Scottish Labour’s Mixed Messages

The interim findings of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission have been published, to coincide with the party’s conference which took place this weekend in Inverness. The findings contain no surprises to anyone who’s been paying attention, so the fact that their publication has reportedly caused such consternation in Labour’s elected ranks is a further reminder that the party as a whole is devoting far too little energy to fighting the independence referendum. The Tories are not Labour’s only enemy and, in Scotland, they have long since ceased to be the party’s main enemy. Yet the clear focus of Labour’s UK machine remains fixated on beating Cameron and Osborne, leaving the fight against Salmond and Sturgeon for the B team and for others. I have heard far too many Labour folk telling me that the referendum is Better Together’s problem, not something for the party itself to be taking a lead role in. This is profoundly mistaken. We need both: Better Together’s task is to campaign for a No vote. The task of the three parties that want to see a No vote (Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats) is to explain to us what kind of Scotland they want to build — what they think the Union is for, what they think devolution is for, and what they would want to do if elected to power.

The depressing thing about Labour’s Devolution Commission is that it does this only marginally — minimally, even. Most of it reads not like a policy platform for a left-of-centre devolved Scotland but like a rejected briefing paper from 2009’s Calman Commission. Calman went so far, the new report says, and here’s how we can now go further. Calman recommended — and the Scotland Act 2012 has now enacted — that certain income tax powers be devolved to Holyrood, so that the Scottish Parliament gains responsibility for raising money to sit alongside its already formidable powers for spending money. It should be noted, however, that these 2012 powers, while enacted into law, have not yet come fully into force and, under the terms of the Scotland Act, will not do so until 2016. I’ve written about this before: a key aspect of the referendum debate which is too often overlooked is that a No vote is already guaranteed to mean that devolution will grow. A No vote is not a vote for the status quo to remain fixed: no party is offering that. Under the Scotland Act 2012 it is the law of the land that devolution will continue to grow and deepen. Yet, bizarrely in my view, Scottish Labour are now recommending that tax powers substantially over and above those already legislated for should be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood before we’ve had even a moment to experience what it’s actually like to live under the powers carefully drafted in the Scotland Act.

As soon as the proposals were published the backlash and the backtracking started. We weren’t consulted, roared the parliamentary party. These are only proposals, not policy, came the reply. To the rather obvious but all-important question, why should we support these proposals — are they the right proposals — Scottish Labour has no answer. Interviewed by Gordon Brewer on BBC Newsnight Scotland last week, Anas Sarwar (deputy leader of Scottish Labour) revealed just how abysmally thin is Labour’s thinking on this. Labour’s Devolution Commission’s report is entitled Powers with a Purpose. When I read this title my heart lifted. At last, I thought, we were going to get an account from the Labour hierarchy of what they want to do with Holyrood’s powers. We are going to learn what, in Labour’s view, is the purpose of devolution. But alas no. There is not a word in this document about what kind of Scotland Labour wants the Scottish Parliament to build or why it needs new powers to build it. Why should the whole of income tax be devolved: so that Scots should pay more tax, or less? On Newsnight, Mr Sarwar could not say. And if the policy is that tax rates should stay the same, then what on earth is the point of devolving them?

This is utterly backwards policy-making. Yet Labour’s task is actually much simpler than it has realised. The party should sit down and ask itself what it would want to do in office were it to regain power at the next Scottish parliamentary elections (scheduled for May 2016). Just imagine: we have voted No to independence. The SNP is in free-fall, eating itself with bitter recriminations. Johann Lamont is First Minister. What next?

Labour, right now, should be thinking about its policy priorities. What does it want to do about: child poverty, public health, housing, employment (for example). Then it should look at the powers that the Scottish Parliament has and it should ask itself: do we have the powers to do what we want to do, or do we need to go to London and make a case that further powers need to be devolved to Scotland to enable us to deliver effective policies about child poverty or health or housing. This would be forwards policy-making. It would allow the nerdy question of powers not to be the tail that wags the dog, but to be the handmaiden of public policy.

A common refrain among those who seek a Yes vote is that we Unionists have been too slow to articulate a positive vision of what we want the Union for. And it’s true that making a positive case for Britain is sometimes harder than just sitting back and pointing to the fantasy and fabrication that the SNP and Yes Scotland are prone to mistaking as policy. But the aching gap at the heart of Labour’s thinking turns out not to be that they have no answer to the question “what is the Union for?” Their answer to that focuses on welfare — we’re all in this together and the wealth of the whole of the country should be redistributed to help those in need wherever they happen to live. This is the power, potentially, of Ed Miliband’s One Nation strategy. Likewise, the Tories’ answer focuses on security, defence, international standing, history and tradition. Both have the makings of clear, coherent and, to my mind, compelling stories about why we are better together.

But the big question for Labour is not, what is the Union for, but what’s devolution for? What positive vision of devolution does the Scottish Labour party have? Read the report of the Devolution Committee and you’d think, they have no answer at all. But in fact they do, and it began to emerge at the Inverness conference this weekend not in the pages of the Devolution Committee’s report, but in the altogether more convincing speech of the party’s much under-estimated leader, Johann Lamont. The focus of her speech was to sketch out precisely what her policy priorities would be if elected to St Andrews House. She talked of four main themes: education (from nurseries to schools to further and higher education); social justice (especially provision of care for the sick and elderly); to reinvigorate local democracy (reversing the SNP’s extraordinary centralisation of power within Scotland); and to revive the land-ownership reforms that Ms Lamont considers to have been one of the successes of the Labour-led devolved administrations of 1999-2007.

This is great: but the point is that for Labour to put all of this into effect in government in Scotland would require no further devolution of powers from London. All of it could be done under the extensive powers that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers already enjoy.