Labour drops the devo ball – and gives the Tories an opening

Labour drops the devo ball – and gives the Tories an opening

by Andy Maciver
article from Tuesday 18, March, 2014

IT IS DIFFICULT for those in favour of a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK to be positive about the long-awaited but incredibly timid report of Labour's devolution commission. It is the culmination of a process which, in the cold light of day, looks disjointed and strategically inept. Although the Scottish Labour MPs will be dancing in the Commons bar, an equally vigorous celebration will be ongoing at SNP HQ. The Yes campaign feared radical unionism and the effect it would have on persuadable patriots, but none of it is evident in this Labour document.

Over the last year, since the publication of the commission’s interim report, Labour has dug its own grave by over-promising yet, now, under-delivering. 

Let us not forget the thrust of the interim report, which said “a strong case exists for devolving income tax in full, and we are minded to do so”. It also said “there is a strong case that Air Passenger Duty should be devolved”, “vehicle excise duty should be devolved”, and there is a case for devolving inheritance tax and capital gains tax. It said devolving National Insurance was open to question. Indeed it was bold enough to suggest that “only devolving VAT can be completely ruled out”.

Contrast that agenda with the final outcome – an extension of the Scotland Act income tax proposal and nothing else. It’s a remarkable anti-climax (and I seriously question the creativity of the maths which allow it to be claimed that 40% of Holyrood spending will be raised in Scotland).

It's rather like Johann Lamont has booked a round-the-world trip against the wishes of some of her (London-based) family, packed her bags and gone to the airport, but ultimately decided not to get on the plane.

Johann Lamont, last Sunday, attempting to work with the oh-so-lazily-used devo max phrase rather than challenging it, said that she would deliver “the maximum devolution Scotland would want”. The party’s report is not that; not by a long shot.

There is no disguising the timidity of the tax proposals, and the Yes campaign has wasted no time in reiterating that point. Labour’s proposals, including the “castle tax”, the inevitable devolution of housing benefit in order to reverse the cut in the spare room subsidy and the general ‘squeeze the rich’ rhetoric has the correct strategic goal – to shore up its support amongst the Labour left, particularly in west-central Scotland. These voters are likely to decide the referendum, and there is significant evidence that they are susceptible to a move from No, to don’t know, to Yes.

In selling today’s proposals, Labour will probably push a few pencils back into the ‘No’ box. However, it will push others – hopeful of progress but now feeling flat – in the opposite direction. Unquestionably, the proposals will not maximise the support from this vital cohort of voters, and indeed I would expect six months of the Yes Campaign telling Labour voters that their party’s proposals are not enough to protect them against the nasty Tories. The only way to save your children is to vote yes, etc etc. 

In a rather perverse way, Labour’s timidity may actually have the unintended consequence of increasing the likelihood of radical change after the referendum, because it increases the likelihood of a strong Yes result (above 40%) and a subsequent negotiation by the SNP Scottish Government to acquire substantially more powers.

Labour has horribly misjudged this process. The former ‘party of devolution’ will not regain its title, and one can only assume that chaotic in-fighting and self-interest has trumped national interest. That is sad. But where there is chaos there is opportunity, and in that respect one person who should now feel the hand of history on her shoulder is Ruth Davidson. With the Lib Dems emaciated, and Labour evacuated, the field is empty, the goal is open, and the Tories have the ball.

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