Monthly Archives: October 2014

A New Dawn for Labour?

Johann Lamont’s resignation has taken most people by surprise. Though there were rumours aplenty, Lamont herself had only recently confirmed that she would not stand down, but would stay on to become First Minister. Now she has rather suddenly changed her mind. At least she is going out with a bang and not with a whimper. She has accused some of her colleagues at Westminster as acting like dinosaurs and accused the UK party leadership of treating Scotland as a “branch office”. Will the party take any notice of these criticisms? Though the immediate focus may be on who will replace her as leader, the party faces much more fundamental challenges. These have to do with what kind of party it wants to be and in particular what relationship it has with Westminster and the UK Labour party.

Branch office or an independent party?

This remains an unresolved issue for the party. In a formal sense this has been partly addressed in as much as Johann Lamont was elected as the leader of the whole party in Scotland and not just the party’s leader in Holyrood. However there does not appear to be any real policy making powers for Scottish Labour. The party remains in practice a branch office of the UK party. Scottish Labour seems to be more about delivering the UK party’s policies as opposed to developing its own policies.

If Labour is to survive as a major political force, let alone challenge for government at Holyrood, this needs to change. There are basically two options. The first and most radical is for Labour in Scotland to become a completely independent party with no formal link with the UK party. All policy decisions would be taken in Scotland. When it comes to UK elections the party stand on its own, but would normally support the UK Labour party when it came to votes. They might even form part of an overt coalition.

The second option and the easiest to introduce is to change the UK party into a federal party. The Scottish party would have sole responsibility for devolved matters, while the UK party would decide on UK wide issues. This is a rather messy option as the UK is not a federal country and isn’t likely to become one anytime soon. So there would be some difficulties with this option. There would also remain plenty of scope for tensions between the UK party and the Scottish party.

Becoming a genuinely independent party is the option that would resonate most with voters in Scotland. The charge of London Labour is hard for the party to shrug off. As an independent party, Labour could rediscover its own roots and mount a positive challenge to the SNP as the more left of centre party. The federal option still leaves the current tensions between Westminster and Holyrood alive and kicking. The likelihood is that the party will do nothing more than a bit of window dressing. Things may change considerably after the 2015 UK election. If as expected, Labour loses a significant number of its MPs, then the Holyrood contingent would suddenly become much more important.

Holyrood or Westminster?

This is the mirror image of the previous issue. There has always been a suspicion that for Labour, the Scottish Parliament is very much second best to Westminster. Jibes that Labour at Holyrood is the B or even the C team bore more than a little relation to the truth. Johann Lamont seems to recognise this and has stated that her colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster. This will not be an easy task as not everyone in the party agrees with this view.

Take Peter Russell for example who has recently written a very strange article for Labour List, which you can read in full here. Peter Russell seems to be articulating here the authentic voice of UK Labour – only a Labour government at Westminster can save Scotland. The following two extracts give a flavour of his view of what Labour should do. “First, let’s give some leadership: Scottish Labour has to take the political process by the lapels and show it who’s boss – as in who won the referendum, and who is going to dictate to whom in the coming weeks and months.” “Secondly, Scottish Labour must upscale the appeal of our unique selling point: that we are a party of UK government.”

The difficulty for Labour is that as long as Scotland remains part of the UK, the focus needs to be on both Holyrood and Westminster. The focus has to be on both, but in balance. Alas for Labour, the party seems to be unwilling or unable to do this. But unless it does so and develops a clear strategy that involves both Westminster and Holyrood, then the party faces a very difficult future. Electing the right leader will be an important part of this, but even more important is resolving the structural imbalances in the party.

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TV Broadcasters fail the UK yet again

The main London based TV broadcasters have recently published their joint proposals for a series of leaders’ debates during the 2015 general election campaign. For details see here. In doing so they have once again demonstrated just how London centred they remain. The Greens have one MP, elected in 2010, and a respectable voting record in European elections, yet remain almost invisible to the mainstream media. Until last week UKIP had no MP at Westminster, and their current one is a defector from the Tory party. Yet UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular have become the darlings of the London media, including the broadcasters. Presumably because their reactionary anti immigrant, anti EU message suits the media barons more than the progressive polices of the Greens. The proposals for TV debates also demonstrate just how out of touch the broadcasters are with what is happening across the UK. For their focus is not reflective in any way with what is happening in many parts of England, never mind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet we are supposed to be a United Kingdom. This is a funny way of showing how we are all better together. If we are to have TV debates featuring the leaders of political parties, and it looks like we will, there needs to be a sound basis for deciding who gets to appear in these debates. We should most definitely not leave this key decision to the broadcasters alone.

