KEir Hardie’s first manifesto for the Scottish Labor Party had three main aims: self-government, a minimum wage and temperance. More than a century later, New Labor liked to point out that Tony Blair had delivered on the first two.
And so it did, although in other respects the modern Scottish Labor Party has been trapped ever since. This week’s long-awaited report on what decentralization might look like in the event of no vote, titled Powers for a purpose, speaks to the party’s historical provenance in this way. . “For over 100 years, the Labor Party has led the argument for Scottish devolution within the union.” The problem is, that’s only half true. After pushing back self-government for half a century, the pledge lapsed until the mid-1970s, and it was only after fighting Margaret Thatcher for a decade that Labor produced a credible plan for a decentralized parliament.
But the proposals unveiled this week seem timid by comparison.
After previously indicating that she would delegate income tax “in full”, she instead offered to transfer “three quarters of the basic rate of income tax and the possibility of increasing (but not lower) the higher rates”.
It looked very much like a compromise designed to satisfy opponents of further decentralization. Since last April, they have wasted little energy in making clear their opposition to trying to be “more nationalist than nationalist”. Given the obvious setbacks on some points, it looks like they won.
But even if these proposals make it to the Scottish Labor Party conference in Perth this weekend, they are unlikely to find much favor among fellow trade unionists or key opinion makers.
Some Scottish Liberal Democrats and Conservatives I have spoken to see Labor’s recommendations as a short-term fix rather than a rigorous examination of the case for a reformed union. Furthermore, they fear it will validate the SNP’s accusation of bottlenecking tomorrow, while making a cross-party ‘more powers’ bid a little more difficult ahead of the September referendum.
Labor sources understandably reject these accusations, arguing instead that they have produced a coherent answer to the question posed in the report: “How can we strengthen the current constitutional arrangements to better serve Scotland…and at the same time strengthen the UK? But the difficulty is, as Alistair Darling pointed out last year, that most of the “low-hanging fruits” of decentralization have already been picked.
Short of supporting independence or federalism, nothing Labor produced could have lived up to expectations. But that’s partly his fault, because not only did he grant the Scottish parliament tax variation powers in 1999, but he went even further in the 2009 Calman commission; and once you transfer 50% of the income tax, it’s hard to object to full delegation.
But Labor may see the issue as more ideological than constitutional. Thus, many of the proposed powers are politically contrived: with the control of the additional rate, it would tax the wealthy; with the control of housing assistance, it would remove the bedroom tax, etc. As was the case with the Scottish government’s white paper last November, Powers with a purpose is like a manifesto.
There is a sense that Labor thinks appealing to commentary is not the same as winning over undecided voters, most of whom will glean a general sense that the party wants to delegate more power. Here they might be right. Better Together seems content that Labour’s proposals give them enough work over the next six months.
Would Hardie turn in his grave? He was, of course, an idealist who did not have to worry about turning his socialist vision into practical reality. Scotland, not to mention the Scottish Labor Party, has changed significantly since it drafted its self-government pledge 126 years ago.