Gerry Hassan: Scottish Labour and devolution

Scottish Labour still hasn’t grasped that the outdated notion that the party knew what was best for the voters has gone forever , writes Gerry Hassan

Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland Margaret Curran at the Labour conference in Brighton. Picture: PA

LABOUR likes to think that “devolution”, like the NHS, is its exclusive project. “We legislated for the Scottish Parliament” you hear on occasion from numerous party spokespeople.

This is proprietorial, but there is also a Labour story which stresses that devolution is about changing Scotland, better governance and improving lives, differentiating it from the Tories and SNP.

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However, Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, in the last week made remarks at the Labour conference which seem to raise questions about how the party sees the whole devolution project, and which warrant further investigation.

Ms Curran said: ‘We need to ask ourselves some questions about (devolution). Has it made health better in Easterhouse?” And she went on “Has it made education better in Easterhouse? And there are a lot of question-marks over that.”

Easterhouse is in the east end of Glasgow, and has been represented by Ms Curran as MSP and MP for a total of 14 years. It is one of those archetypical places which stands as a wider metaphor for urban West of Scotland and Glasgow; others include Shettleston, Govan and the Gorbals.

There are several levels to her remarks. First, she seems to be dissing devolution and its record of change. There were eight years of Labour-Lib Dem Executive rule, with Ms Curran a minister for six and a half of those years. And there were, to add to that, 13 years of UK Labour Government.

The first decade of the Scottish Parliament saw huge increases in the block grant. Scottish Government revenues nearly doubled to more than£30 billion in 2008-2009, rising by more than 5 per cent a year in real terms.

In this period, the UK became a better, fairer place, with child and pensioner poverty reduced, while millions of people had their living standards improved by the national minimum wage. There were impressive results in social policy, and in England on education and health, as a detailed LSE study of the Blair-Brown years, Labour’s Social Policy Record, makes clear.

What happened in Scotland during that period? Did we, to use the Westminster political class terminology, “repair the Scottish roof while the sun was shining?” For a start, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, saw child and pensioner poverty fall, along with the benefits of the minimum wage.

What was specifically Scottish was the actions of the Labour-dominated Executive. It took a spate of easy choices with public priorities and spending: free tuition fees and free care for the elderly (both aided by the Lib Dems), along with a 23 per cent pay rises for teachers and GP contracts with astronomic pay rises.

They did all of these without discussing or being aware of the distributional consequences of their actions. They gave into the insider interest groups who knew how to work the system pre-devolution (EIS, BMA) and how to work it in the early days of devolution. Labour never asked whether these actions aided social justice or those most in need.

Second, there is what has happened to Easterhouse and the numerous other disadvantaged communities in Scotland. There was over that first decade record investment in public services, and in particular, education and health.

Yet we do know that “forgotten Scotland” has been increasingly left behind by the rest of the country: that inequality has grown to staggering levels, and that our health inequalities should shame the idea that we are this social democratic nirvana to the core. Little accident that Easterhouse is the political apathy hotspot with the lowest turnout, a mere 34.5 per cent, in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

Finally, this is part of the beginning of a distinctive Labour agenda post-independence referendum. Ms Curran said, at the same event at which she made her “devolution” remarks, that she was in favour of abolishing the Barnett Formula (which is an uncontroversial statement). Her reasoning, though, was partisan calculation: that it would pose a “challenge to the nationalists”. Actually, it would more be a challenge to the UK Government to work out how to make “partnership” and redistribution work, which are constantly invoked as general principles.

This in a week when London Mayor Boris Johnston celebrated that London, with 12.5 per cent of the UK population had, he claimed 25 per cent of the UK’s GDP. That’s an unequal Britain not exactly doing much redistribution based on need. And a lot of that inequality happened on Labour’s watch.

Labour is thinking about post-referendum politics in the likelihood of a “No” vote. They are considering devolving some welfare powers to local councils. This would be presented as “double devolution”, decentralisation and empowering communities. But in reality it is driven by the idea of by-passing the Scottish Parliament and attempting to build an alternative Labour power structure in Scotland.

It is not an edifying spectacle policy-wise, with Scottish Labour’s leadership being driven solely by how they out-maneouvre the SNP and their blind, passionate hatred of the separatists which significantly destabilises their own judgment and sense of priorities.

However, Ms Curran is on to something with her acknowledgement of the limits of devolution, if for very different reasons. “Devolution” as a term and political project was in the Donald Dewar version about bringing the appearance of change to Scotland, but attempting to avoid its substance.

“Devolution” was always a narrow political process set of changes, about a parliament and politicians sitting as a new shop window while the real power networks – land, law, council patronage – continued unhindered.

Not every Labour politician colluded in this, but it prevented the party from becoming a vehicle for real social change.

Scottish Labour still, Douglas Alexander apart, seems to show little understanding that Scotland and Scottish politics have changed and that the old “Labour Scotland” vision of knowing what was best for voters has gone forever.

Labour needs to ask, who built and made Easterhouse, and where did the vision, imagination and belief in changing lives for the better, go? Let’s hear Labour explain its past achievements, mistakes, what it has learned and what it will do differently in future.