Category Archives: Political witterings

The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month

Powers for a purpose but whose and what?

Scottish Labour declared the focus and approach for its Devolution Commission to be about “Powers for a Purpose”.  But whose and what purpose?

Much has already been written about the timidity of the proposed extension of powers – not least by Labour commentators – with the findings failing even to live up to the dizzy heights of expectation created by the interim report. There are inherent contradictions too, in terms of what will be devolved and what will be left behind. For me, one of the most glaring is on the devolution of attendance allowance but not the non-contributory elements of employment and support allowance. Apparently, there “is an overriding argument for reserving” this it is an “explicitly redistributive” benefit.  Set aside that support for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions was never designed to be redistributive, the Executive Summary declines to say what that over-riding argument is. I’m sure if I wade through the full report I’ll find it, but I’m struggling to think of a coherent one.

The Executive Summary states, in recommending devolution of attendance allowance, a “connection between attendance allowance and health and social care policies”.  Thus, devolving this benefit would give the Scottish Parliament the means, or at least some of them, to meet the ever-rising costs of free personal care for older people by top-slicing the pot or, if it chooses still to give over the whole amount to pensioners, to means test its application so that only those with limited means to pay local health and social care charges benefit the most or, simply to allow it to continue as a universal benefit, to be recouped by local authorities through home care charges and the like. Yet, the non-contributory element of employment and support allowance, which is largely payable to disabled people and those with long-term health conditions of working age, would provide funds to be more creative about how to meet their care costs too. Or even allow Scottish Labour to extend free personal care to younger age groups.  On a policy level, devolving one and reserving the other makes little sense.  Not for a coherent policy purpose then.

The proposals fail a more fundamental constitutional test: they do not meet the expectations of the Scottish people. It’s not quite “devonano” or my favourite, “devoheehaw” but it is “devolimited”. And if the intention, even on an unwritten or subconscious level, was to provide an offer which stops the inching in the polls of Scots towards a yes vote in September, it’s hard to see that it will be enough.  Because Scots want more: all the public opinion surveys which have asked this, show so.

Scottish Labour could and no doubt, will argue that saying they want full control over welfare and benefits in Scotland is sweeping and without proper consideration of the complexities of decoupling things like child benefit, winter fuel payment and carers’ allowance. Voters’ eyes will glaze over as the party explains just how so – well at least I hope it does in the 300 page tome. But that is missing the point. The Scottish electorate, for a number of years now, has set the bar on its aspirations for further devolution and Scottish Labour has failed the test.

Just as it has on electability. The Scottish electorate has fallen out of love with the party it has voted faithfully for, for decades and in some communities, generations. On a purely political level, there is much to like for those well to the left on the political spectrum, myself included. It’s well past time that the better off were required to pay their fair share. Higher earners should pay more tax; the few on stratospheric salaries and income in Scotland should pay more still. The limited recommendation to upgrade property taxation to make it fairer suggests the creation of new property bands for the council tax, presumably at the top end. [Which is so unambitious that it was proposed by Jack McConnell in the 2007 election]

There are many Labour voters who like the idea of soaking the rich. And if the intention of the proposals is to shepherd back into the fold, Labour heartlands, then they will probably achieve that. But the SNP winning constituencies like Anniesland, Clydebank, Airdrie and Coatbridge in 2011 was always an aberration. Recent by-election results in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath suggest that these lost sheep will probably return of their own accord.

But regaining heartlands is not enough to win a Scottish election for Labour. It must find the way to appeal to those voters in those constituencies who will be nearly a decade apart from the party in voting terms. Breaking the habit the first time is one thing, reinforcing the break a second time means forming a new voting habit on the third occasion becomes much more likely. And there is little to prevent that happening with these proposals.

