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.