Radical tax and welfare policies and preserving the Barnett formula are vital to ending the scourge of austerity, says Douglas Alexander.
Over the winter I have knocked on thousands of doors, run dozens of advice surgeries and sat in many living rooms listening to constituents from all walks of life.
We’ve talked about many issues that impact on their lives. But in pretty much every conversation there was one constant theme – a real and deep desire for change in how and why we do our politics.
I heard this same desire for change as I campaigned in towns, cities and villages across Scotland last summer.
From the Hebrides, to the Highlands, down to the Borders and across our great cities, as Scotland debated the idea of independence I heard a Scotland united in its desire for change.
There are two complementary motivations driving this desire for change. The first is not new. It was captured over 20 years ago by the late John Smith when he said: “The scourges of poverty, unemployment and low skills are barriers, not only to opportunities for people, but to the creation of a dynamic and prosperous society. It is simply unacceptable to continue to waste our most precious resource – the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people.”
And its partner is a hunger for a different kind of politics to make that moral change a reality; a politics that does much more than simply describe the powerful and profound economic forces shaping our lives as those forces ebb and flow whilst doing little to change the course and the impact of those forces.
People want a politics which seeks to harness and shape those forces to the common good. A politics which gives expression to social action, rather than a politics rooted in reaction.
Scottish Labour should neither be fearful nor faint-hearted in addressing those demands. Bringing about real and lasting social change was the goal that down the decades brought so many good folk into the Labour Party.
It was his distress at the conditions of working people throughout the Twenties and Thirties that motivated Nye Bevan.
It was the late John Smith’s conviction that politics ought to be “a moral activity” that led him to forsake a comfortable life at the Scottish Bar in that cause. And it was Donald Dewar who asserted that “if just one child was lifted from poverty” the struggle to secure Scottish devolution would have been “worth it”.
The politics of the 20th century was largely shaped by the fallout from the post-war divisions of Europe and defined by debates on how to organise modern industrial societies: how to generate stable economic growth and fairly distribute national resources,
The key battlegrounds of 21st century politics are still emerging. But it is undoubtedly already defined not only by those remaining issues of economic production and distribution, but also contests of identity and insecurity.
This is not unique to British politics. The rise of identity, culture and self-expression as drivers of people’s vote is proving a key feature of today’s politics right across the industrialised world.
The global financial crisis, rooted in immoral actions by powerful people seen often as living beyond political reach, accelerated this mood but it did not create it. It was already there. The crisis has left deep economic scars but the impact has been not only on our bank accounts, but on our sense of security and identity.
Dramatic falls in living standards and prolonged periods of austerity have meant everyday life is more insecure and the future more uncertain. People across Europe are feeling that; at most, they are simply treading water. For the first time since the War, parents look to their children and worry they won’t manage to do as well as them.
So, the change that as Scots we want is not simply constitutional change. It is about the economic and social changes we need to battle injustice and inequality in our society.
Achieving this change has been the historic aim of the Labour Party and it remains constant in this changing world: to ensure economic opportunity for all and deliver social justice that eradicates poverty and inequality.
At every stage in the last century – whether in creating the NHS, the welfare state, the right to work, the national minimum wage or tax credits to end poverty – the Labour Party has led the way in demanding radical measures that help build a better society in Scotland as across Britain.
And that is why Labour will fight the upcoming general election as the party that can best deliver the political, social and economic change the people of Scotland are rightly demanding.
Tory austerity makes it harder for us to educate the young, makes life more insecure for the old and infirm and undermines our NHS. So we will put paid once and for all to Tory austerity with a Labour government. We will make a fundamental break from their toxic cocktail of extreme spending cuts and unfair taxes.
Labour’s plan for economic change will ban exploitative zero-hour contracts, raise the minimum wage to £8 and tackle youth unemployment.
On social change, Labour’s plan is to protect the NHS, build homes to end the housing crisis, and free Scotland of poverty and deprivation.
