Tag Archives: Labour party in Scotland

Labour’s 1p tax is not anti austerity

Labour’s latest wheeze, to increase income tax for Scots by 1p, has attracted a fair bit of attention. It has not been universally welcomed and I am as yet unpersuaded. Others have gone into some detail about the proposal and how it might work, or not work as the case may be. I want to raise some fundamental objections to the proposal.

Contrary to what many from Labour have said, this is not an anti austerity measure. Cuts to public services are not the only way to impose austerity. Austerity is essentially taking money out of the economy.  Cutting the income of workers has the same effect. And raising income tax does precisely this – reduce the income of working people. It does not raise the amount of disposable money in the economy. If this money is then given to local authorities, there has been no effective change in the economy at all. It is simply a variation of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Now you may think this is a just way to preserve public services, but it has nothing to do with challenging, let alone reversing austerity.

Missing from Labour’s announcement is any mention of who is responsible for the austerity and the cuts to public services – the Tory government at Westminster. As a Unionist party, Labour clearly does not want to blame the Westminster government too much, as it would raise some awkward questions as to why Labour supported the Union. Much easier to blame it all on the SNP, ably supported by the media.

Effectively what Labour are proposing is that Scottish workers pay extra tax in order to ameliorate the cuts imposed by Westminster. Remember this extra tax is only to try and reverse the Tory cuts from Westminster. It is not to raise additional money for public services. As working people in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, have already suffered years of frozen or stagnating wages, it is far from clear why we should be further burdened.

My final objection is that this proposal, if enacted, will set a very, very dangerous precedent. The one person rubbing his hands with glee about this will be George Osborne. If this goes through and Scots are willing to pay more just to offset Tory cuts, then why would he not make further cuts to the block grant? He will have had confirmation that his Unionist pals in Labour are only too willing to pass on the bill to working people in Scotland.

These cuts come from Westminster and any opposition to them must include opposition to Westminster.  Only independence ensures that we will have austerity imposed on us from elsewhere. Weren’t we supposed to be Better Together? Seems very much like Worse Together.

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Will the SNP 56 change England?

The return of 56 SNP MPs to Westminster has generated much comment on just what they can hope to achieve. 56 is a lot in Scottish terms, but still a small minority in the grand scheme of things at Westminster, where they make up less than 11% of the total. Most, if not all, the focus has therefore been on what they can achieve for Scotland. Or more accurately what they will not be able to achieve for Scotland – stopping Trident, reversing austerity etc. However there is another aspect to the increased presence of SNP MPs at Westminster – their potential to change attitudes and perceptions in England.

56 MPs, though a minority, nevertheless represents a quite significant visual presence in the chamber. Particularly if they sit together and turn out in numbers to support each other, as seems to be the case. Such a presence is difficult for the media to ignore completely. The print media will probably try to, unless it is to highlight something they regard as improper behaviour, clapping for example. However the broadcasters will find it more difficult to ignore this presence. Angus Robertson will get two questions every week at PMQs, while there will be SNP members on every select committee. TV and radio will find it very difficult to simply not show this in their reports. The SNP should also find that one of their number appears much more frequently on Question Time and other discussion programmes.

The question then is what effect might this increased visibility have on people and politics in England? The Tories are unlikely to be impressed by anything the SNP do or say, so they can be discounted. Their voters may react differently and more positively, but in the end Tory voters or UKIP voters are most unlikely to change their votes due to anything the SNP say or do. This is not the case though with the Labour party or their voters and potential voters. The same may be true for the remaining and potential LibDem voters, assuming they can ever recover. I suspect that it will be the broad swathe of Labour and LibDem voters who are most likely to be impressed and surprised by the increased coverage of the SNP.  What might impress them?

The first surprise will probably be that the new Scottish contingent looks and sounds a lot like them. A variety of Scottish accents will be heard, but all will speak in ways that will be clear and understandable to everyone across the UK. Taken as a whole, the SNP group is probably more reflective of the country than either Labour or the Tories. They represent a better  balance in terms of gender, age and previous experience.

A particular and in many ways the stand-out example of this is that there are no Oxbridge graduates in the SNP group. Unlike Labour, which seems to have been taken over by an Oxbridge and London elite, at least at its leadership level. Many Labour members and voters may begin to ask why the Labour party has allowed itself to become dominated by such a narrow and restricted base.