It does not matter that most of the voters and constituencies Scottish Labour needs to target have barely a handful of big hooses and high heid yins. It’s the aspiration that counts. And there are many who having bought their council house and seen their weans off to university and into good jobs, fancy cars and hooses with an en suite in nice communities are by definition, families who through striving and application believe in the ability to better themselves. Ignoring the detail that they are unlikely to earn the levels at which it all kicks in, they will see Labour’s tax proposals as punishment for daring to get on.

This matters because Scotland’s middle class is burgeoning. Still. It has paid little in the way of the price of austerity, as has been the case elsewhere in the UK. The no compulsory redundancy policy for the public sector has helped, as has the raft of universal policies – the something for nothing accusation applies just as much to those who could pay as those who can’t.

Appealing to aspirational Scots to win elections is something the SNP grasped two Scottish elections ago. By this report, it seems Scottish Labour still hasn’t got the hang of it. Building an electoral manifesto around proposals which hike up income and council tax for the better off won’t change their electoral fortunes much. It’s almost as if Labour never wants to be elected again.

At least in Scotland. Because the timidity of the power transfer and the focus of the tax proposals point to only one real purpose. Winning the UK election in 2015.  The whole premise smells of a compromise being brokered which buys off grumbling MPs, limits the ambitions of those more in thrall to devolution and crucially, provides the basis of UK Labour’s platform for 2015.  The UK party wouldn’t want recommendations coming from Scotland which undermine their bid for power at Westminster nor create the opportunity for awkward questions to be asked if divergence on key policy streams like tax, welfare and immigration could be discerned. The Powers for a Purpose boil down to being what the party at UK level was prepared to thole and willing to deliver if in government after 2015.

These powers are not for Scotland’s benefit, but Labour’s. They are not powers for a purpose, except that the purpose is power for itself. And in this, Labour’s proposals for more devolution will fail to stem the flow, towards a yes vote in September and towards its core vote becoming SNP voters, not just for the odd election but for keeps. Because they’re no daft and they know when they’re being sold a pup.

 

Time to talk tax

It is remarkable that tax hasn’t featured more in the referendum debate.

Last week saw its first real incursion into the headlines, initially through the First Minister’s response to a question at his New Statesman speech and then by Johann Lamont asking about it at First Minister’s Questions.

But it was hardly a full exploration of all the tax issues, focusing as it did on whether or not the top tax rate in independent Scotland would be raised to 50p.

The First Minister advised that he has no wish to set independent Scotland at a tax disadvantage to the rest of the UK. Less reported was his reference to the White Paper commitment to not make any tax changes immediately after independence. The reason for this is that tax is a policy issue upon which parties should set out their plans in election manifestoes. Which is as it should be.

UK Labour has already pledged to reinstate the top tax rate, so Scottish Labour saw an apparent opening and seized it. Conveniently forgetting in the process that its conversion to taxing rich people more has been more of an oppositionalist exercise than one it practised while in government. Yes, it did raise the rate but only at the fag end of thirteen years in power. It was in force for precisely 36 days before they lost the 2010 UK election.

And while this was clearly comfortable territory for Lamont, her inability to switch from the script of calling out the SNP as Tartan Tories was telling. The fact that the First Minister joined her in condemning the Tory-Lib Dem cut and aligned himself with comments made by Ed Balls on its inappropriateness in the current climate rather diluted her point.

But we are dancing on a pinhead here. Only a relatively small number of people, particularly in Scotland, pay the higher rate of tax. Surely of much wider concern and interest to most voters is what will happen to the tax they all pay.

Given its all-pervasive influence on our lives and how the types and levels of tax permeate nearly everything we do, it is curious that so little attention has been paid to this vital issue in the debate to date.

Perhaps that’s because the proposals in Scotland’s Future are plausible, workable and sensible. And even likely to encourage more to vote yes.

Labour is wont to seize upon the commitment to lower corporation tax as proof of the SNP being a neo-liberal, big business loving entity which wants to reinforce unfairness in the tax system. That lazy analysis ignores all that is said on pages 117 to 123 of the White Paper.

