Richard Leonard’s election as party leader was expected to bring a return to tax-and-spend politics but, with proposals to raise nearly £1 billion of extra revenue, he has clearly decided to demonstrate this in dramatic fashion.
As the SNP has proposed more modest increases, the Nationalists will no longer be able to level the charge at Labour that they are nothing more than “Red Tories”, a label that seemed to gain traction among traditional Labour supporters in recent years. The decision also means the Scottish Conservatives will be even more attractive to voters whose primary motivation is low taxation.
Since the 1980s, an orthodoxy has emerged that raising income tax is akin to political suicide, but this is now being challenged – tentatively by the SNP and with gusto by Labour. Leonard will be hoping that out-flanking the SNP on the left will help win back those lost supporters.
There is a theory prevalent in SNP circles that Scotland has reached “Peak Tory” and that their only real threat is from Labour. But Ruth Davidson, who has made clear her ambition to occupy Bute House despite suggestions she could be a serious contender for Downing Street if she finds herself a Commons seat, will surely be delighted at the chance to hammer the two other main parties on tax.
The Labour wipeout and SNP surge in the 2015 general election, which saw the former lose 40 seats and the latter gain 50, showed Scottish voters are capable of making sudden, seismic shifts. Davidson may now be dreaming of the 1955 general election when 51 per cent of Scots voted Conservative.
The next Scottish Parliament election is not until 2021 so Labour’s current budget proposals are unlikely to see the light of day. But, if Labour was swept to power on a similar platform, First Minister Richard Leonard might find himself with a problem. For experts have warned the Scottish Government that trying to raise taxes higher than it currently proposes would actually lead to lower revenues as wealthier people re-arrange their finances.
If those experts are right, Labour’s plans might result in higher taxes in Scotland – for those failing to employ clever accountants – and worse public services.