentre recorded the highest number, 3,997, with Govan second highest at 3,108. Alongside Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network and Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supporters have maintained regular pickets outside both Wellgate and Govan Jobcentres over the last year against this brutal policy.

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Making a noise for Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy

Supporters from Fight Racism Fight Imperialism went up to Kirkcaldy on 8 August to join others collecting signatures and handing out hundreds of leaflets demanding justice for Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody on 3 May earlier this year. Nine Police officers were involved in his restraint, using pepper spray, CS gas, batons, handcuffs, ankle and leg restraints. Sheku died from positional asphyxiation. This has been a cover-up from the start!The family was given 5 different stories on the same day by the police about how he died and in one version the police were not even present. It took 32 days for the officers to give a statement on his death and the 9 officers involved were able to meet immediately after the death to corroborate their stories and it has emerged that Stephen House, Police Scotland's chief constable, has secretly met each of the police officers involved in Sheku's death.
No Justice! No Peace!
Join the march for justice for Sheku Bayoh
6 September 2015, Kirkcaldy,  2pm at Kirkcaldy town house.
Support the campaign: Facebook Justice-For-Sheku-Ahmed-Tejan-Bayoh

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Scotland: fighting the SNP and Labour

George square 20 June

In Scotland, fighting austerity means taking on both the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Labour Party.

Whatever the anti-austerity rhetoric of SNP MPs in Westminster, on the ground it is a different story. In Dundee, it took 13 weeks of all-out strike action by117 hospital porters in Dundee, Unite union members, before they won their fight against low pay with demands for pay re-grading and back pay. They were up against the SNP Scottish government which backed down only after the porters began pickets of the office of Dundee East MSP and Health Minister Shona Robison. Caledonian MacBrayne ferry workers, members of the RMT and TSSA unions, are also calling strike action as the Scottish government moves to privatise the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service with no guarantee over jobs, wages and conditions. On the same day as the 20 June anti-austerity rally in Glasgow, the SNP’s trade union group met in Stirling but did not extend an invitation to the striking Dundee porters.

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SNP – pay the porters now!

In Dundee, the all-out strike of 117 hospital porters is moving into its ninth week. The porters, members of Unite and Unison, have been in dispute over their pay grading which is set at the lowest level in the NHS. They are seeking regrading and the payment of back money owed over years. Years of poverty pay and getting nowhere with intransigent management and dishonest negotiation has forced the workers to withdraw their labour. The picket lines have been solidly maintained at Ninewells and Royal Victoria Hospitals. Donations have poured in to support the low-paid staff and they have marched in solidarity with striking council care workers in Glasgow.

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What next for the Scottish National Party?

‘Labour gained 142 seats and Glasgow sent off 10 ‘Red Clydesiders’ to Parliament to abolish poverty. It is recorded that on the train down these MPs were concerned chiefly to discover if being thrown out of the House of Commons meant a loss of salary. Abolishing poverty was one thing but joining the ranks of the poor was not their intention.’

(1922 General Election, quoted in John Maclean, Battlepost of the Poor)

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has styled itself as the new party of progressive social democracy in Scotland and campaigned for a parliamentary anti-austerity alliance with the Labour Party. This strategy unravelled with the Tory victory. The September 2014 referendum posed the question: who will represent the working class? Our answer then was neither the Scottish Labour Party nor the SNP. That has not changed today.

Dundee recorded the highest Yes vote for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. It is also the city which has topped the Scottish welfare sanctions table since 2012. Thousands have been sanctioned by staff in the Wellgate Job Centre Plus office. Since its formation in April 2014 the campaigning group Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions (DAWS) has met hundreds of working class folk coming out of the ‘burro’ – as the employment offices were known in the 1920s and 1930s – to the foodbanks. Overwhelmingly staff fail to tell those sanctioned that they are entitled to claim hardship payments, despite DWP lies to the contrary.

The Church of Scotland is forthright in its condemnation and told the Tory’s Ian Duncan Smith to ‘Stop using hunger as punishment’. UK government figures published in February showed that 80,000 people in Scotland have been sanctioned for a minimum of four weeks since 2013. No court would sentence anyone to 13 weeks, 26 weeks or three years starvation for being late. There are increasing calls for an immediate end to sanctions from other religious institutions and charities. Citizens Advice called for an immediate moratorium on welfare sanctions at its recent AGM. DAWS launched a petition in January 2015 calling on the Scottish government to cover all financial losses incurred by sanctions.