A Prime Ministerial debate?

There is some, though a very limited, rational for holding a debate among the candidates who could become Prime Minister, without relying on the support of other parties. Though of course this would only involve David Cameron and Ed Milliband. Everyone recognises that only Labour or the Tories can win an outright majority of seats on their own. However this is an increasingly unlikely outcome. It did not happen in 2010 and just about all polls indicate the most likely outcome in May 2015 is another “hung” parliament, with no overall majority for either party. So though in theory this option has some basis to it, the reality is that most people would rightly reject it. The UK is sufficiently beyond two party politics for broadcasters to impose a return to those bygone days on the rest of us.

Debates involving the leaders of all political parties?

This is the one option that has so far never been considered by our broadcasters. No doubt difficult to organise and to work out a format that allows all the participants to respond to questions. Yet this is the only option that does justice to all parties and most important of all, the only option which serves the purpose of informing the electorate, which should be the key, indeed sole purpose of any debate.

The justification for involving all parties is that any party, however small, may have an important, possibly decisive, role to play in who does become Prime Minister. As the most likely outcome of the May 2015 election is that no party has an overall majority of MPs, then all kinds of coalitions, formal or informal may become possible. To take just one example, that of Plaid Cymru. Though there is no way that Plaid Cymru can become the party of government at Westminster, the votes of their MPs could in some circumstances be decisive in building a stable coalition or in supporting a minority government. It is therefore important that the voters in the rest of the country know not just what Plaid Cymru stand for, but how the other parties, in particular Labour and the Tories, would respond to any overtures from Plaid. This can only be done through some kind of open and public engagement among the parties.

Spare a thought for the broadcasters

There is it seems to me no simple way to accommodate needs and demands of all the various interested parties, from the broadcasters themselves, the political parties to the most important of all, the poor bloody voter. The reason for this is quite simple – the increasing fragmentation of politics in the UK. This can be seen firstly in the slow, but seemingly irreversible decline of both Labour and the Tory party. In counter part to this decline there is the rise of national parties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Combined, these trends may mean there is no longer in any UK wide politics in any meaningful sense. In England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the key issues are often different and the political parties are often different. Just glad I am not a broadcaster, though they need to come up with something much much better than their current proposals.

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Engaging with the Smith Commission

Now that the referendum is well and truly over, the only show in town is the Smith Commission. This is the UK government’s way of taking forward the famous or infamous Vow made by the leaders of the three Unionist parties at Westminster. A commission to be headed by a member of the House of Lords. All very typically British. Yet, the good Lord Smith has been welcomed by the SNP and others in the pro-independence movement. Despite the top down nature of the work of the Commission there is scope for members of the public to contribute, Have your say – Submitting ideas, views and proposals to the Commission, which you can access here. We should all be encouraging as many people as possible to submit their views on what further powers they think should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

There is a restriction however on what the Commission will consider. As an initiative of the UK government, the Commission has been asked to come up with recommendations for further devolution of powers to strengthen the Scottish Parliament within the UK. This is hardly surprising and there is no point in bemoaning this. While independence is off the table, there remains a great deal of scope to challenge the current constitutional set up of the UK. In point of fact the good Lord positively invites us to do so. In the Guidelines that the Commission has published there is a list of key questions for people to consider when making a submission. One is, What is your assessment of the current situation? This seems to me to be an open invitation to point out the weaknesses and failures inherent in the current devolution settlement. Below is my initial attempt at this analysis.

Despite the creation of the three devolved parliaments/assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK remains a very centralised state. As has been noted many times, power devolved is power retained. The current situation is also, in part because of this centralisation of power, and in part due to the rather haphazard and ad hoc way in which devolution had developed, a very unstable settlement. This is the case both in relation to devolved and non devolved powers.

