Our new leader Kezia Dugdale has asked Scottish voters to take “a fresh look at Scottish Labour”. When they do, I know they will see a party that is committed to equality, social justice, improving our NHS and ensuring that our education system ranks with the best in the world. However I also want them to see a party that is committed to developing and sustaining our rural communities.
I believe that job creation is key in sustaining our rural communities and should be a focus for Scottish Labour ahead of the next round of elections to the Scottish Parliament 2016 and local government in 2017.
Like many Highlanders I love the area I grew up in, but unlike many Highlanders I have been lucky enough to return after education. Not every person who leaves has the opportunity to come back to work, and even fewer have the opportunity to stay because of the lack of job opportunities.
I know that that young people across rural Scotland face similar challenges. This has a negative impact on our rural communities as they begin to age and shrink.
It was unsurprising that during the general election I found many young people and families were attracted to our Jobs Guarantee; not just because it promised employment and training, but because it had the potential to stem the steady flow of young people out of rural Scotland. And it would help give those who want it the opportunity to continue living and working within their own local communities, ideally in the private sector but importantly guaranteed by the public sector if necessary.
I believe that this policy should in essence be retained and we should work to devolve its administration to local councils so that any job and training meets the needs and wishes of the local economy. However, I also want a Scottish Labour government to practice what it preaches regarding jobs, and I want us to commit to decentralising the public sector.
Since the SNP took power in 2007 there have been almost no new Scottish Government public sector jobs created in the Highlands, effectively halting the devolution of jobs to Scotland’s regions. In comparison, Scottish Labour have a track record of success in delivering public sector jobs to rural areas like the Highlands. Although not universally popular, the Scottish Executive took the decision to relocate over 250 public sector jobs from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to Inverness, completing the relocation in 2006.
I am not proposing that we again look towards the transfer of hundreds of public sector jobs from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Elgin or Dumfries. What I am proposing is that we take a fresh look at how we fairly distribute public sector job creation to the Highlands and Islands, the North East and to the South of Scotland. This is only way to ensure the Scottish Government is truly a national government.
Decentralising public sector jobs means that a future Scottish Labour government would need to embrace modern working techniques and modern technology. This means ensuring that both national and local government embrace remote working and effectively pursue the roll-out of superfast broadband to every part of Scotland. We must ensure that no area is excluded from what is now an essential service. Not only will it enable the decentralisation of public sector jobs but it means that the private sector can invest in rural Scotland without fear of a poor technological infrastructure. The right to broadband and internet access should be viewed as fundamental in Scotland, and Scottish Labour we should seek to ensure every home is connected, not isolated.
I do not believe that the public sector has all the answers when it comes to sustaining our rural areas. The private sector must also play its part. There are many businesses in rural Scotland that defy the barriers of geography and poor infrastructure, be it roads or broadband, and they simply need more support.
Too often businesses find it difficult to access the help they need and whilst Highlands and Islands Enterprise supports many businesses, I don’t believe that businesses operating in a rural region should be diverted to HIE when they seek advice from Scottish Enterprise. We need to look again at how government works with the private sector to ensure small rural firms feel able to recruit apprentices and take on graduates to breathe fresh life into the rural economy.
To make living in a rural area attractive we also need to guarantee that communities will have access to sustainable public services, and the Scottish Government has a role to play in supporting rural recruitment. The Scottish Government should work closely with local government to ensure that rural areas like the Highlands, which is struggling to recruit GPs and surgeons, or Moray, where teachers are struggling to be found, are fully supported and helped with initiatives that fill these empty posts.
Scottish Labour must offer a package that breathes life into our rural and remote communities across Scotland, from Wick and Thurso to Dumfries and Galloway.
On opening the new Scottish Natural Heritage HQ in Inverness in 2006, then First Minister Jack McConnell remarked: “We must ensure the benefits of devolution are enjoyed in every part of Scotland”. Now more than ever, Scottish Labour must embrace this point and become the true champions of rural Scotland.