The devolved Parliament was supposed to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, but too often it has done little more than tinker at the edges of the big issues, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the election of the first Scottish Parliament, so now is a good time to look back in order to set our forward direction.
As Labour stalwart Tom Johnston once said, a people which does not understand the past, will never comprehend the present, nor mould the future.
And for me it is unashamedly personal as well as political. One of my first jobs when I went to work for the Scottish TUC in the early 1990s, was to help develop an ‘agenda’ for the Scottish Parliament entitled “Power for Change”.
The clue is in the name. We were constructing the case for a devolved Scottish Parliament based on some important principles. Some of them were defensive, like the creation of a Parliament that would be a bulwark against Tory Governments at Westminster, others democratic like the replacement of appointed Scottish Office Ministers with a directly elected Parliament.
But others again were constructed on the case that not only could we design and implement Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, but that we could also start to develop a more radical programme for Government.
The aim was to tackle the big challenges, including long-term structural weaknesses in the Scottish economy, and deliver a new agenda for Scotland’s public services, health, housing, transport and all with a cultural dimension.
It was power for a purpose: it was power for change.
The Parliament has achieved much: land reform, homelessness legislation, and bold climate change targets. But yet, many of those ambitions remain unrealised and what’s worse, there is all too often an air of complacency, even indifference inside the Parliament on the Government benches.
This has led to too much tinkering at the edges of problems: and so too much timidity and mediocrity. As a result, there is no bulwark against Tory austerity in the way that we envisaged. The Parliament looks too often like a factory conveyor belt than a workshop where we build Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.
The structural problems of the Scottish economy are largely untackled. So, we still rely on just 70 producers for 50 per cent of all our export value. Five firms account for 26 per cent of all research and development by businesses.
Moreover, instead of building up our indigenous industrial base we have seen an even greater slide into a branch plant economic model, which is reliant on decisions made by remote big businesses. There is no industrial strategy at work and a singular lack of economic planning even of the first order. So, we spend on renewable energy, but fail to generate the work in the supply chain.
There are those who will argue that the reason for this failure is that we do not have political independence. However, the devolved Scottish Parliament does have the powers to tackle many of these challenges, it is just that the SNP Government chooses not to use them.
Meeting people in communities across Scotland – from the Shetland Isles in the north, to the Outer Hebrides in the west, and the Mull of Galloway in the south over the past few weeks – three issues came up time and again: the crisis in the NHS, the shortage of suitable housing, particularly public and housing association provided homes, and the continued squeeze on working people – including those in retirement – as a direct result of austerity.
And just this week Scottish Labour revealed that the number of children living in poverty, despite having a parent in work, has soared to 40,000. The figure was even worse if the parents could only find part-time jobs.
It is clear that our economy desperately needs real change, not more of the same. Labour would take radical action to drive up incomes with a £10 per hour minimum wage, an end to zero-hours contracts and a £260 increase to Child Benefit, by using Holyrood’s powers over social security.
Any government simply has to be judged on its actions, not its words. You cannot truthfully be said to be ‘Scotland’s champion’ while our NHS stumbles through one crisis after another, whilst police numbers are going down, when our many of our schools are struggling, and when the attainment at Higher level is in decline.
We are now offering a radical agenda for change that the SNP Government is simply unwilling to match. They have failed to deliver in the areas of Scotland that needed extra support the most. Labour is the only party that offers a government that will fight for real change for working people across the country.
So, let us start in this new session of Parliament with the new powers we have to improve the income of our pensioners who have served this society well, but let us also start using the old powers to put people back to work on a warm homes programme which meets an outstanding social, environmental and economic need.
The summer recess is normally a time for reflection, renewal and action, but by taking Labour’s message across the country, I have been showing how our party will deliver a government that works for all of Scotland, one that is on the side of communities and workers.
That’s why I want to go to the people of Scotland in 2021 with the most radical social and economic manifesto for change in the history of the Parliament – one that is true to those founding principles which drove the campaign for the Scottish Parliament. And that is one which recognises real change is possible and that we can mould the future.