Euan McColm: Devil is in the lack of detail

DETAIL is overrated in politics. It’s not unimportant but neither is it the be all and end all. We voters want the reassurance of detail but we also respond to simple (simplistic, even) messages that might tell us little but reassure or ­inspire, nonetheless.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Robert Perry

When the SNP won a Holyrood landslide in 2011, the party’s campaign was not detail-heavy. The Nationalists played on the perfectly plausible argument that the previous four years had seen competent government, and they did so under the slogan “Be part of better”. It allowed the SNP to tell a simple, clear story.

In a perfect storm, detail – specifically, easy to understand and attractive detail – and story collide. When this happens, elections may be won.

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Last week, Scottish Labour’s devolution commission produced a report that’s unlikely to help the party’s election prospects.

What detail it contains is frequently puzzling. And the story it tells is not a happy one.

Among the measures Labour’s commission suggests is the devolution of housing benefit, which would enable a future Scottish Government to abolish the “bedroom tax”; and attendance allowance, received by disabled people. Other benefits would remain under the control of the Westminster government.

This is certainly a proposal for increased devolution, but look at what the commission focused on: two areas which have been the subject of high-profile campaigns. Anything else was rejected.

On welfare, Labour’s commission was prepared to consider only that which was electorally appealing and nothing more.

Then there’s the commission’s proposal that the Scottish Parliament should be allowed to vary the top rate of income tax. In fact, by vary, I mean increase, because the devolution commission suggests there should be no power to lower this tax below UK-wide rates.

This constitutes the payment of lip-service to tax issues. It is unlikely that a sensible Scottish Government would want to put Scotland at a tax disadvantage by hiking the rate above that paid in England.

Nor is the Labour Party ever likely to campaign in a future Holyrood election on the promise to increase taxes. The middle classes control the outcome of Scottish Parliamentary elections and they won’t go wild and give it up for a promise to tax the rich.

Labour’s tax-raising suggestion is an unloaded gun. But that doesn’t matter because there’s nobody in the party itching to pull the trigger.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the commission has attempted to appear bold by suggesting something that would never be ­enacted.

Other proposals seem entirely arbitrary. Why is legislation around abortion to remain with Westminster? Why devolve employment tribunals but not employment law?

The devolution commission’s proposals do tell a story. Unfortunately for Scottish Labour, the story is that the party is divided over devolution and that, as a result, it’s uninspiring and timid on the subject.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The devolution commission was not set up by Scottish Labour leader ­Johann Lamont because of a passionate belief in the need for a more powerful Holyrood but because the SNP won a landslide in the 2011 election. Like a sullen teenager, it didn’t ask to be born.

Having come into the world, it then had to satisfy the demands of a party which comprises both classic home-rulers who want a strengthened ­Holyrood and those who continue to view the Scottish Parliament’s establishment as a step too far.

Why wouldn’t the commission end up producing a series of proposals so uninspiring?

The debate over devolution should be fertile territory for Labour but the dynamic in this instance, given the reasons for the commission’s creation, and the current independence debate, mean the party is standing on SNP ground.

The nationalists have a simple position – we’d like to control it all, thanks – and they now have the opportunity to endlessly torment Labour with accusations of compromise and questions of the “why this and not that?” variety.

Botched job the devolution commission may be, but it’s unlikely to be the referendum game-changer that the Yes campaign requires. The SNP’s own detail around its independence proposals remains confusing and easily attacked.

The 2016 election is another matter entirely. Polls already show that, even though Scottish independence remains the preferred option of the minority, the SNP is on course to win a third Holyrood election victory. ­Johann Lamont’s priority on becoming leader of Scottish Labour was to build a team and create a set of policies which would make her party a plausible alternative to a nationalist administration. The commission’s work was specifically supposed to help strengthen Labour’s manifesto for 2016.

Where, though, is the winning story that springs from the work of the devolution commission?

The findings of the devolution commission expose the extent to which the Labour party continues to struggle with the constitutional settlement.

Labour makes a grave mistake if it thinks that a lack of support for independence means a lack of support for a more muscular Holyrood. In electing the SNP to power, Scottish voters showed an enthusiasm for a message that said Scotland should be strong and run in a distinctive way.

The devolution commission was Labour’s opportunity to draw up a credible alternative not to the SNP’s independence plans but to the Nationalists’ 2016 manifesto which we can reasonably assume, even if the voters say no to the end of the UK, will be filled with its tried and tested language of making Scotland better through simple, easy to understand measures – free prescription, no tuition fees, that sort of thing.

Scottish Labour requires a com­pelling story for the next Holyrood ­election campaign. It won’t find it 
in the work of the devolution ­commission. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm