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FOR just one person to die while homeless and sleeping on the streets is one too many. For there to have been at least 450 deaths last year, 94 of them in Scotland, is heartbreaking and tells us that something is drastically wrong in our economic and political system and this has to radically change.
These figures were published in the autumn but as the festive season approaches, and the temperatures drop, they take on even more significance. Shelter recently published a report that showed the increase in homelessness meant someone lost their home every 18 minutes in Scotland last year. Across the UK, rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010.
We all do what we can when we see someone sleeping rough. And charities do great work, providing outreach, advice and warm clothing. But charity is not, and should never be, a substitute for true social justice.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which broke the story about the number of people dying while sleeping rough, began looking into it in detail when it learned that no official body actually counted the deaths. What a damning indictment of the political status quo, that our authorities can be so complacent about human life.
It is this status quo that needs real change. It has delivered increasingly visible homelessness and unjustifiably high numbers of deaths on our streets. It has given us the grinding poverty that shocked even the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, who reported there had been a “determined resistance to change” to fix the problems he observed.
As Jeremy Corbyn wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister last week, after the government’s shameful response to Professor Alston’s findings: “The UN report should be a wake-up call about the rising levels of poverty and destitution that exist in Britain today — this is a national emergency.”
We need real change to fix the crises in our NHS, in housing and in our public services, where head teachers are sending letters home to parents begging for cash for basic supplies, and threatening unprecedented cuts to the support and education pupils receive.
We need real change to end in-work poverty which means too many people face a daily struggle to make ends meet. We need real change to tackle the bosses who exploit workers with precarious work and low pay.
We need real change because our economic model is failing. It is not just austerity that is failing people, but the inbuilt, gross inequalities in wealth and power in the economy.
I make no apology for a socialist critique of our society’s failings. I have been a democratic socialist my whole adult life and I have never known a time when the left’s solutions to our society’s problems were more urgently required.
But instead of challenging the status quo, we have governments in London and Edinburgh that uphold and defend it. In Westminster, we have a Tory government that doesn’t seem to care how cruel its policies are. In fact, its ministers seem to relish it, the crueller the better. And in Holyrood, we have an SNP administration that is failing the people of Scotland by mimicking the Tories and, in the case of funding for local councils, not just passing on Tory austerity but quadrupling it.
The one-trick SNP has no progressive vision for the future of Scotland. This was confirmed when it published its blueprint for independence, the so-called growth commission. It is nothing more than a blueprint for more cuts, another 10 years of austerity. So we are offered not only the maintenance of the existing economic order but a plan to deepen it.
Like the Tories, the SNP has noticed how popular Labour’s policies are and tries occasionally to wrap itself in our colours, but falls short. For example, the SNP’s long-delayed National Investment Bank is a pale imitation of Labour’s plan to deliver £20 billion of funding over the next decade.
Its half-hearted commitment to making Scotland a carbon-neutral country fails to commit to doing so by 2050 and fails to commit to the full 100 per cent, supported by Scottish Labour.
Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish government’s infrastructure commission “will explore the feasibility of a government-owned National Infrastructure Company.”
A commission to explore the feasibility of something is not a bold, decisive, radical step. It is what the Tories do when they want to avoid the real change people want and need: announce a consultation, kick the can down the road.
And so it goes on — an overall plan for more austerity, peppered with some superficially progressive-sounding measures that simply do not challenge the fundamentals of our failing economic system. The time for tinkering at the edges like this is over.
The next UK Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, and a Scottish Labour government under my leadership, will end austerity and go much further on an agenda of investment, public ownership, workers’ rights and reducing wealth inequality.
There will always be those whose support for independence is the driving force of their politics. But what has happened with the transformation of the Labour Party poses an interesting question for that broader group of progressively minded people who, fed up with the status quo, looked to independence as the route to social justice and social change.
Of course, I believe many of those people are likely to agree with a socialist’s analysis of the problems facing our country. Indeed, very many of them are indeed socialists. And it is my job as the leader of Scottish Labour to show that we are the party that can and will deliver social, economic and environmental change.
What kind of country are we when in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Brighton, there are growing numbers of people sleeping rough, at risk from the cold and ill health? What kind of country allows hundreds of people to die on the streets and not even count their deaths? The status quo has failed. Our economic system is broken. Labour will transform it and build an economy that works for the many, not the few.
Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour Party and MSP for Central Scotland.
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