Category Archives: Labour

How Labour messed up 1998-model devolution

It’s intriguing to see various senior figures from the New Labour era call for a return to something much more like new Labour to revive the Labour Party. Those figures seem to overlook how responsible New Labour’s politics and legacy are for the mess Labour now finds itself in. (On the nature of that mess, I agree with quite a lot of what Paul Mason says here; it is very clearly a structural problem caused by the collapse of an electoral coalition, not just a question of policy detail or leadership.)
New Labour helped create the mess, at least in its territorial dimension, in two particular ways. First, its political economy depended on getting London to generate large tax revenues to pay for redistributive benefits and much of public services in the rest of the UK, and satisfying those already owning property in London through a property boom. This has left a lasting and damaging legacy by creating or at least magnifying huge inequalities and resentments arising from different regional economies and levels of prosperity.  (In technical terms, it sought to use a huge vertical fiscal imbalance to redress horizontal inequalities.  What actually happened was that those horizontal inequalities increased.)
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Filed under Devolution finance, Elections, English questions, Labour, Scotland, Wales

Devolution, territorial politics and the general election

This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will: Continue reading

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Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

‘The Staggers’ post on income tax devolution and Scottish Labour

Guy Lodge and I had a post in the New Statesman’s politics blog, The Staggers, on Friday about income tax devolution in Scotland. 

Since this went up, there has been further coverage of the story.  John McTernan came up with a rather doubtful proposal in Friday’s Scotsman – calling for substantial welfare devolution (including key UK-wide redistributive benefits like Job Seeker’s Allowance), but no fiscal devolution.  Saturday’s Guardian leader highlighted the importance of a ‘proposition that goes beyond the status quo’ from the unionist parties as part of their campaign in the Scottish independence referendum.   Scotland on Sunday’s coverage includes the front-page lead, a detailed analysis piece, and a leader Unsurprisingly, Alex Salmond is making the most of Labour’s disarray. 

The Staggers post can be found here, and the text is also below. 

Labour must not retreat from further devolution to Scotland

Those concerned about the survival of the Union would do well to turn their attention away from David Cameron’s “seven months to save the UK” speech and look instead at developments taking place in the Scottish Labour Party. Worryingly, just at the moment when the Yes camp appear to be gaining some momentum in the polls, Scottish Labour appears to be retreating from providing Scottish voters with a clear alternative to independence in the form of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. Continue reading

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Filed under Labour, Referendums, Scotland, Scottish independence

Devo More as a plan for a revivified Union

Monday’s Herald had a story based on an interview with me (here), based on something I’ve written as part of the IPPR’s Devo More project.  In this paper, I set out the Devo More strategy as a whole, and explain how it fits with the political traditions of each of the major UK-wide parties.  There are two key arguments: much the same package of devolution serves the interests of all three traditions and the parties that currently embody them pretty well, and that this approach to further devolution will reinforce the Union not weaken it.

I’ve written a comment piece for the Herald which summarises the chapter and its overall argument.  That can be found here, and its text is also below.  The chapter on which all this is based can be found on the IPPR’s website here.

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Filed under Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Publications and projects, Scotland

Wales’s new fiscal package: the UK Government response to Silk

Friday’s news had ample coverage of the UK Government’s decision about financing Welsh devolved government, following the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report from last November.  No doubt the looming anniversary of the publication of the Silk report triggered a certain sense of urgency.  Despite promises that the UK Government would produce its response in ‘the spring’ (and strong hints this would be earlier in the spring rather than later), that has been delayed and delayed.  At the end of June, Secretary of State David Jones said it had been postponed until after the summer, and now pretty late in the autumn it has finally materialised.

There has been wide coverage of the UK response.  The Western Mail’s article by David Cameron and Nick Clegg is here, and their news coverage is here, here and here.  BBC News coverage is here, and analysis here.  The Guardian’s story is here.  The official Wales Office press release is here, and the written ministerial statement is here.

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Lib Dems, Wales

Devolution literacy and party conference policies

The party conference season always produces a crop of policy announcements that are meant to be eye-catching.  The extent to which these are thought through is often doubtful, though – these are announcements for political purposes, not necessarily to work in the real world. That also means how their devolution implications is addressed is often rather sketchy.   Regular readers of this blog will know that concern about ‘devolution literacy’ is a long-standing one of mine, and one which I find has slowly but materially improved over the courts of the 2000s and 2010s.