The section on tax makes plain a commitment to provide independent Scotland with a more efficient tax system predicated on key principles of simplicity, neutrality, stability and flexibility.

These point to a quite different future on tax. One which sweeps away the complexities and inefficiencies that successive UK Governments have enabled through decades and indeed, centuries of layering and applying without removing and reforming.

Even with Gordon Brown’s attempts to simplify income tax when he was Chancellor, legislation on UK tax runs to over 10,000 pages with over 1,000 exemptions. These, in particular, allow for tax avoidance and a whole industry employed in finding them and maximising them for a select few rich enough to employ their services.

So which would have the bigger impact on our country’s collective tax take and the perception of paying dues – removing myriad opportunities to avoid tax or paying slightly more on declared and visible income?

As Alex Massie kindly pointed out to me on twitter, both Alex Salmond and John Swinney have made speeches and given interviews in which they emphasise the no tax rises in independent Scotland position. But that safety first approach is only part of the story. The White Paper makes clear that in the longer term, independent Scotland will do different on tax than the UK: independence provides the opportunity to “design a Scottish tax system based on specific Scottish circumstances and preferences”.

That’s the bit of the narrative Scottish Labour chooses to ignore, the bit that Better Together would rather Scottish voters didn’t know and the bit that the Scottish and indeed, UK media, both left and right leaning, keeps hidden from view.

And that’s because many in Scotland, including undecided voters, are appalled that the gap between haves and have-nots continues to grow. Indeed, austerity has shifted a considerable number of haves into having far less, making them acutely aware of the inherent inconsistencies and unfairnesses in our tax system and elsewhere in our economy. The failure of any UK party to offer anything which punishes the financial institutions for the mess we are in nor attempts to reign in the worst behaviour of buccaneers adds grist to their mill.

If they knew of the existence of a fairer future on tax with independence, it might encourage more to move to yes. It’s exactly the kind of issue the Scottish Government and Yes Scotland should be encouraging all their grassroots supporters to be having conversations with their friends, family and neighbours about.

“Telt”

This was the week when Better Together ramped it up.  First, there was an intensifying of the spook ‘em tactics.

Thus, we had Bob Dudley suggesting that independence might not be a good thing for energy businesses like BP (though he was speaking in a personal capacity, you understand and not as CEO of BP).  It would create currency uncertainty, increased costs for BP and threaten investment, all of it vague and unspecific. His remarks prompted rebuttal from commentators as diverse as Derek Bateman and Alex Massie.  No matter, his intervention captivated the mainstream media: here was a big man, in charge of a big, very big business sharing thoughts on independence. 

Fund managers are also increasingly nervous of the uncertainty and risks (no irony intended) and especially, the prospect of a separate regulatory system for financial institutions north and south of the border, should Scotland vote yes.  James Clunie, a top fund manager - and having checked out his rep with someone who would know, this is a pretty accurate assessment – warned that big companies are already delaying investment decisions pending the outcome of the vote.  It’s very scary, he said.

There was also Justin King, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s warning of higher food prices in supermarkets in an independent Scotland.  From multi-billion pound industry and profit all the way down to the price of a pound of mince, the narrative is that independence doesn’t add up.  And while some might dismiss the impact of 5p on a pound of a mince as a reason to vote no, it actually is these bread and butter (literally) economic issues which will matter to many voters still to make up their minds. 

Along the way, there was an intervention by Caroline Flint, Labour’s energy spokesperson, who despite talking mince, probably gained sympathy plaudits on Newsnicht for trying to politely engage “Mr Ewing” in the debate only to be dealt with dismissively with bluster.  Not a good tactic, Yes people.  There was a Westminster debate in which a Lib Dem MP, Lord Thurso suggested that the lights would go out if we vote yes.  And Margaret Curran suggesting the independence campaign needs to “get real” and start talking the language of “ordinary voters”.  Expect more talk of mince then, though this was probably the most resonant intervention from all the BT folk and supporters in the week.

