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Owl's well that ends well

Owl's well that ends well

Like most people, I am unashamedly pro-owl. I love the little rascals.

Labour clearly know this and yesterday, in a clever attempt to tap into the latent owl-vote, announced a new policy via Twitter, promising an owl for everyone. At last – a main stream party offering the people what they want. The people want owls.

But the announcement was not the only one they made, with Ed Miliband promising to strip 18-21 year-olds of Jobseeker’s Allowance if they do not go on training courses.

Miliband says that if elected he will replace Jobseeker’s payments with a “youth allowance”, dependent on taking vocational training or education (this is currently impossible – with benefits rules prohibiting unemployed people from doing training courses while job hunting).

It would also be means tested, so that those from families which earn £42,000 per year would get nothing – affecting around 100,000 under 21s.

The move – basically an attempt to win over Daily Mail readers – is harder to understand in Scotland. The reaction from many was summed up by Unite, which accused Miliband of reverting to, “Tory rhetoric of sanction and punishment”.

It sounds like a Tory policy and there is already a party offering those.

It is also hard to imagine many members of Scottish Labour privately backing the plan. The move is problematic for the party in two respects.

One – Scottish Labour members are more likely than those in the south of England, who are competing with the Conservatives, to retain a strong belief in a system aimed at creating equality.

Access to the welfare system – exemplified by the safety net of Jobseeker’s – is still widely considered a basic right in Scotland and combating poverty is what motivates many Labour members to get out of bed in the morning (despite what their critics may say).

Basing the decision to restrict benefits based on a person’s age looks even worse – implying that 18-21 year-olds do not deserve the same treatment as their elders.

The second reason is more practical. The fact that Miliband has been forced to swerve to this position suggests he is flailing in the face of unpalatable poll results – with six in ten voters stating they do not think he would make a good prime minister.

This is an issue for Scottish Labour and also Better Together, since recent polling from Panelbase shows that 52 per cent of Scots would be more likely to vote for independence if faced with the prospect of another Tory-led Government.

If Miliband is doing badly, support for independence could rise.

This means Miliband’s performance has direct implications for the referendum, even if welfare was devolved after a No Vote, and it will be interesting to see how Scottish Labour react.

The policy would initially save £65m per year. Interestingly, according to a somewhat dubious estimate from the Daily Mail, the owl for all policy would cost around £5bn.

But sadly there will be no owls for us, with Labour later claiming that the message was the result of a Twitter hack.

The two announcements are obviously not comparable, but they do serve as a window into the trouble Labour is having in expressing what it really stands for. ‘Owls for all’ has a wonderful ring to it, while ‘benefits for some’ is not so nice.

And with the referendum debate increasingly focused on tackling inequality, Scottish Labour will be wishing it was the benefits cut and not the owls giveaway that stemmed from a hack.

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