Work to be done: the White Paper’s childcare policy

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speak to pupils during a visit to North Edinburgh Childcare, Training and Creche Services, before a debate in the Scottish Parliament on ‘Scotland’s future,’ in Edinburgh

The week started with Sturgeon insisting the White Paper was about jobs. It ended with people thinking the Yes team, too preoccupied with childcare, has crunched into the currency obstacle laid by the other side. This is unfortunate because neither currency, which will remain unchanged, nor childcare policy, which is already devolved, can themselves be used to show how the effective use of integrated economic and social policy could transform work and life in an independent Scotland. And with the issue of jobs issues, particularly female employment, still submerged, we’ve a struggle on our hands to drag them to the surface.

The childcare policy was meant to hit home by showing why we need full powers for genuine economic transformation. As Sturgeon put it today, independence brings the chance to “create a virtuous circle in which transforming childcare frees women to work, generates more tax revenue and helps to fund the further expansion in childcare.” In the Sunday Herald the policy’s architect Ailsa McKay set out more of the logic: “A higher female employment rate increases economic growth and productivity and has a positive impact on fertility, making it more likely that population growth will be above replacement rates.”

So this one policy weapon is aimed a series of goals that make sense for working families. But the No campaign has focussed public attention on the weapon so no-one’s realized what the targets are: at the micro-level, lower living costs, both parents in work, higher taxes without higher rates; at the macro-level, economic growth, increased productivity, increased fertility, a larger working population. The key target, to make work both affordable and worthwhile for those currently in unpaid domestic roles, remains out of sight for the women who’d benefit.

It is a lesson for the coming months that even if our arguments are sound, the delivery is crucial. The jobs issue got crushed in the barrage from media, politicians, and other sophists, though it would have been our strongest campaign vehicle had it withstood the attack. A jobs-based agenda would have been the vessel most worthy of those activists and supporters who above all demand powers of job-creation and investment, those who witnessed industrial decline and look to independence as the most likely means of redevelopment in Scotland.

The cynicism of Labour leaders who, rather than pointing out why a higher level of female employment could pay for childcare, instead insist the SNP already has powers to do it, should not take us by surprise. Though such aspirations are meant to be the stuff of Labour’s politics, the party acts as if the Yes campaign offer nothing but bribes, and Labour will not admit the bigger issues of job-creation, tax-rates and labour-regulation and social investment to the arena of Scottish politics.

Their position explains their own political destitution in Scotland, and reminds the pro-independence left that we must take Labour’s place and articulate why devolved powers of social administration cannot revive a better working Scotland; why we need more than an inflated childcare budget to change conditions of labour and to empower women to work. We need job-creating powers, tax-raising powers, powers of labour-market regulation and targeted industrial investment.

For those of us advocating independence who are part of the Labour tradition, it is encouraging that the key strategists for Yes recognize the importance of jobs, especially for women. Yet there is a risk that the mass of nationalist footsoldiers we march with will ignore these issues. If these nationalists need proof of the centrality of jobs, they should listen Thursday’s Question Time. Among the only audience comments that provoked applause from a predominantly working class audience, was the claim that what will determine the votes of ordinary people are not which currency we use, but whether we will have jobs. It was a comment that Eddi Reader dismissed with the insistance that independence is not about jobs but about democracy– and no panel member took the opportunity to answer the question.

Many people want to hear a guarantee of work. Folk think that if they’ll be able to work, an independent Scotland will be able to work. Those women who at present lack the freedom to work, being unable to access employment that would cover childcare costs, thanks to Westminster’s work disincentive (an economic incentive to force a traditional family model), are among the most important in this group.

The core target group of the childcare policy is those families which comprise the largest social group of those in poverty – low-income families where one person works (usually a man) and another stays at home to care for children. This group sits at the heart of those we need to persuade to support a Yes vote next year.

We risk leaving people thinking the White Paper week was all about currency and childcare. We are on the back-foot, but we must now begin to force the dialogue: online, in public, on doorsteps. We need to spell out why the childcare policy is illustrative of the potential of independence – to put labour back at the centre of policy-making in a way devolution cannot allow, to empower each woman and man with real economic choice and control over how to use their labour, earn their living, and raise their children.  Our message must be of independence for working people, building a Scotland made by the many.

Cailean Gallagher

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