Going to the highest bidder

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 17 March 2014 in Editor's note

Scots had a choice in what they considered the left, but you couldn’t put a fag paper between the policies of Labour and the SNP at the last Scottish elections. 

At an independence debate that I chaired in London last week, a woman asked me afterwards what had happened to Labour in Scotland. It was a fair enough question based on what she had just heard but it also revealed so much about what we could loosely refer to as the politics of the left and how they have diverged north and south of the border.

The woman was one of an audience of 200 or so at King’s College on the Strand, a short walk from Whitehall and where I am sure most of them believe power really lies. They were a metropolitan bunch; a mixture of academics, politicos, wonks and even someone from the Office of Tony Blair.

They listened to Stewart Hosie MP, the SNP’s finance spokesman and Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international development argue about the rights and wrongs of independence and then told me afterwards they had been surprised by the political consensus around areas of social justice, welfare, poverty and redistribution of wealth. This was an audience unused to the Scottish way of things. They were used to the binary politics of Labour and the Conservatives, of yes, a Tory party fighting for ground with UKIP, but in the main, a debate of fairly clear lines on a political spectrum. And they were taken aback by the similarities between two parties who were scrapping over sovereignty but so little else. I found myself having to explain that this was hardly surprising. That Scots had a choice when it came to a vote for what they considered the left. That you couldn’t put a fag paper between the policies of Labour and the SNP at the last Scottish elections but in the end, it was won on leadership, record, credibility and who best stood up for Scotland. For a majority that was Salmond and the SNP.

I asked them why should they have understood the nuances of the Scottish political landscape when even Labour in Scotland had been too slow to recognise how things had changed. That regardless of what Labour says about the SNP, that to the voter, if it looks like the left, talks like the left and does of the left, it is of the left never mind ideological anomalies like a desire to reduce corporation tax or an unsavoury attraction to discredited press-barons or a blindingly obvious gap between what it provides and what it can afford. That Scottish Labour, despite its own recent history and flirtation with all things ‘New’, has hung on to some antiquated and false belief that they are the only true party of the people. And that despite the evidence of a trouncing at two elections and the SNP now heading for a record nine years in office, that they have a monopoly on areas of inequality and fighting for the common good. That Johann Lamont is the last standing socialist and that Salmond is a chancer. Those words are not enough to change people’s minds – look at the polls – and the referendum won’t change that regardless of the result. This isn’t just about Scottish Labour being on the winning side of a referendum, it is about fighting for its political survival.

Next week Johann Lamont will unveil Scottish Labour’s devolution offer and what should be a seminal moment in the independence debate will have passed. This is theirs to lose.

If Lamont unveils a plan so radical that she pulls the rug from under the feet of the SNP then all well and good; we keep the Union, we keep the pound and we also keep Salmond in Bute House.

We are now just six months away from the referendum and having started this process with all three main UK parties denying Scots the opportunity to have a third question on the ballot paper for fear of offering Salmond a consolation prize, they are now guaranteeing him one anyway.

And that presents a whole series of ‘what ifs’. For while this is a vote for Scots to have, it is fast becoming a debate for the whole country to be in. If the parties are all now so minded to promise more powers for Scotland then it will be incumbent on them to guarantee that in their manifestos for the 2015 general election, for that is how the powers will be transferred. Ed Miliband has already told Holyrood that he will and the others will surely follow suit. What then will be the offer to the rest of the UK? There is a political reality here that means, perhaps paradoxically, a rejection of independence will create enormous expectations of further major devolution for the rest of the UK.

The debate last week ended for me with a woman telling me that Scots should remember that in the event of ‘No’ they will have had their chance and will have to accept the terms that the rest of the UK set for us. She even threw in the West Lothian Question.

And with the SNP still in government in Scotland until 2016 how will Scottish Labour position itself for the Scottish parliamentary elections in terms of standing up for Scotland if say, it is a ‘No’ vote, Miliband is in No 10, Labour delivers a promised transfer of 40 per cent of taxation powers to the Scottish Parliament and Johann Lamont’s so-called cuts commission recommends change?

Will Lamont be brave enough to stand on a platform of raising taxes to pay for the much coveted public services that Scots enjoy or will she start limiting who gets what? And Salmond too would need to show his mettle. He has never used the tax-varying powers that already exist, preferring instead the comfort zone of a block grant provided by Westminster. This is going to be a time for hard politics; difficult decisions, and a chance to show the real political differences between Labour and the SNP, no matter what the vote on September 18th. And for a parliament so far populated by politicians who have never experienced the realities of raising funds and not just spending them, perhaps now it is time for Labour’s big guns to not just talk the talk but also walk the walk. Status quo, anyone?

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