The Labour leader’s urge to control everything is likely to lead to his downfall.
Among the political class at Westminster, the Scottish independence referendum was for a long time regarded as an inconvenient and temporary distraction from the more serious business of choosing the next UK government. The eyes of Ed Miliband, in particular, were firmly fixed on next year’s general election and Labour’s chance of a return to power. A No victory in the referendum would allow Labour to switch back to its default mode of preparing to kick the Tories out of Downing Street. Except it has not quite turned out like that. The referendum has instead caused a convulsion in British politics. Far from being a distraction from the general election campaign, it may yet come to define it. And not in a way that is good news for the Labour leadership.
The problem is Miliband’s unwillingness to let power and political influence move away from Westminster. In a way that few predicted, the referendum has produced a UK-wide demand for greater devolution of power from the centre – to the parliaments of Scotland and Wales, to Northern Ireland’s assembly, to England’s regions and city states. It has awakened a desire in England that only English MPs should make the laws that govern only England. And this UK-wide demand for radical constitutional change has left Labour wrong-footed and off the pace. So much so that Miliband’s hopes of making it to Downing Street are now jeopardised by a centralising urge that is at odds with his party’s record and achievements over the past two decades.
Labour seems to have forgotten that it is a party of radical constitutional reform. In the wake of Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory, the party implemented a constitutional agenda that was breathtaking in its boldness and ambition.
Labour created a parliament in Edinburgh, a parliament in Cardiff, and an assembly in Belfast. It offered devolution to the north-east of England in a referendum, and elected mayors to the great English cities. Labour could be justly proud of its record on breaking the stranglehold of Westminster on the ambitions of the component parts of the United Kingdom. Labour was the party of power to the people.
Not any more, it seems. Labour now stands as the most centralising force in the British state. It stands for Westminster power, at a time when Westminster as an institution has never been held in such low esteem. It may be the opposition, but Miliband’s Labour party risks appearing to the voters as the political establishment, and the defender of the constitutional status quo. The consequence of Labour’s new-found instinct to centralise and concentrate power is the possibility that it will be denied the chance to use that power.
South of the Border, Miliband’s rejection of moves towards English votes for English laws (Evel) has handed an unexpected advantage to the Tories and Ukip. North of the Border, Labour’s grudging approach to greater devolution to Holyrood, and its inability to let Scottish Labour act autonomously to meet the ambitions of Scottish voters, risks sacrificing potentially dozens of Scottish Labour MPs next spring.
Every MP Miliband loses because of his dogged insistence on a centralised party and a centralised state, his chances of becoming prime minister diminish.
This weekend, Miliband’s centralising instincts lost him his Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont. It is a bad enough blow. But it will be nothing to the damage that will be done to Labour’s prospects if that same centralising urge prevents Labour’s representatives on the Smith Commission from backing a bold and radical extension of Holyrood’s powers. Ed Miliband has to decide if he is going to deny Scots the powers they want to run their own country, within the UK. If he does, the response of Scottish voters will be brutally unforgiving.
No room for intolerance toward transgender and intersex Scots
Attitudes on sexual identity have come a long way in Scotland from the days – not so long ago – when homosexuality was criminalised and the liberalisation of attitudes to the gay community lagged behind the rest of Britain. These days Scotland is one of the growing number of countries that has introduced gay marriage, a measure that has majority support in a nation far more accepting of difference than it used to be even a decade ago. That was a Scotland where millionaire Brian Souter railed against the idea that schools might teach children being gay was a normal way of living a life, and not something that should be a source of shame.
But some aspects of sexual identity are still challenging for many people. Transgender and intersex are two such aspects, with campaigners reporting that discrimination within institutions and the public at large is a very real problem. It seems that while a majority of people can grasp the notion of sexuality being a many-splendoured thing, not constrained by traditional definitions, the idea of gender being similarly fluid is, for some people, less easy to come to terms with. Is a binary view of gender more firmly programmed into our world view than conventional views of sexuality seem to be? Or is public prejudice a simple consequence of a lack of knowledge or personal experience? Despite transgender and intersex people being part of the chronicled human story for thousands of years, openly transgender or intersex people are still uncommon in much of Scottish society.
Whatever the reason for these discriminatory attitudes, they are unacceptable and need to be challenged. In our news story today, Nathan Gale, Scottish Transgender Alliance policy officer for the Equality Network, says: “Scotland likes to pride itself on our ambition to create a fair and equal society for everyone, but the rights of transgender and intersex people are too often left behind.” In a 21st century society where equality is – or should be – non-
negotiable, it is particularly concerning that Scottish institutions operate with anything less than best practice on this issue. Specifically, the NHS, the police and the prison service need to look at their procedures to ensure the dignity of transgender and intersex Scots is never compromised through prejudice or simple ignorance.