Either devolution has bedded itself into party-policy framers’ consciousness, or something has changed.  When he made his announcement about free school meals for 5-7 year olds in England, Nick Clegg was keen to point out that funding would be given to the devolved administrations to decide whether to follow suit.  (The political pressure to do so will be considerable, of course – a lot of parents’ and poverty groups will be asking pointed questions about it.)  And that’s all well and good; the Treasury’s Statement of Funding Policy provides that spending on the schools budget has a 100 per cent comparability percentage for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – so any extra spending on that budget automatically triggers a full population-related comparable payment.

Ed Miliband’s widely-trailed announcement about cancelling a cut in corporation tax and instead making one in business rates (strictly, non-domestic rate or NDR) is more problematic.  The aim is to favour smaller businesses, which may not be incorporated (or have profits), but which necessarily occupy business premises.  Like Clegg, Multiband will apparently announce a change for England, with funding for devolved governments to make a similar cut.  The problem is that this is not what the Statement of Funding Policy says.  NDR is only 100 per cent comparable for Wales, where a complex England and Wales pooling mechanism currently exists.  Even there, there are plans for change following the Morgan Review last year (BBC News summary here, full documentation here).  In Scotland and Northern Ireland, NDR is 0 per cent comparable – because it’s regarded as fully devolved.  So any decision for England would not automatically trigger comparables for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

There are ways to resolve this, of course.  The easiest is probably the messiest – a one-off concession relating to adding a specific block of money to the devolved governments’ budgetary baselines.  (If the comparability percentage were changed, it would lead to further complications in future.)  Even then, though, there is no guarantee whatever that devolved governments will use the extra money in the way UK Government might desire.  (Indeed, the Scottish Government has been imaginative in making use of NDR as an instrument of local economic policy – extra charges for out of town superstores, for example.)  But the point is that Miliband’s attempt to make an impression by reshaping where the burden of business taxation falls has run into the practical realities of how the post-devolution, fiscally decentralised UK functions.  While Miliband deserves 8/10 for effort in thinking about the problem, it’s only 4/10 for success in doing so.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Labour, Lib Dems, Policy issues

The UK-Welsh Government agreement on borrowing powers and Barnett convergence

The agreement between the UK and Welsh Governments on borrowing powers and finance announced on Wednesday has been much trumpeted by the Welsh Government.  In truth, it’s hard to see that it adds up to a great deal, and it raises more questions than it answers.

The press statement relating to the agreement can be found on the Wales Office’s here and the Welsh Government’s here.  The Agreement itself is on HM Treasury’s website here, and the ‘technical annex’ (which considers the operation of the Barnett formula in relation to Wales) is here.  My own earlier posts on these negotiations, and the Welsh Government’s approach to them, can be found HERE and HERE.

It’s worth remembering that this ‘intergovernmental’ process was adopted by choice of the Welsh Government, which sought to ensure that these issues were kept out of the remit of the Silk Commission.  That of course makes the work of the Silk Commission all the harder, as matters which relate to how devolved government in Wales is funded are excluded from its remit.  That was the subject of particular criticism in a Lords debate on the subject back in July.  In effect, Silk can only consider half the subject.  A Welsh Government official defended this to me on the ground that the issues regarding both borrowing and the block grant were now clear, thanks to the Holtham Commission, and what was left was the political matter of resolving them.  Implicitly, the Welsh Government bet that it could get a better deal by negotiating them directly with the UK Government, rather than letting them form part of the remit of the cross-party Silk Commission.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Wales, Whitehall

The Welsh legislative programme for 2012-13

With rather curious timing, the Welsh Government announced its legislative programme for the coming year just before the summer recess.  The news release is here, and there’s news coverage from the Western Mail here.  This announcement follows one last year, laying out a legislative programme for the whole of the Assembly’s term.

There are eight bills for 2012-13.  Several of these are likely to test the limits of the National Assembly’s law-making powers, either because of the scope of Schedule 7 as it is drafted, or because of their effects on the remaining powers of UK ministers.  The latter is particularly like to be a problem with the Human Transplantation bill, creating an opt-out rather than opt-in regime for organ donations.  (The organ transplantation system is presently run on a UK-wide basis by NHS Blood & Transplant, for which the UK Secretary of State for Health is responsible, and regulated by another UK body, the Human Tissue Authority, although that is slated to have its functions changed under the Public Bodies Act 2011.  See HERE for further discussion of the legal problems it faces.)  Similar issues may arise with the Education, Local Democracy and perhaps Social Services bills, depending on how those are framed.  That means that issues of amending Schedule 7 (for which new procedures were set out in the early summer), or obtaining the Secretary of State’s consent where there is an effect on a UK ministers’ functions, will be needed.