The current situation in relation to devolved powers

1. Constitutional issues
As all three devolved parliaments/assemblies are the result of Acts of the UK Parliament, they can all be amended or even abolished by another Act of the UK Parliament. While this extreme, abolition, may be regarded as unlikely, its possibility is a clear demonstration of the fact that final power remains with Westminster. It is also the case that only the UK Parliament can legislate changes to the current settlements. Whatever consensus there may be in Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland for additional powers, the final say still depends on the approval of Westminster.

This combination of power retained and uncertainty has been compounded by the lack of a corresponding devolution settlement for England. Thus Westminster remains a most confusing miss mash of powers and responsibilities. The UK Parliament and government exercises power over at least four discrete geographical areas: 1. for the whole of the UK e.g. defence and foreign affairs, 2, sometimes for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 3, sometimes for England and Wales, and 4. sometimes just for England. In addition the UK Parliament effectively acts as the government of Scotland when it has sole power to set the level of the block grant for the Scottish Parliament. The UK Parliaments acts in a similar way as the government of Wales and the government of Northern Ireland when it sets their block grants.

This lack of clarity about the precise role and powers of Westminster can also be seen in the difficulties that all UK parties have had in relation to English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). That EVEL has become an issue is itself a direct consequence of the failure to create a devolved English Parliament.

2. Finance
The concentration of powers at Westminster also applies to how the three devolved parliaments/assemblies are financed. The Scottish Parliament, like the other two devolved administrations, has operational and policy making powers over the various devolved areas – education, the NHS etc. However the Scottish Parliament has only limited powers over its revenues. That this is due to change in 2016, with the implementation of the latest changes decided at Westminster is clear evidence that the current situation regarding finances is unsatisfactory. Further evidence of this is that all three UK parties made the devolution of further revenue raising powers to the Scottish Parliament a key part of their campaign during the recent referendum.

The prime reason for this dissatisfaction with the current situation is that reliance on another body for finance means that the Scottish Parliament is not fully in control of all aspects of the devolved matters. Even with the planned changes for 2016 and the published proposals from the UK parties for further tax raising powers Westminster will remain in control of most of the Scottish Parliament’s budget.

This is a matter of concern both in terms of democracy and good governance. That a Westminster government with little or no mandate over devolved matters has the power to alter the block grant is profoundly undemocratic. The practice of good governance is enhanced when the body that has legislative powers for policy and spending also has the responsibility and powers to raise the monies to be spent. The lack of this key power over revenues is a disincentive to good governance and a continuing source of friction between the devolved parliaments/assemblies and Westminster.

The current situation in relation to non devolved powers

The history of devolution in the UK is one of a succession of ad hoc decisions by the UK parliament. Beginning with the demand for Home Rule for Ireland. A demand which Westminster failed to respond to adequately. In each successive case Westminster has re-acted to pressure from one or other of the three peripheral nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the history of each of these nations within the UK has been different, the Westminster response has also been different. In the case of Scotland this meant that devolution was essentially limited to giving the Scottish Parliament control over the matters that already had administrative devolution. At no stage in this process has there been any serious attempt by Westminster to to develop a coherent constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK. Such an exercise would inevitably include considering the powers that remain the exclusive preserve of Westminster. This is further confirmation that the UK remains a very centralised state when it comes to the exercise of power. To secure a stable and lasting devolution settlement for all of the UK will require all parties to re-examine the range of reserved powers, to determine which can be devolved.

This over centralisation of power at Westminster has had serious economic consequences for all parts of the UK. All UK governments have found it very hard, if not impossible, to govern in the interests of all parts of the UK. The latest recession – the deepest and longest lasting in modern times – is but the most recent example of this. The south east of England, including London seems to be the area that has most benefitted from Westminster policies. London and its environs seems to inevitably dominate the policies of all UK governments. With little in the way of economic and social levers available to other parts of the country this has resulted in a very uneven and unequal economy.

Conclusion

The UK still suffers from an over centralisation of power. The establishment of parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has alleviated this over centralisation, though only in part. Westminster remains the supreme and in many cases the only source of power. The failure to find a devolution settlement for England leaves the current situation in a state of seemingly permanent flux. The failure to give the devolved parliaments/assemblies sufficient tax raising powers to cover their spending means there remains a lack of democratic accountability at the heart of the current devolution situation.

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