Tom Peterkin: Labour falling into ‘Tory tax trap’

Gordon Brown's vision of change from within the UK could be characterised as safe. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Gordon Brown's vision of change from within the UK could be characterised as safe. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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In the run-up to the referendum Gordon Brown promised that a No vote would deliver faster and safer constitutional change for Scotland than independence.

Given that Lord Smith publishes the fruits of his more powers commission today, there is little dispute that decisions have been taken speedily.

Mr Brown’s vision of change from within the United Kingdom could be characterised as safe, given that it will happen without the rancour and upheaval of independence negotiations.

But just how safe the forthcoming changes will be for the Labour Party is an entirely different matter.

Lord Smith’s report will reflect the fact that Labour, the Conservatives, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens have coalesced around a proposal that includes the full devolution of income tax rates and bands. That is a major concession from Labour’s original position of partial devolution of that levy.

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The climb-down was effectively rubber-stamped by Jim Murphy, the favourite to succeed Johann Lamont as Scottish leader.

Having previously indicated that he was lukewarm when it came to such a proposal, Murphy has played the constitutional chameleon and changed his position.

As an astute operator, Murphy saw the momentum gathering in favour of a more radical package and this week threw himself behind full income tax devolution.

Murphy’s new stance is at odds with many of his London-based colleagues and it is helpful to his Scottish leadership ambitions to show that he is not beholden to them.

But the repercussions for Labour are substantial. It looks like Labour is going to fall into what Mr Brown described as a “Tory-trap”. Devolving all income tax will allow the Conservatives to argue that Scottish MPs should not vote on UK Budgets as UK income tax policy ceases to cover their constituents.

Labour would do well to remember that calls for English votes for English laws (EVEL) is a popular concept south of the Border. Should David Cameron get his way and introduce EVEL, it would become very difficult for Labour to achieve a stable UK-wide majority, and challenging to pass English legislation. Without the support of its cadre of Scottish MPs, a Labour UK government might be required to act as a minority government to seek support for England-related measures on a case-by-case basis.

For those Labourites seeking solace, it is worth pointing out that Tony Blair managed to win a majority of English seats. But with Ed Miliband struggling, that sounds like a pretty meagre crumb of comfort.

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