Category Archives: Labour

Misleading voters about the European Parliament

A Q&A from Labour's European Parliament election leaflet.
A bit of misinformation from Labour’s European Parliament election leaflet.
One of the reasons why so many people are against the EU and why UKIP are finding it so easy to campaign for leaving it altogether is that most don’t know very much at all about how it functions.

Just look at this snippet from a Labour leaflet we received the other day, which clearly is Better Together propaganda disguised as a European Parliament election leaflet:

Q. How does Labour make sure Scotland’s voice is heard?

A. Smaller countries have much less clout but because we are part of the UK, we have a voting block of 73 MEPs and, along with 4 other countries out of 28, we make up half of all MEPs.

The numbers aren’t wrong, but what is crucially missing here is that MEPs very rarely vote along national lines. According to this report (PDF), members of each European political party group vote together around 90% of the time [p. 10]: It adds: “The only policy area that bucks this trend is agriculture: here, the European political groups are less cohesive than on other policy issues and some national delegations (particularly the French and the Scandinavians) vote along national lines”.

In other words, the fact that there are 73 UK MEPs but only 13 Danish ones is almost irrelevant because they only rarely (if ever) vote as a block; Labour should instead be talking about how their 13 MEPs (two of which are representing Scotland) form part of the S&D’s parliamentary group consisting of 190 members from most EU countries.

Much more importantly, Scotland currently only has 6 MEPs, but as an independent country we would have 13 (the same as Denmark). This means that the S&D group would most likely contain four or five Scottish members instead of just two, dramatically increasing Scotland’s influence there. And of course the Scottish members would be free to vote together with the rUK ones whenever that would be desirable, so independence would only increase our influence in the European Parliament.

Between a rock and a hard place

Scotland Office
Scotland Office by Sarflondondunc, on Flickr.
The Scottish MPs from the Unionist parties are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult position as a Yes vote seems more and more likely.

Firstly, it seems their mere presence is preventing the UK government from preparing for a Yes vote, as stated by Alistair Carmichael:

I won’t be able to influence what people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland want out of their constitutional future – that would be entirely improper. It would be improper on the other side of the referendum, just as it would be improper for me to try to change it now. That’s why there will be no contingency planning.

I might be reading too much into his words, but it seems that Westminster is stuck between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, if they don’t plan for Scottish independence, they’ll look like ill-prepared amateurs to the entire world, and the financial markets will punish them harshly for it. On the other hand, if they do start planning, they’ll either need to include the Scottish MPs and government ministers (who would presumably swap sides after 18/09 and give away London’s negotiating position), or they’ll need to create an rUK government inside the UK government, which would make the Scottish members feel second-rate and break the basic principles of government.

Secondly, the future prospects are rather bleak for the Scottish MPs after a Yes vote. I have a feeling many of them consider themselves superior to the MSPs in Holyrood, and so they’ll probably expect to play a key role in the independence negotiations and in building the new Scotland. For instance, in an otherwise rather insignificant piece in The Telegraph, Iain Martin asked: “How soon do Scottish Westminster politicians go home to stop Salmond taking one man control of designing Scotland’s constitution?” It sounds like people in the London bubble tend to forget that the Scottish Parliament exists and is full of capable politicians, and I doubt they’ll take kindly to sage advice from newly-unemployed ex-MPs.

In this connexion, it’s interesting to note that Scottish Labour’s candidate selection process for the 2016 Holyrood election is more or less complete already, so unless they suddenly rip everything up again, many current MPs will have nowhere to go after a Yes vote. They won’t be able to become MSPs 2016 — they’d have to wait till 2020 (and that’s a long time if you’re used to a Westminster salary and expenses), and of course the House of Lords will not be open to Scottish ex-MPs after independence.

It’s no wonder what the Scottish Unionist MPs are the fiercest No campaigners. They have the most to lose, and the narrowing of the gap between Yes and No is already undermining their position at Westminster.

The city upon a hill

London Skyline from Greenwich
London Skyline from Greenwich, a photo by smokeghost on Flickr.
What is Labour’s vision for Scotland and the UK? They spend most of their time criticising the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England, but it’s often hard to figure out what they’d do if they couldn’t just oppose their opponents.

One thing stands out, however. They seem to be very fond of is London and the wealth it’s creating. For instance, here’s what Lamont said in her David Hume speech (PDF, my emphasis):

I believe in something called redistribution. I believe wealth should be redistributed to where it is needed. I think that one of the best ways we do this is through the United Kingdom. Let me be clear. I think that the UK is not just made up of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that we live in a union of five – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the remarkable international city state of London. The UK is the machinery by which we redistribute wealth amongst those five constituent parts. And we all benefit. I don’t believe we should give that up lightly since it represents in essence the sense of community we regard as a Scottish value.