One thing is very clear about legislating in Cardiff Bay; the new arrangements under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 replaced one set of difficulties with another.  The National Assembly simply does not have an untrammelled power to legislate for ‘health’ or ‘education’, even if the general public has the impression that it should.

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Filed under Labour, Legislation, Wales

‘Scotsman’ article on Devo More and a referendum

Some time ago – before Easter, in fact – I had an article in the Scotsman about how enhanced devolution can be part of the Scottish independence referendum debate, despite the determination of the Unionist parties to have a single Yes/No question in that vote. In essence, that requires the ‘devolution plus’ option to be developed so that it is a clearly framed and worked-through scheme, with broad political support (from the Unionist parties, and more widely), before the referendum. Otherwise, a pro-Union vote will necessarily be a negative one, and that will make the pro-Union case a much harder one to make.

The article can be found here, and a webchat about the article and related issues I did with Scotsman readers can be found here.

The text of the article as I filed it is below.

‘Devo more’: on the table, even if it’s not on the referendum ballot

The debate about Scotland’s constitutional future will soon come to another punctuation point.  The UK Government’s consultation on an independence referendum will shortly result in the making of a section 30 order (something I outlined in this paper back in June 2011) , and the publication of the UK Government’s summary of responses to its consultation shows pretty clearly that London intends to limit the choice before voters to a single question, not two as sought by the Scottish Government.  The referendum will be a straight choice between the Union and independence, with the possibility of further powers afterward.

This position suits the Unionist parties, if not the SNP.  Quite a number on the Unionist side are opposed to any extension in the scope of devolved powers.  Many others support more devolution, including the Liberal Democrats and many in Labour, but are not clear what that means.  Politically, the Unionist side thinks it has a better chance of winning a Yes or No referendum than one offering several options – what one might call an ‘excluded middle’ strategy.  This is essentially a negative approach, and contrasts with the positive one of the SNP.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, Labour, Lib Dems, Referendums, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, Westminster

Scottish independence referendum: the UK Government’s démarche

The excitement over the weekend about ‘UK intervention’ in the arguments about a Scottish referendum has now led to some sort of conclusion.  On Tuesday we had a ministerial statement from Michael Moore stipulating how important it is that a referendum be ‘legal, fair and decisive’ (available here).  We also had a consultation paper setting out how the UK Government intends that be achieved (available here).  The consultation exercise closes on 9 March 2012.  The paper includes a sample Section 30 order, which would be the means by which the UK Government would confer power on Holyrood to hold the referendum.  In doing so, it sets out some ground rules.  There’s been a prompt response from the Scottish Government, with threatening noises about their ‘authority’ to call a referendum, a declaration that the referendum will be in autumn 2014, and apparently Scottish Cabinet agreement on a paper to be published probably next week.

I have been advocating a Section 30 order for some time, so am glad to see that this has now been adopted.  It has, of course, been under discussion for a while, though within each government rather than between them.  It is the best way to put the power to hold a referendum in the hands of the Parliament with a mandate to hold one.  It addresses a fundamental problem about a referendum – that the Parliament with a mandate to hold one doesn’t, in fact, have the powers to do.  The Scottish Parliament simply can’t, lawfully, call the referendum the SNP (and many in UK Government, including David Cameron) want.

A Section 30 order needs approval from both Houses of the UK Parliament as well as the Scottish Parliament, but like all secondary legislation can’t be amended once it is tabled.  It must simply be approved, or not.  Because it needs Holyrood’s consent, an unfair attempt to ‘interfere’ in a Scottish referendum is simply impossible.  If the Scottish Parliament wishes to reject such an interference, it can do so – though the SNP will then have to deal with the consequences of that rejection for the referendum they have committed to hold.

