Devolution Commission reflections: Scottish Labour Party, Powers for a Purpose

Published: 19 March 2014

Scottish Labour’s claim in the first paragraph of its latest paper, to have led the argument for devolution for over 100 years takes a historical liberty. Its unionist and home rule components have fought it out since the 1920s. Devolution in 1999 allowed Labour to take ownership of the issue, but since then it has tended to a defensive posture, conceding further powers reluctantly in the face of SNP competition, and too late to have an impact.

The core of the present paper is ‘welfare unionism’, the idea that the welfare state, social solidarity and the United Kingdom are intrinsically linked. This is essentially where the party has been since 1945. Welfare did indeed reinforce union although the party reveals a lot by celebrating that ‘ we rid ourselves of the Scottish poor law and replaced it by the UK welfare state’ (my emphasis). What readers might be looking for in this paper is a rigorous argument for a new division of power, or a coherent defence of the existing welfare union.

The paper’s persistent idea that redistribution is assured by the UK while service provision can be devolved is misleading, as are some of the assumptions about how the present system operates. Nearly all public services are redistributive, including health and education, which are already devolved.  A ‘universal right to health care across the UK’ is not entrenched anywhere, while health services are diverging significantly. There is not, contrary to what the paper says, ‘a UK system of equalising resources’. The Barnett Formula, which Labour proposes to keep, is not an equalisation mechanism but distributes increases or decreases in relevant expenditure on a population basis. The idea of linking the amount of transfers to the level of Scottish spending on health and education (on the ground that these are UK social rights) is puzzling, unless it is proposed to ring-fence these amounts to spending on those services.

The tax proposals are the minimum envisaged. Increasing the margin of discretion on the standard rate of income tax is a retreat on earlier draft proposals. The ability to raise (but not cut) the higher rate presumably follows Ed Balls’ recent commitment to restoring the 50 pence rate.

The idea of strengthening local government is positive but it does often look like a way of by-passing the Scottish Parliament. Local government will be given constitutional protection, which could only come from Westminster, which would be a retreat on the current powers of Holyrood, which currently controls the whole structure. The Work Programme will be administered by local government with the Scottish Parliament having only ‘strategic oversight’ (an undefined term). The Crown Estate will be managed by local government.

There are interesting ideas here on Housing Benefit, Health and Safety and Attendance Allowance but they are not tied into a broader project that would allow Scotland to develop its own economic and social project within the broader framework of the United Kingdom.

The idea of entrenching the Scottish Parliament constitutionally is sound but I am at a loss to understand how a ‘statutory obligation to cooperate in the public interest’ could be enforced. Either it implies that the courts get involved in matters of political judgement or it is just an empty phrase.

This is a useful bag of ideas but has yet to be woven into a consistent story of how the union will develop in the face of the social, economic and political challenges of the future.

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