I read this as “London makes a lot of money, and the UK is the machinery by which we take it away and give it to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. If Labour members still harbour some socialist dreams, they only have any currency outwith London. In the city on the hill, different rules apply. As Peter Mandelson once said: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

It’s probably in this context that we should understand the bizarre stuff about devolved tax rates in Labour’s Devo Nano proposal (PDF, paragraph 362): “This would mean a power to set the new Scottish Progressive Rates of Income Tax applying in the higher bands only, which would be able to secure 40p and 50p rates in the event that the United Kingdom Government proceeded unfairly to reduce them. This system will ensure also that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create damaging tax competition within the United Kingdom by arbitrarily reducing the higher tax rates in the hope of attracting well-off taxpayers from England.”

In other words, Scotland must never be able to outcompete London. It’s OK for Scotland to shoot itself in the foot, but there must never be a good reason for businesses to move from London to Scotland. As they write in section 54: “[T]axes on tax bases, which can freely be relocated to a lower tax jurisdiction, are not appropriate for devolution.”

However, I don’t think they want everybody outwith London to be on benefits, so logically it follows that they’d prefer everybody else in the UK to be public-sector workers. That would explain why they’ve been so angry about the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and all that, because they have the effect of making the public sector more efficient and potentially reducing employment there. Johann Lamont confirmed this back in 2012 when she said that “[if] we need free personal care, we need an honest discussion about what it costs with a well-managed, well-trained workforce.”

Is this really what Labour wants? A UK that is split into two parts: A wealth-creating capitalistic London containing the vast majority of the country’s businesses, where people go to become filthy rich or perish in the process, and the rest of the UK, where everybody has safe, well-paid public sector jobs. Was this their reaction to the collapse of communism? To fix socialism by adding one wealth-creating bit to each country? Do they not worry that London might get fed up with paying for Labour’s socialist nirvana?

There’s almost a religious tone to Labour’s adoration of London. It makes this son of the manse recall the city upon a hill in the Sermon on the Mount, and I also wonder whether they’ve been inspired by Blake’s English anthem (but rather misunderstanding it):

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The inherent volatility of devolution

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.
Pre-1999, the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament seemed like a great idea. Scotland hadn’t had a way to express its identity for nearly three centuries, and creating a forum for developing genuinely Scottish solutions seemed like a good way forward.

However, as times goes by, it’s becoming increasingly clear that asymmetrical devolution (the construction we have in the UK, where there is no English Parliament and Westminster consequently has to act as the parliament for the UK and for England at the same time) is fundamentally flawed.

Proper federal systems (good examples are the US and Germany) work well and seem to be stable. No matter where you live, the local state handles specific issues (e.g., education) and other things are dealt with by the federal government. You don’t feel any less American just because you live in Wisconsin instead of New York.

Centralised states (where there is only one parliament with law-making powers) can also work well (especially when the country isn’t too big). Again all citizens are equal no matter where they live.

However, in the UK there are huge differences. If you’re Scottish, your elected representatives have a say in both the education policies of Scotland and England. On the other hand, your Scottish fisheries minister cannot deal directly with the EU but has to use their English counterpart as an intermediary.

If you feel Scotland is different from the other nations of the UK, why wouldn’t you want to opt for full independence and get the powers to control everything? And if you feel Scotland is just a region of the UK and not really any more different than Yorkshire, why do you need a Scottish Parliament making laws that gradually make Scotland more and more different from the rest of the UK?

When I look at Scottish Labour’s hopelessly unambitious Devo Nano proposal (PDF), I really don’t understand what it is they want to achieve. They probably thought the Scottish Parliament would be a great way to kill the SNP stone dead and keep Scottish Labour in power when the Tories ruled Westminster, but they now know they were wrong.

In their heart of hearts, I suspect Scottish Labour would like to roll back devolution and implement a proper One Nation vision for the UK. However, they know that would be political suicide in Scotland, so they opt for the smallest possible incremental change to devolution in the hope that the Scottish people will reject independence.

At the end of the day, devolution is probably inherently volatile and unstable. It will either lead to full independence sooner or later, or it will somehow get abolished again. Unless you believe Scotland is just another British region, you might as take the plunge in six months’ time and vote Yes.

What will happen to the Scottish political parties after independence?

Everyone leads a party
Everyone leads a party, a photo by WordShore on Flickr.
The Scottish political scene is rather odd when compared to the political spectrum one tends to find in independent democratic countries.

Firstly, independence rather than any other political question is the biggest political shibboleth, separating the SNP, the Greens and the SSP from Labour, the Tories and the LibDems.

Secondly, the fact that the Scottish Parliament has almost no tax-raising powers means that the parties don’t divide into higher-tax-and-higher-spending parties on the left and lower-tax-and-lower-spending parties on the right. I guess the Tories are trying at times, but their message clearly doesn’t appeal because they can’t promise to lower any taxes.

After independence, independence will cease to be a dividing line — I’d be very surprised if any mainstream party advocated reunification with the rUK after independence.