Our vision of the common good is one that ends the need for food banks and chases the payday lenders out of Scotland.
These are changes the SNP cannot and will not deliver for the Scottish people. They have had eight years in power at Holyrood but have chosen not to use that power to build the homes Scotland needs or take action to reduce inequality.
For while they claim to be a party of social justice, it will always come second place to their raison d’être: separation. And for that reason they refuse to back plans to redistribute wealth across Britain.
In the next few days we will show why Labour is again the party of social justice and fairness in Scotland. Labour would protect and strengthen our NHS – a plan the SNP cannot match because they oppose our plans for a UK-wide mansion tax.
Unlike the SNP, we have been prepared to take tough decisions on a bankers’ bonus tax to advance social justice.
And they don’t back Jim Murphy’s proposal to help kids going straight from school into work with a £1,600 fund paid for by cutting pension tax relief for high earners.
They do not even support Labour’s proposed rise in the top rate of income tax to help alleviate poverty and make a fairer society possible.
On the contrary, until last month the SNP’s only redistributive tax policy was a 3 pence cut in corporation tax that would benefit the privatised utilities most whilst the poorest are left out in the cold,
Now their priority is business tax cuts by another name: tax reliefs for companies and high earners.
During this campaign Labour will show that when it comes to youth employment, food banks, educational opportunities and tackling inequality our policies are far more progressive, far more radical and far more pro-poor than those of the SNP.
For so wedded are they to finding every solution through the lens of separation, the SNP will fight this UK general election urging the end of the sharing of resources across Britain through the Barnett formula. Barnett has resulted in higher and more stable public spending in Scotland for decades – next year it will be worth over £1,200 to each man, woman and child in Scotland.
We should not shirk from defence of the Barnett formula. Our geography and our remaining concentrations of high inter-generational social deprivation, each with their implications for the demands on public services and the costs of delivering them, make the case for Scotland’s UK share.
Yet, the SNP’s proposals for full fiscal autonomy – reaffirmed by them only last week – would end the Barnett formula and so cost Scots billions. This would require huge cuts to the funding of the key public services – health, education, policing – on which we all rely.
So far from being an anti-austerity party, the SNP’s plans would impose deeper, more austerity-creating cuts on Scotland. The SNP do not offer an alternative to austerity. Only Labour can offer that change.
And at this election Labour is also committed to strengthening the Scottish Parliament through the Smith Commission, which is what Scotland’s people voted for last September.
Our proposals for modern home rule mean that Scotland will have extensive new powers in tax, in welfare and in employment. At the same time we will retain the system of sharing risks and resources across the UK which serves pensioners better than independence and helps us fund Scottish schools and the NHS.
So there are deep, philosophical differences between Labour and the SNP – not just on the constitution but on fair funding between the countries of the UK, and on fair taxes to deliver social justice.
In this tightest British general election in generations, as Labour, we are working hard to win a majority. But in recent weeks Alex Salmond – now back again setting policy for the SNP – has focused almost exclusively on his own role in hung parliaments, political deals and forming coalitions.
The SNP have already made clear they don’t want a coalition with Labour. As Labour, we don’t want a coalition with the SNP. The coalition we want is with working people across Britain to change our economy and turn it to working for ordinary families.
The deal we want is a new deal for strong communities built on good jobs, quality schools and accessible health care, reflecting the truth that when our communities are doing well, Scotland and Britain does well.
For, as Labour, we recognise that you cannot meet the challenges of globalisation through constitutional change alone. It requires political, social, economic and constitutional change together.
Right across the world, in response to these challenges of globalisation, voters have sought change in recent months. Yet centre left votes have split in Germany, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In every case it has ensured right-wing parties dominate and govern.
Scotland cannot afford another right-wing government. We must – and we can – stop the Tories becoming the largest party and forming the government, not for our sake but for Scotland’s sake and for Britain’s sake.
On 7 May only Labour can secure the change we need.
Douglas Alexander is Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and shadow foreign secretary
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