Today, we had the Chairman of one of the big oil engineering recruitment groups, Orion, saying that while he’d continue to live in an independent Scotland, he might have to run his business from elsewhere due to all the “uncertainty”.

Given all the dire warning emanating from distinguished that and renowned other on money, costs  and jobs,  it’s a surprise Scots didn’t just stay in their beds on Friday, waiting for the sky to fall in.

Good job we didn’t, for we’d have missed strand two of the new grand plan.  In the political equivalent of putting on a Barry White record, apparently we Scots are to be made to feel loved and wanted.  In perhaps the single most imaginative initiative to date in Better Together’s campaign, Rory Stewart MP, whose constituency runs to the border, launched Hands across the Border which aims to light beacons and unite 100,000 folk from the rest of the UK along Hadrian’s wall to show us how much they want the Scots to stay. How wonderful. All it needs is to be matched by a similar human chain from this side of the border to indicate we are not going anywhere and that we love the rest of the UK too.

Yesterday, it was clear the metropolitan elite had received a memo suggesting they get involved.  David Aaronovitch was given 20 minutes of airtime on Radio Scotland on Saturday’s Good Morning Scotland programme to pick up on a personal attack apparently first begun in student days, on Lesley Riddoch.  Given how several other male London chatterati got involved in twitter too, she clearly has ruffled a few feathers.  Apparently, all this political “othering” between England and Scotland is inaccurate and misleading and determined to drive a wedge in the Union.  To be honest, there was some truth in what Aaronovitch had to say, which is backed up by polls showing there is less difference between Scots and English on key social and political issues.  Perhaps, of more interest, though is the timing of the highly personalised attack, designed to add to the mood music being generated by the Union’s defenders.  Partly aiming to smother strong and resonant independent voices in the debate, but partly also to highlight similarity rather than difference.  We are family, and all that.

Which leads us to the big set piece at the end of a long week of staging: the Prime Minister’s speech.  From a formerly Olympian stage on Friday, he delivered a decidedly unOlympian speech, telling us how there are just “seven months” to save the Union.  “We must do whatever it takes… you don’t have a vote but you do have a voice...”  He urged family and friends in the rest of the UK to communicate with Scots they know telling them to please not go.  All that was missing was for him to be played out by Baby Please don’t go, though there’s still time for Better Together at UK level to adopt it as its official anthem. The many versions of this classic could enable a highly targeted demographic appeal to be mounted.  Yep, have that one for free.  I’d like the Them version please.

All of this activity, warning of doom and disaster on the one hand by respected this and that, coupled with expressions of love, family and togetherness by an army of supposedly notables on the other, was fascinating to observe.

But entertaining as it all was, it was also pretty pointless.  Because very little of it will have any effect or impact on Scots’ voting intention.

Indeed, Dr Matt Qvortrup – in no one’s camp, for the record – had an interesting piece in the Scotsman demonstrating evidence of a counter-intuitive impact of “big I ams” from any field intervening on big issue questions.  It tends to make ordinary folk do the opposite. 

But then, we already know that about the Scots.  No nation is better at harbouring tall poppy resentment.  The phrase “ah ken yer faither” still has currency here because it is regularly trotted out – and I have heard it and derivations of it – whenever someone gives the impression of getting above themselves.  It is an attitude not just designed to burst bubbles, but also to make clear that everyone’s opinion is valid, that there is no hierarchy of veracity nor weight of views just because they happen to be held and freely shared (whether invited or not)  by folk with entitlements, money, rank or education. While occasionally deployed in petty and mean ways, at its heart, such a mindset displays a wilful egalitarianism, best articulated in Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That.  It might not be a uniquely Scottish value, having clear links to an internationally socialist belief system, but it probably is more evident in modern day Scottish values than in British or English ones.  A difference to note then, Mr Aaronovitch.

While Better Together might like to think that it and supporters of the Union “telt” the Scots a thing or two this week, they might wish to remember that actually, the Scots are not great at being “telt” on anything much.

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