Furthermore, in an independent Scotland it will again be possible for a party to get votes by promising to lower taxes — all Scandinavian countries have powerful centre-right parties, so even in a Scotland committed to the Common Weal project there will be people wanting to reduce the size of the state.

The consequence of all this is that the Scottish political landscape will most likely undergo a period of rapid change after independence.

The exact changes cannot be predicted. It’s likely the SNP and Labour will continue to be the two largest parties, but it’s impossible to say whether Labour will continue to be more right-wing than the SNP, or whether they’ll quickly become a left-wing party again once the ties to London have been cut. Also, although I’m certain there will be a centre-right party, I’m not sure whether it will be a descendant of the Conservatives, Labour or the SNP.

This doesn’t mean that Holyrood will suddenly look like Westminster. For instance, the centre-right party in an independent Scotland is likely to be a decent mildly Conservative/Liberal party more like the ones found in continental Europe rather than being dominated by lunatic Thatcherites, and left-wing parties will probably be in power more frequently than has been the case in the UK till now.

I’m definitely looking forward to Scotland becoming a normal country in this respect, too.

Thatcher on Scottish independence

Baroness Thatcher portrait
Baroness Thatcher portrait, a photo by Downing Street on Flickr.
In Margaret Thatcher’s “The Downing Street Years”, she has this to say about Scottish independence:

If [the Tory Party] sometimes seems English to some Scots that is because the Union is inevitably dominated by England by reason of its greater population. The Scots, being an historic nation with a proud past, will inevitably resent some expressions of this fact from time to time. As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination; thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remaining in the Union. Should they determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure. What the Scots (not indeed the English) cannot do, however, is to insist upon their own terms for remaining in the Union, regardless of the views of the others.

Until I read this, I had been puzzled about why David Cameron agreed to a referendum so readily (to the extent that I’ve been known to joke that Cameron surely must be an undercover agent for the independence movement); however, it’s now clear to me that he’s just following his bible to the letter.

Apart from explaining Cameron’s behaviour, what I find interesting about this paragraph is that I don’t think many people in the pro-independence camp will find much to disagree with. We are in favour of independence exactly because we don’t believe we can insist on our own terms for remaining in the Union, so we want to move to a situation where we are in charge of our own destiny. On the other hand, I think many Scottish Labour politicians will have problems with this Thatcher quote — the way they think they can promise more devolution after a No vote without prior approval from all major UK parties seems to imply they believe Scotland can pick and choose freely from the devolution shelf while remaining in the UK.

Scottish Labour after a Yes vote

Johann Lamont
Originally uploaded by Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour seem to be spending all their resources on attacking the SNP in every way possible and on spreading fear and uncertainty about the prospect of Scottish independence. We haven’t heard much about their visions for Scotland after 2014, no matter whether we vote Yes or No, apart from their determination to introduce university tuition fees and possible also prescription charges.

However, I hope and believe they’ll change after a Yes vote. Here’s how I imagine the process would work:

The day after the referendum (autumn 2014) — Scottish Labour press conference with Johann Lamont, Alastair Darling and the Scottish members of the shadow cabinet in Westminster, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran. They declare that although they’re disappointed with the result, they will respect it, and they will work with the SNP and other Scottish parties to achieve the best possible deal for Scotland in the independence negotiations. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran resign from the Shadow Cabinet.

Late 2014 — Scottish Labour sever all ties to rUK Labour.

Late 2014 — The Scottish independence negotiation teams are announced. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon will head the main team, but Labour politicians get to lead several of the important teams, in particular Douglas Alexander who becomes the head of the foreign affairs team and Jim Murphy who is put in charge of the defence negotiations. Several Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians also get chosen to lead negotiation teams.

Late 2014 — Several Scottish MPs announce they will apply for rUK citizenship and stand for Westminster seats in England. At the same time, some Scottish MPs representing English seats declare their intention to move back to Scotland and try to get into the Scottish Parliament in 2016.

Late 2014 — A few Labour MSPs give up their seats “for health reasons”. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran decide to contest these seats. They are duly elected without too much trouble.

Early 2015 — Johann Lamont decides to resign as leader of Scottish Labour because her leadership was too closely tied to the failed Better Together campaign. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran all decide to run for leader. After an intense campaign, Jim Murphy becomes the new leader of Scottish Labour. [I’m not implying here that Jim Murphy is Labour’s best politician, but he happens to be my local MP.]

7 May 2015 — Westminster elections. By common consent, all main parties in Scotland decide not to put up challengers to the incumbents, given that independence is now only a year away.

April 2016 — Scottish Labour launch their manifesto for Scottish Parliament elections. Now that they can develop their own policies without undue interference from London, they’re suddenly against tuition fees and prescription charges again.

1 May 2016 — Independence Day.

5 May 2016 — Elections to the Scottish Parliament. The winner is unexpectedly Labour, and Jim Murphy becomes Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Scotland.