Kezia Dugdale's decision to drop her rebate diverted attention from the SNP's tax plan
Focus has moved from the SNP’s hypocrisy to Labour’s competency. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason, Labour announced the £100 rebate plan was now binned
At the SSP’s 2003 manifesto launch at the Glasgow Film Theatre, under bombardment from journalists firing questions about how much tax Scots would pay under the party’s plans to utilise the parliament’s meagre tax powers, Carolyn Leckie eventually screamed from the platform: “I’m not Carol bloody Vorderman and this is not Countdown, I don’t know how much exactly will be paid but we are clear we want the rich to pay more.”
It was loud and clear, and from the socialists exactly what you’d expect. Leckie’s outburst brought back some welcome political rhetoric after the improbable sight of Colin Fox, albeit a qualified accountant, at a socialist party press launch desperately tapping numbers into a calculator as the wannabe MSP attempted to work out the tax increases for well-off Scots.
The SSP’s tax commitment may have done them no favours at the ballot box but it was honest. No ifs, no buts. If you wanted better public services and to close the inequality gap then you needed to hammer the rich. And you didn’t mince your words.
The party pointed out that Britain had a top tax rate of just 40 per cent but also had some of the most deteriorating public services in the EU and a poverty rate of 30 per cent. In contrast, they argued, Denmark, a small independent nation the size of Scotland, had a 63 per cent top rate of taxation, a child poverty rate of just five per cent and some of the most impressive public services in the world.
Their solution was simple. Taxation.
Thirteen years on and with the ability to now raise or lower income tax, the questions of how to tackle inequality may remain the same but the nuanced answers from our party leaders seem far removed from the simplistic view of the SSP.
And this week that debate about tax should have been a defining one for Scottish Labour. For once, they were making some dents in the SNP’s seemingly impenetrable armour.
Faced with a choice of raising tax to 50p for Scotland’s highest earners, Nicola Sturgeon, who spent the general election passionately endorsing the rise for the UK, balked at imposing it on Scots.
And while the economics were probably right, she failed on the principle, didn’t well enough articulate the vision, or properly play the politics. The stench of hypocrisy rose.
Labour, in contrast, looked the part. Kezia Dugdale had previously announced a plan to fight austerity by putting a penny on tax whilst providing a £100 rebate to cushion the lowest earners. She would then raise the 45p rate of tax to 50p next year when the powers were transferred. This was, she said, the socialist way. Her way.
She then had ridden out the criticism that her rebate scheme wouldn’t work. The Scottish Parliament had passed the SNP’s budget rejecting her penny plan and the SNP’s own tax proposals – to literally do nothing – were coming under increasing scrutiny with the accusation that their left-wing claims were falling apart.
Sturgeon, perhaps realising the pressure she was under, said in a live debate that she supported the 50p rate in principle and would have her Council of Economic Advisers review the situation every year. Business leaders who thrive on certainty felt a shiver down their spine. The opposition smelt a u-turn and the media followed suit.
Dugdale didn’t need to do any more. She didn’t need to revisit her rebate plan – she was never going to have to put it into practice. Instead, she could have sat back and watched the SNP’s credibility on tax fall apart.
And that is what is so confounding.
By the middle of this week, the focus moved from the SNP’s hypocrisy and back to Labour’s competency. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason, Labour announced the £100 rebate plan was now binned.
And worse. That the rebate was no longer required because a Tory Chancellor was to raise the personal allowance and had relieved Labour of having to protect the poor.
This bewildering revelation by Dugdale’s party forced the Daily Record – a newspaper not unsympathetic to Labour’s cause – to accuse it of betraying its roots.
“It beggars belief that Scottish Labour’s official tax position is that they don’t need to help the poor because George Osborne is already doing a good enough job,” the paper’s leader column said.
There is some sympathy in these parts for Dugdale given her lack of experience, the dearth of party resource, and the fact that in opposition you are fighting a party of government that has had all the support of the civil service and years of experience of administration, providing it with a backbone of intelligence to arm the fight.
But Dugdale leads a party in Scotland with two former Labour chancellors of the exchequer living within a 20 to 30-mile radius of her home, two former first ministers, four previous party leaders and a wealth of redundant MPs and MSPs to aid her. So where is the expertise, the guidance, the inside track, that can help her avoid any own goals?
She has no slack, no room for manoeuvre, but the week has ended with Dugdale compounding her problems over the tax rebate by backtracking on the named person legislation and emphatically stating her manifesto will guarantee no second referendum, despite previous promises that her supporters could campaign for either side, should one be called.
The Scottish Labour Party is fighting for its political life – it can’t afford to isolate any areas of support – and yet right now, it’s all starting to smack of the Iain Gray ‘carry a knife go to jail’, hide in a Subway, need for a relaunch disaster that was their 2011 campaign.
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