LABOUR is being pulled apart trying to find a way to win the referendum debate, save the Union and regain power at Holyrood.
IT is an arresting image. Gordon Brown and Henry McLeish last weekend were taking some guests for a day trip to St Andrews. Pointing out that West Sands beach was the location for the famous Chariots of Fire race, the long-time political colleagues decided to play the fool, re-enacting the run themselves. In their suits.
McLeish and Brown go way back. After the death of Donald Dewar, the then Chancellor Brown ensured his fellow Fifer McLeish got the First Minister’s job over Jack McConnell, a Blair supporter. But these days, on the political racetrack, McLeish and Brown are very much running in different directions.
A few days after the St Andrews visit, the pair were in Edinburgh at separate events. Brown, first, gave the Donald Dewar lecture on the prospect of the independence referendum. It contained a firm defence of Britain’s “fiscal union” and the unitary state. A Scotland with fiscal autonomy, he went on, “means more taxes in Scotland”. In addition, there would be “regionally varied minimum wages, and a race to the bottom, with one unit trying to undercut the other”. It was a staunch defence of the status quo.
Over in another part of town, at the Book Festival, McLeish was putting a very different case.
Independence, McLeish said, might be the kind of “shock to the system” the country needed. The current Union, he added, with most tax levers at Westminster, “is an empty vehicle as far as offering me or my grandchildren a future which could be different from what I’m seeing that we’re moving into”. A reformed Union, where MSPs at the Scottish Parliament decide what level of tax people pay, was the answer to preserve a distinct Scottish agenda.
Crudely put, the two diverging views illustrate the two ends of the spectrum in the choice facing Scottish Labour over the coming few months. The party that once dominated Scottish politics, only to be usurped by Alex Salmond’s SNP, is at a crossroads. Last year’s devastating defeat at the hands of the Nationalists – when even Brown’s Kirkcaldy backyard fell to the SNP – rocked it to the core. The prospect of the independence referendum in 2014 now means Scottish Labour’s very survival is at stake.
Facing two ways – against the SNP at Edinburgh and the Con-Lib coalition at Westminster – somehow it now has to formulate a credible position on the future of devolution, which not only stakes out the ground to win the referendum battle in two years’ time, but also to leave it with the prospect of a return to power at Holyrood two years after that.
Brown and McLeish may be two of the more recognisable figures who are taking a view – but the person in charge is Johann Lamont, elected as the Scottish party’s first genuine leader in December last year. It is she who now faces a political marathon to try to take her fractious party and turn it back into an election-winning force. Can she ensure Team Labour is running in the same direction?
Brown and McLeish’s divergent comments last week on the future of Scotland come at the end of a year when the party’s vision for devolution has remained uncertain. By-elections, party reviews and then the election of a new leader meant it was the New Year before a response started to emerge. Into the vacuum, the heavyweights of the Labour Party have had plenty of say on what strategy should be adopted on the thorny issue of the constitution. In a series of speeches, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has argued that the party must be “open-minded” on handing more fiscal powers to Holyrood. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling, the de facto face of the pro-Union “Better Together” campaign stated he could see all income tax powers being passed to MSPs from Westminster – the principle being that politicians doing the spending should also do the taxing.
However, as the months have progressed, and the shock of last year’s defeat has worn off, Lamont has been notably more cautious. In a conference speech in Dundee, she insisted the party “cannot allow ourselves to be boxed into an Orwellian debate – more powers good, anything else bad”. It plays into the view held by many in the party that “more powers” should not be seem as an end in itself. The end should be social justice.
The view goes right back to the famous comment by Lewis Grassic Gibbon on poverty in his essay Glasgow: “For the cleansing of that horror, if cleanse it they could, I would welcome the English in suzerainty over Scotland till the end of time. I would welcome the end of Braid Scots and Gaelic, our culture, our history, our nationhood under the heels of a Chinese army of occupation if it could cleanse the Glasgow slums.”
Lamont has made clear where her priorities lie too. The trouble for Labour, however, is that resisting more powers for Holyrood, currently means accepting that those powers remain with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government at Westminster. The SNP has been quick to point out that Scots “prefer home rule to Tory rule”. McLeish argued last week that a successful referendum campaign could be a pyrrhic victory for Labour, ensuring it is seen as being on the side of the Conservatives, and against Holyrood. It prompted Labour’s shadow skills minister Neil Findlay to mock his own party at a public event recently where he noted how Darling and “Comrade [Tory MSP David] McLetchie” were working together on the pro-Union side. Noting the role of former Tory leader Annabel Goldie in the campaign launch, he went on: “Why any self-respecting ‘normal Scot’ would want to speak to Annabel Goldie I’ve no idea.” So much for cross-party pro-Union unity.
