Kezia Dugdale : SNP failing to challenge George Osborne's austerity

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Picture: PAScottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Picture: PA
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Picture: PA
SCOTTISH politics just got interesting again. For the first time in a long time voters will feel they have a real choice.

The outlines of that choice became clearer this week with the first vote on the SNP budget – when the SNP and Tories came together to reject Labour’s plan to add a penny on to income tax to prevent the hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts John Swinney is forcing on to schools and communities.

In Yes Minister, when Sir Humphrey wanted to frighten his political master out of a decision he would describe it as “courageous”. Since I made my speech on tax, enough people have complemented me as “brave” to impress upon me that this was a significant moment.

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Politicians love the easy, cost-free popular announcement. And in Scotland we’ve been able to live like that. There’s been a superficial consensus that needed challenging in Scottish politics, a crowded centre ground of self-declared socialists who never had their social democratic values put to the test.

After the budget debate this week, and the SNP government’s decision not to break from Tory austerity, we are left asking the question: if the point of the SNP isn’t to use powers to make different policy than George Osborne, what is the point of the SNP?

There was hardly a crunching sound as Nicola Sturgeon’s party, defined by the message that more powers for Scotland meant an end to austerity, changed gear to lead the argument against using those same powers to stop cuts.

The SNP has barely disguised its glee at using old Tory arguments against Labour. One candidate boasted of how he planned to use the Thatcherite attack of “Labour’s tax bombshell”.

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I think their cynicism underestimates Scots, but it also misunderstands them. What is really unpopular with voters is financial irresponsibility. Start from the usual premise of concealing the pain while offering the gain and people just tune out. Give them a truth they know in themselves and they might just start listening. That truth is that change always comes at a price.

The experts at the IPPR [Institute for Public Policy Research] looked at the SNP budget and found that the biggest cuts are expected in the second and third year of the next parliament. It is a scandal that no-one in our governing party is talking about this just weeks away from an election.

In good times it isn’t credible to pretend you pursue an economic policy of cutting taxes and a social policy of Scandinavian spending. In a time of austerity promising more and more without tax rises is dishonest to the point of fraud.

Independent analysis shows that an additional half a billion pounds of investment provided by a penny on income tax ensures that the budget of the Scottish Government isn’t cut at all. In fact it would grow next year by over £100 million above inflation. Not just is Nicola Sturgeon standing in the way of stopping cuts to education, she is blocking the opportunity to end austerity.

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Faced with the choice between using the powers we have and cutting our future prosperity, we choose to use our powers. This argument isn’t going away and it isn’t only those of us who made the brave and honest decision who will pay a political price for our choice.

It will make for a seminal election. I can’t wait for it.