The most important difference of course will be in the political message that the 56 will articulate with clarity and passion. They will challenge the Westminster consensus on austerity, immigrant bashing, punishing the poorest etc. They will also vigorously oppose the attempt to revoke the Human Rights Act. In general they will put forward a more positive alternative. Not based on the narrow individual aspiration that Labour seems to have borrowed from the Tories. But a positive vision that is more collective, people working together to improve the public services that benefit all of us. Dare I say it, a kind of pooling and sharing of resources. But one that involves the rich and better off contributing a bit more, and finally challenging the damaging dominance of the UK economy by an out of control financial sector, that only seems to benefit London. And only some Londoners at that.

While the SNP will of course continue to present the case for independence, during the life of this parliament they will also argue for more powers for Scotland within the UK. This too is likely to strike a chord with many people not just in England, but in Wales and Northern Ireland too. For greater powers for Scotland can be presented in the context of fundamentally changing the UK into a Federal country.

There is thus every possibility that many Labour voters will begin to ask why the Labour party is not more like the SNP in terms of its progressive and challenging policies. This will take time and any change will come too late for the current Labour leadership contest. But five years is a long time in politics and if the SNP get the coverage their numbers merit, their presence and actions can only be a positive force in England.

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Scottish Labour still don’t get it!

Congratulations to Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale, the new leadership duo for the good ship Scottish Labour. Though judging by their first pronouncements they still seem very much stuck in the past. For a party that continues to aver that constitutional change for Scotland is a waste of time and irrelevant to good government, it is rather odd that the duo’s first commitment is to change the constitution of the Labour party in Scotland.

By referring to this as Scottish Labour’s Clause 4 moment, Murphy, unintentionally I presume, merely reminds us that repetitions are more of the farcical nature than anything else. The actual proposals, though dressed up as five principles, amount to very little that is new and nothing that could remotely be called profound.

Scottish Labour will henceforth be a patriotic party, patriotic for Scotland that is, will put Scotland first and will have total control over policy making for all devolved matters. Wow, if this mean anything then it is an admission that previously Scottish Labour was not a party for patriotic Scots, that Scottish Labour did not put Scotland first and that Scottish Labour did not have full say over policy in devolved matters. Quite an admission and a recognition that Johann Lamont was right in her condemnation of London control.

Yet it seems that is not what either Murphy or Dugdale actually mean. Both were at pains to point out that these changes are just to appearances. It seems that the Scottish public were under the false impression that Labour in Scotland was just a branch office under the control of UK Labour. Silly us! How could anyone imagine or even suggest such a thing. Well, apart from Johann Lamont, who is now history.

But just to be sure that no-one can make this false accusation again, Murphy and Dugdale are to change the constitution. Put in all kinds of nice sounding words and emphasise just how Scottish, and patriotic Scottish, Labour is now. Or always was. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. When you have to put down in writing just how pro Scottish you are, bells should start ringing. People will only be convinced by deeds, not constitutional changes.

When it comes to deeds, for a political party this means, at least for opposition parties, coming up with policies that put Scotland first. And judging by their initial interviews, neither Murphy nor Dugdale have anything to say as to just what these different, tailored for Scotland policies might be.  Kezia Dugdale in particular seemed unable to come up with anything other than education, when asked by a radio Scotland reporter. Now education has always been separate in Scotland, so if this is an example of the brand new Scotland first that Labour are promising it is unlikely to amount to much. It was also noticeable that Dugdale in that interview was so much happier attacking the SNP than outlining anything positive from Labour.

Despite being pressed on policy differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Dugdale came up with nothing. Instead she praised the unity of Labour across the UK. Again and again she banged on that only Labour could save Scotland from the Tories and that voting SNP was very bad. Not a very inspiring start. Especially as voting Labour in 2010 still led to a Tory led government!

There is also the small matter of restricting Scottish Labour’s policy remit to devolved matters only.  Who decides how Scottish Labour MPs will vote on Trident for example? Or on immigration policy for instance? It seems that Scottish Labour MPs will just be lobby fodder for UK Labour as per usual. Nothing it seems is going to change in this respect.

Finally the nagging question of why now? We have had a Scottish Parliament for 15 years now. And Murphy and Dugdale have only just realised that there might be a problem with the Labour party? We have got the message intones Kezia Dugdale. Just a small matter of 15 years too late. Assuming that the new, New Labour party, Scottish branch, has really changed.

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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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