What is Scottish Labour for?

As Scottish Labour regroups after the General Election, the temptation will be to focus on organisation and structure. Important though these are, the real question the party has to ask itself is – what is Scottish Labour for?

After the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish Labour held reviews that gave detailed consideration to internal structure, election organisation etc. Tucked away in both reviews was a mention of political purpose and strategy, but it was left to another time, it was regarded as of secondary importance. No political party has a divine right to exist; it has to have a clear political purpose. Scottish Labour needs clarity over its key purpose and then needs to find a way of expressing it in language activists can explain and voters can understand.

For me the answer is, it’s inequality stupid.

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. This is of course the core message of the ground-breaking study by Wilkinson and Pickett, ‘The Spirit Level’. More recently the EU’s official think tank on life at work said: “…the level of wage inequality in the EU as a whole is below that of the US. However, wage inequality in the UK, the EU’s most unequal country, is now above that of the US average. The UK, Latvia and Portugal are the three most unequal countries in Europe“. They also found that since 2008 increasing inequality has been driven by in developments within the UK. Danny Dorling’s recent myth busting in the Guardian reinforces the point.

It has been argued that Ed Miliband’s focus on inequality was one of the failings of the UK Labour election strategy. However, while there clearly were failings, tackling inequality wasn’t one of them. Even Tony Blair recognised, he was “absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality”. The problem was that Miliband’s approach was too timid (e.g. the £8 NMW) and presented badly using language that didn’t include a big enough coalition. The trick is to explain the damage inequality inflicts on everyone, not just the poor and disadvantaged.

Having explained what is wrong with our society, Scottish Labour has to show how it will fix it. That requires some big and really bold policies, such as – childcare free at the point of use; building 10,000 social houses every year; raising real wages and tackling insecure work. There are many more examples in the Red Paper on Scotland 2014. The key is ‘big and bold’, policies that are inspirational. Not, as the current Scottish Labour policy consultation paper does, offer the sparkling promise of multiple reviews!

This is also about political positioning. Scottish Labour can only win on the left of the SNP – the Tories exist to stretch the SNP on the right. The SNP is a very broad coalition, which is why they duck difficult issues like redistribution and retreat into process. One social attitude survey question asked voters of each party, ‘do you support abolishing inheritance tax?’. SNP voters were more in favour of this proposition than Tory voters. There is a lot of SNP rhetoric about the big issues facing Scotland, lots of reviews and consultation, but less real action.

That is not to encourage Scottish Labour into more tribal rants against the SNP. Instead, Scottish Labour should acknowledge the positive actions, park the past and move on. Telling voters they made a big mistake is never a smart political strategy. For the future, it’s about Scottish Labour’s positive vision and how the broad SNP coalition is holding Scotland back.

That leaves how Scottish Labour addresses constitutional change. It is often argued that Scotland, and other parts of Europe, even England, is being subsumed in tide of nationalism. The evidence for this is actually very weak. A longitudinal study undertaken at the LSE shows that the number of people in Scotland identifying as more Scottish than British has significantly declined since 1999, while those identifying as equally Scottish and British is increasing. This chart illustrates the shift.


This doesn’t mean that Scottish voters don’t want constitutional change. They overwhelmingly want greater devolution, which is why the trade unions in particular argued for a second question in the referendum. Scottish Labour should not be a unionist party – it is a party that sees the UK as a means to an end, not an end in itself. This means being positive about greater devolution based on the principle of subsidiarity. Ironically, this is a task made easier by the loss of MPs, shifting the Party’s political focus from Westminster to Holyrood.

Another feature of Scottish Labour’s new distinctive offer has to be devolution to local government and communities. This is again about political positioning, making the contrast with the SNP’s centralism. This requires a new approach to public service reform based on local democracy and integrated local delivery in actual communities of place. However, that means the Party has to have a political strategy for local government. Too many Labour councillors are passive administrators, rather than agents of radical political change.

In short, Scottish Labour has to break away from its establishment mentality and become insurgents again. A party of ideas, prepared to take radical and practical action on the inequality that blights so much of Scotland, damages our economy and takes everyone else down with it.

Scottish Labour Devolution Commission

Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission and the accompanying policy paper provides what has been long missing from the No campaign – a fresh vision for devolution. A vision that provides new powers, but just as important, a start towards setting the agenda for what Scottish Labour would do with new powers – powers for a purpose.

Two thirds of voters want more responsibility for Holyrood and that includes many of those who might vote for independence in September. It would be a disaster for the No campaign if it became a vote between independence and the status quo. However, a failure to reflect the views of most Scots on more devolved powers will be equally damaging if Scotland does vote No in September.

Those who have condemned the report generally support independence and so will never be satisfied with anything short of that. Others, like Reform Scotland, produced proposals that are either unworkable or addressing a right wing agenda that Scottish Labour wants no part of.

Probably the most important recommendations cover devolving additional powers that match existing responsibilities, enabling joined up policy approaches. This includes responsibility for work programmes, housing benefit and attendance allowance. The latter will resolve the loss of revenue to Scotland from free care for the elderly and enable us to address the challenges of an ageing population. Housing benefit would allow the Scottish Parliament to abolish the Bedroom Tax.

Equally welcome are proposals which would allow Holyrood to run the domestic rail network and put a much needed focus on health and safety. The administration of Employment Tribunals would enable us to address the shocking 79% reduction in cases since the introduction of fees that denies justice to thousands. Consumer advocacy is also a sensible devolution as is the enforcement of equalities legislation, something that is being undermined by the current UK government. Moving skills and careers from a poorly performing quango to local authorities is precisely what UNISON recommended at the last reorganisation.

There are other powers that UNISON will continue to argue could be devolved under the principle of subsidiarity and to enable joined up government, including energy, some immigration powers and public service pensions. However, strengthening the Calman proposal on partnership working between parliaments where there is shared responsibility is a sensible move.

Scottish Labour has rightly opposed full fiscal autonomy, particularly business taxes that will lead to a race to the bottom that will only benefit tax dodging companies. Assigning taxes such as VAT is pointless if parliament has no control over the level of tax. Raising 40% of the budget from own resources is not insignificant, particularly when you look at sub-central governments across Europe and the wider OECD. It will put Scotland higher than the Nordic nations, Germany and the USA.

The weakest part of the paper is around income tax. Varying the top rate is a neat political point, but the Scottish Parliament should have the power to adjust thresholds to better reflect the income spread in Scotland. Partly because we should use tax to redistribute income, but also to protect Scotland from the Tory plan to dismantle public services in England.

There is rightly a big recognition in the report of the constitutional role of local government. Devolution should not stop at Holyrood and the Scottish Government has presided over a growing centralisation of public services. ‘Scotland is our local’ may be the view of some in the SNP, but it should not be the approach followed by Scottish Labour. Some of the proposals in the paper need a bit more work, not to say clarity. However, that is rightly the role of the Scottish Policy Forum as they develop a new policy programme, informing the manifesto for 2016.

The report presented to today’s Scottish Labour Conference doesn’t go as far with new powers as I would go. It’s a similar compromise to the White Paper or any other political party proposals. However, it is much more radical on non-fiscal powers than many commentators have noticed. Of course, we should also remember that powers are only part of the story. There has to be the political vision to use them to create a fairer Scotland. The ‘Together We Can’ paper is a good start on that political journey. It’s even become known as the ‘Red Paper’ and has many of our ideas in it.

If nothing else, we now have a positive case for further devolution to measure against the case for independence.