The concern among pro-devolution reformers is that, even if Labour were to be on the winning side in a 2014 referendum, it would wake up the day after back at Square One still with little chance of gaining a foothold against an SNP which promised to “stand up for Scotland” that little bit better. One insider adds: “If we are not serious and we don’t make it clear what kind of change we are offering and how that comes about, then we could end up winning the referendum but losing the election.”
Pro-devolution party figures also complain that, internally, the party remains institutionally resistant to reform. They accuse some MPs resistant to change of being simply motivated by self-preservation, knowing that more devolution to Holyrood would inevitably mean fewer Scots MPs. “They’re just interested in looking after themselves,” says one Holyrood figure (although Alexander as well as many of the new crop of Labour MPs are excused). There is anger with the belligerent attitude of figures such as MP Ian Davidson, the chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, who recently berated BBC’s Newsnight Scotland programme for alleged SNP-bias and has used his position to publish provocative reports against “Scottish separation”.
The complaint is that too many Labour MPs, symbolised by Davidson, are of the view that Holyrood is the “inferior” parliament which needs to be put back in its box. “A small number just think that we up here are rubbish and they are the only ones who are can really take the fight to the Nationalists,” the source adds. Promised party reforms to ensure Scottish Labour has a “Holyrood First” approach have taken too long, critics argue – noting that a planned move of its HQ from Glasgow to Edinburgh has still not taken place. And while last year’s shake-up has ensured that Lamont is now definitively the Scottish Labour leader, there are still complaints that too many staff are still reporting to London rather than to Edinburgh.
Lamont’s answer to this stirring hornets’ nest has been to set up a commission on the future of devolution to ensure there is at least a holding answer on what Labour plans to do. The details will emerge next month, with members including Labour figures and drawing on advice from outside the party as well. The central question of the review, say figures close to her, will be to ask “where does power best lie?” To that end, it will look not just at whether powers should go from London to Edinburgh, but also whether both London and Edinburgh should be shunting powers further down to local government. So, for example, the review could examine whether councils should get a bigger chunk of the welfare budget, currently owned by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, any idea that Labour could move to a “devo-max” position – where all powers are moved to Scotland bar foreign affairs and defence – is out of the question. One figure close to the leadership said: “As Gordon said, if you have fiscal autonomy, then you break the Union. The review will always ask the question: does it retain the integrity of the Union?”
Splits are certain to emerge, but there is a significant amount of support for a fresh look at the powers Holyrood should have, sometimes from surprising quarters. Brian Donohoe, MP for Central Ayrshire, and one of the leading critics of devolution, says he backs a review of the Scottish Parliament and, like Darling, could see powers like income tax moving there. “I would go for that if it was reasoned. These are matters that have to be done through reason. It has to be logical, and it has to be possible. I have talked for years that there needs to be some kind of audit done in terms of whether services have improved under devolution, and if they are better, then how can we learn from that.”
The party will also have to show how it can make any of this possible. Lamont’s central argument against having a second question offering “devo-max” in the referendum is that Scotland cannot change rules which affect the rest of the UK too. An aide notes: “You can have a question that asks whether or not you want to be in a club, but if you want to change the club’s rules, you have to ask all the members.”
Labour reformers accept that if they are to put forward a new, stronger form of devolution they will have to explain how they will do it. Scottish reforms could provide the impetus for Ed Miliband also to push for more devolution to English regions as well. The problem there, as party chiefs note, is that the English have shown a near total indifference to the turgid detail of constitutional change.
If she is to pick up the baton of a more powerful Scottish Parliament, Lamont may need to be the tail that wags the dog. So far, however, it isn’t clear whether she or her party even wants to wag in the first place. With the polls showing that Labour would come out on the winning side in an independence referendum, and with this spring’s council elections having boosted the party’s confidence, the temptation for Lamont will be to sit back in the hope that any further reform at Holyrood isn’t necessary. The evidence of the past few years, however, says something different: the likelihood of continuing defeat.