The lamentable response of the SNP exposes the cynical use it has made of its anti-austerity electoral branding to gain parliamentary seats. Support for the Citizens Advice call lasted all of a day on the SNP website and then was buried at the stage-managed SNP April Conference. Despite a huge surge in membership to over 110,000 since the referendum and a new wave of 56 MPs since the election, references to welfare sanctions and challenging austerity have lessened shockingly. On 19 May, The National – a new popular, pro-SNP, pro-independence daily paper – had SNP stalwart Michael Russell, Chief Executive of the SNP 1994-99 and present Scottish Cabinet minister, launch a campaign to have yachts owned by Scots fly a saltire-based ensign.

This crass insensitivity to working class people facing appalling poverty – in and out of work – undermines the SNP’s claims to be anti-austerity. The SNP cheerfully labelled the Labour Party as the ‘Red Tories’ in Scotland. Less well known is the popular working class recognition of the SNP some years ago as ‘Tartan Tories’. The new crop of MPs includes QCs, media workers, financial advisers, people from the professions and business. The working class, which came out of the housing schemes and tenements of Scotland to vote ‘Yes’ and which then booted out the Labour Party, is barely represented.

On the first formal sitting of Parliament, Chris Law, newly elected for Dundee West, wanted to sit where Labour’s Dennis Skinner sits on the opposition benches. This old opportunist of the now negligible Labour left has picked up a juicy parliamentary salary for 45 years and advanced the cause of the working class not one jot. By picking this fight, Law wanted to continue the SNP pretence of being anti-austerity. Yet he has resolutely ignored the local battles in Dundee over pay for striking hospital porters, the closure of schools by the SNP council and the anti-sanctions petition.

In Glasgow SNP councillor Malcolm Balfour and parliamentary candidate Carol Monaghan were electioneering close to a protest at Drumchapel Job Centre. They refused to sign a petition against sanctions. They cited Scottish government financial restraints as a problem. The anti-sanctions petition has also been deemed outwith the competency of the Scottish parliament as welfare is not a devolved matter. Those campaigning against austerity need to point out to the SNP that the slogan ‘Better to Break the Law than Break the Poor’ was coined in London in the early 1920s by the unemployed movement of that period. Such a slogan reflected the determination of those suffering from benefit cuts in that period to fight injustice and hunger all the way.

Irish revolutionary James Connolly joined the socialist movement in Dundee in the 19th century, fighting for striking workers and for democratic rights to organise and protest. He famously pointed out that politics is a matter of the stomach, not just the brain and that real political progress for the working class would arise from real material conditions. Scottish revolutionary John Maclean began the last of his six prison sentences in 1921 for calling on the unemployed not to allow themselves to starve. Today welfare sanctions, low pay and zero hours contracts are creating the beginnings of resistance in Scotland, England and Wales – to differing degrees. The working class can place no reliance on the SNP to advance that battle. The beginnings of a fight against austerity and against the SNP are apparent in Scotland.

As for the SNP’s other progressive claims, specifically to oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile deterrent, these are yet to be tested. At the incredible cost of £100 billion it is not difficult to counterpose this wasteful barbarism to the human waste of austerity economics. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has described the position as a red line which her party would not cross.

The SNP General Election victory is expected to be repeated at the Scottish elections in May 2016. With an almost full house of parliamentary seats in Edinburgh and Westminster, the SNP will be faced with a vote on the Trident replacement in the House of Commons. The issue will go to the heart of the imperialist union which is the United Kingdom. The SNP abandoned its opposition to NATO membership in 2012 – a regressive move led by its fixer in the House of Commons, Angus Robertson. So which way will it jump? Will it capitulate, or will it force another independence referendum on the issue? That will be a real test of its progressive pretensions.

Michael MacGregor

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015

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  10. Scotland: Fighting the bedroom tax, challenging the Labour Party/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
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  13. Scotland’s education crisis/ FRFI 224 December 2011/January 2012
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