WHAT else has to happen before Labour accepts that its minimalist position on more powers for Scotland is unsustainable? If it was not already clear to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls that their sniffy attitude to more devolution to Holyrood was costing Labour dear, the devastating message in a series of opinion polls over the past few days must surely have illuminated them.
Scottish Labour has lost the historic advantage it has always enjoyed over the SNP when it comes to Westminster elections. It has disappeared. In fact, support for the Scottish National Party in voting intentions for Westminster is, according to one poll, more than twice support for Scottish Labour. If this was replicated in the General Election in May next year, the number of Scottish Labour MPs would be reduced to just four. Not only that, two-thirds of Scots want a re-run of the independence referendum within ten years. And if the referendum was to be re-run tomorrow, 52 per cent of Scots would vote Yes – including 43 per cent of Labour voters.
This is an extraordinary set of results. It shows that to prevent the break-up the United Kingdom, securing a No vote in the independence referendum was only the first stage in a two-part process. The second stage is to deliver incontrovertibly on the promise of a powerhouse parliament at Holyrood, with substantial economic levers the hands of MSPs. The No vote on its own was clearly not enough. It was a job half-done. A much stronger Holyrood is necessary to honour the deal that was struck with the Scottish electorate in the run-up to 18 September.
This newspaper has consistently backed more power for Holyrood, not out of fear for the future of the UK, but out of a desire to see a Scottish Parliament that is responsible, effective, accountable, and equal to the ambitions of the people. It would be heartening if principle was the compass for Labour’s deliberations. But if principle is absent, self-preservation will have to do. If Labour has first to stare into the headlights of an electoral juggernaut that threatens to squish its hopes of power on the highway of Scottish opinion, then so be it. Naked fear can be a useful motivating force. The question is whether Miliband and Balls fully recognise the peril they face. To get into Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street next May, they need to secure the election of dozens of Scottish Labour MPs who face an existential threat from a rampant SNP. To head off this threat, Miliband and Balls need to reassure hundreds of thousands of Scots who are turning their backs on Labour, perhaps for good. How to achieve this? It’s not rocket science, guys. Give Scottish voters what they want, and stop telling them you know better than they do what is best for them.
To ignore the clear message from the Scottish electorate would be a mistake of historic proportions. It would be to underestimate a political mood – not just in Scotland but across the UK – that is febrile, fluid and unforgiving. It would be to underestimate the scale of ambition in the Scottish electorate for self-government, and a lack of concern among many Labour voters about whether that self-government is achieved within or outwith the UK. It would be a failure to recognise a shifting of the political sands. It would show Labour was not nimble enough, not deft enough, not fleet enough. It would show Labour was not equal to the moment. The Smith Commission has only a few weeks of deliberation before it has to come to its conclusions. There is still time for the Labour leadership to see sense. The unequivocal backing of Scottish Labour leadership contenders for a step change in powers would be useful, but ultimately this is a decision for Miliband and Balls. By the time this month is out we will know whether Labour has decided to save itself, or whether it has chosen a grisly end entirely of its own making.
Intolerable strain on Scottish NHS
Concerns about the National Health Service were at the heart of the independence referendum campaign and look certain to be at the heart of the General Election in May next year.
The SNP’s argument is that Scotland’s NHS must be protected from the English way of approaching healthcare, which involves the private sector much more than is the case north of the Border.
The impression the Scottish Government likes to present is of a Scottish NHS where everything in the garden is rosy. And yet it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not, in fact, the case.
Take today’s study of patients’ experiences of being treated – or not treated, as the case may be – by their GPs. This makes grim reading, and is hard to reconcile with the picture of the NHS being offered by Nationalist ministers.
Spending on GP services has fallen by 2 per cent in real terms, and the results are plain to see in length of time Scottish patients are having to wait to see a doctor. One in four are unable to see their GP within a week of seeking an appointment. There was also a rise of more than 8 per cent in the number of patients who felt their doctor did not have enough time to deal with them during their appointment, once it finally arrived.
The state of GP services is worrying in itself. It is even more worrying when you consider one of the Scottish Government’s central strategies is a shift away from hospital care, to care in the community. Some of this care will be done by health visitors, but much of it will fall to already-stretched GPs. A system under intolerable strain is about to be put under even greater pressure, not by external forces but by a policy pursued by another branch of the very same National Health Service, under the same SNP minister.
Quite simply, this does not add up. In England, in the system disparaged by SNP ministers, the government has recently promised universal access to GP services at the weekends by 2020. In Scotland, this is a pipe-dream.
Dr John Gillies, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, says: “When the crisis in general practice clearly shows patient safety to be under threat, it is incumbent upon the Scottish Government to act.”
It is hard to disagree.