This blog has been pretty silent for some weeks, largely because of the devolved elections. That may seem odd for a political blog, but since I try not to get engaged in party-political battles I don’t have a lot to say about the campaigns in Scotland or Wales. As the UK Government has been in purdah on devolution-related issues (with the Scotland bill on hold), not been much has been happening on that front either. As the election campaigns enter the final straight, though, there are a couple of things worth saying looking to the future.
The first is that there’s been almost as much an air of unreality about what I’ve observed of the Scottish and Welsh campaigns as there was in last year’s UK election. The extent to which public spending will be constrained in the next few years, and how that will affect devolved governments, has simply not come across in much of the campaigns (of all parties). The Scottish parties appear to have acknowledged it, to an extent, in the last leaders’ debate; the Labour Party in Wales has put financial fairness at the forefront of its campaign (ignoring, though, the extent to which Wales can be treated ‘fairly’ in relative terms but still left far short of money for Labour’s proposals). There are some particularly outstanding pieces of fantasy. Two are Welsh. Most notable is the absurd idea of supporting Welsh-domiciled students studying at English universities, which is a way of subsiding English higher education from a block grant which the Assembly Government has already said is insufficient. The Conservative proposal to shelter health spending from cuts (when it’s already been the recipient of huge amounts of extra spending) is little better. A third, shared by all parties in Scotland save the Conservatives, is the idea of continuing to reject university fees of any sort. Whether that’s the right policy in an abstract sense, the money to support it simply isn’t there.
There’s nothing new in saying that this financial climate will dictate both devolved politics and intergovernmental relations until the next round of elections in 2015/16 (and perhaps longer), though it’s true and worth repeating. But a second problem is likely to be the impact of the gap between expectations and reality, as these financial constraints manifest themselves. On the campaign trail, parties are committing themselves to do many things that they simply won’t be able to. The question is: what effect will that have? When the public realise that all those campaign promises are simply undeliverable, will they switch off from devolved politics? Will it affect the wider legitimacy of the devolved institutions? This sort of approach by the parties makes sense as electoral politics in the short term, but it won’t make it easier for them actually to govern, and it’s hard to see how it will strengthen devolved politics in the longer run.
The second issue worth airing – and it’s a large one – is how the new devolved governments will manage their relations with the UK Government. One racing certainty is that there will still be a high degree of difference in their party composition. The prospect of Labour-Lib Dem coalitions now seems pretty unrealistic purely for electoral reasons, given the way voters have moved away from the Lib Dems. But how might such a coalition work, if it were to come to office? How could a Labour-dominated government, intent on resisting cuts imposed by the UK Coalition, include as a junior partner people whose London colleagues were responsible for those cuts? Even if relations between the partners in London become more distant following the AV referendum, and even if the Lib Dems in Scotland and Wales assert their autonomy to the full, that’s going to be very tricky indeed.
On the whole, the problems are probably worst for Labour. Unlike the other parties, they have to contend with the complex intra-party relationships (which doesn’t bother the nationalist parties), while having realistic hopes of winning office (unlike Conservatives and Lib Dems, now). In Wales, the problem is going to be how to campaign for ‘fair’ (and increased) funding without taking on the issue of fiscal powers as well, since Labour seem set on resisting that. I’ve pointed out before (HERE) that it would be quite possible for Wales to be treated fairly without getting another penny to spend. There’s also the long-standing tension within the party about whether it’s AMs or MPs who are the key players. Peter Hain’s absence from the election campaign – after his very limited involvement in the referendum campaign – is telling. So does the party’s Welsh manifesto. The ambivalence for the last 12 years in where the centre of power in Welsh Labour lies may, at last, have been resolved.
The problems for Scottish Labour are if anything greater. The challenge a Scottish Labour government would face is how to ‘fight’ London, while trying at the same time to avoid a constitutional debate. The standard playbook for social-democratic governments taking office at sub-state level when there’s a right of centre government at state-wide level is to demand wider powers, particularly over welfare and finance. For Labour, that debate is largely done and dusted, and the answer is Calman (more or less). It seems that it doesn’t want to seek further enhanced powers, and it certainly won’t want a debate that will benefit the SNP indirectly if not directly. To resist UK policies you can’t change, without seeking the powers to make your own policies in those areas, is a pretty difficult position to take. At the very best, it involves admitting the subservience of Scottish politics to that at UK level, since that’s where the key decisions are taken and should continue to be. (This position puts Scottish Labour at some distance from where Scottish public opinion is, though.) It also means agreeing to administer the implications of UK-level policies, even when you don’t like them and have had no role in deciding them. It comes perilously close to saying (as has been said by Labour politicians in a Welsh context) that devolution only works if Labour is in office in both London and Edinburgh – which is pretty much an admission of defeat for the whole constitutional enterprise. And then there are the problems that will come as the Scotland bill is implemented. That makes a huge set of political challenges for any party.
Whatever the outcomes from voting on Thursday, the UK is in for a choppy time of it in the next few years. Managing those will call for a good deal of skill and ingenuity on the part of all involved. However, whether the UK Government has quite grasped that remains unclear.