It would be possible to frame a Section 30 order so that it would materially affect how the Scottish Government proceeds.  It’s hard to see how what’s now proposed does so.  It would give Holyrood clear powers to hold a single-option, single-question referendum, held by a date to be stipulated but not yet decided, regulated by the Electoral Commission, and using the ordinary electoral roll for Holyrood elections.   This does not accord with what the Scottish Government has suggested, but one has to ask how fundamental the differences are.  Does the SNP think that it’s fundamental to such a referendum that it alone be able to frame the question, or that 16- and 17-year olds be able to vote?   The issue of date has been a major point of friction, but Alex Salmond’s announcement on Tuesday that it would be in the autumn of 2014 is at least a step toward resolves that issue.  Similarly, the Scottish Government has now agreed on their being only one question, not two. As important as the date itself is knowing the date – that way, the campaign starts to have a shape, and it becomes clear when the ‘uncertainty’ caused by a looming referendum will end.  This whole palaver would probably not have arisen, and certainly would have had much less steam, if the Scottish Government had made the statements about date and a single question sooner.

The discussions about a referendum date, the number of options or questions, or who would be eligible to vote have all served to keep debate running, but could have been disposed of much more easily had the Scottish Government wished.

The story of how this situation developed deserves to be written up more fully.  The whole thing first emerged in public on Sunday evening in a rather confusing and garbled report from Patrick Wintour of the Guardian (now in a less garbled form here).  The story of subsequent events is partly told in Guardian articles by Nicholas Watt (here) and Severin Carrell (here); my information is that this is only part of the story.  There appears to have been a deliberate attempt by David Mundell, Scotland Office junior minister, to set up the aggressive use of a Section 30 order to control the terms of a referendum. This involved direct engagement with a number of Labour MPs as well as Conservatives, but by-passing his Coalition colleagues.  George Osborne’s role has emerged later, but he has been expressing concern about the effect of ‘constitutional uncertainty’ on the Scottish economy for some time.  The Lib Dems were largely marginalised in this process – and the Labour front bench was blindsided.  The idea of an 18-month ‘sunset’ clause (more accurately, window during which the referendum could be held) appears to have been a Conservative idea not supported by the Lib Dems, hence its being kicked out during the finalising of the consultation paper.  It’s one of several points in which the order could have been used to set out terms of the referendum that few in Scotland would think fair.

The difficult point for the UK Government has always been that a section 30 order needs to be attractive enough to ensure it has SNP support at Holyrood, but nonetheless does not simply let the SNP shape the whole referendum to suit itself.  The Lib Dems seem to have understood that an order needed to be essentially fair to secure that approval – the Conservatives (and some in Labour) to have believed it could be used as a nat-bashing exercise. In reality, the latter approach would not only ensure that the order did not pass, but also would give the SNP the opportunity to blame the UK Government for its failure.  The only way for an order to get through would be by enabling the SNP to have more or less the referendum it wants.  This round of the game can be won – and can only be won – by playing it straight.

Press suggestions that the SNP may now refuse to endorse the Section 30 order are intriguing.  The problem the SNP have to grapple with is the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament.  The UK Government’s legal advice is that Holyrood has no power to legislate for a referendum touching on independence.  I don’t agree with that view (I think a referendum authorising the Scottish Government to enter into independence negotiations would be within Holyrood’s competence – but not one purporting to give a mandate for independence).  Legal opinions, of course, vary; some, such as Adam Tomkins, think there’s no power at all.  The Scottish Government’s view appears to be that the Parliament’s powers in relation to itself are such that it could have a referendum about extending those powers – that’s why it framed the question it proposed in February 2010 in the way it did.  They’ve also used a good deal of bullying rhetoric to claim powers that few lawyers (even ones of nationalist inclination) outside the Scottish Government believe they have. Even then, the best the Scottish Government could do resulted in a convoluted question which was hard to understand, and which would be unlikely to survive scrutiny by the Electoral Commission. (That’s why the paper also proposed using an ad hoc commission, not the Electoral Commission, to regulate it.)  All this would at best be right at the margin of devolved powers.  It would almost inevitably be subject to challenge in the courts (by a private party if not the UK Government), and would very probably be held ultra vires.

That would not, politically, be entirely a disaster for the SNP.  They would be able to say they had delivered on their manifesto commitment, which was to introduce a referendum bill – not to get it passed, or actually to hold a referendum.  They would also be able to blame the UK Government and the UK Supreme Court for this failure; they’d emphasise both Scottish difference from the UK, and the refusal of the UK to allow something for which there was a clear public mandate.  It’s doubtful whether that would satisfy their members, or convince the wider electorate that the SNP kept their promises, though.

If the SNP actually want a referendum as a means to secure independence, though, the considerations are rather different.  In that case, the need is to have a referendum, and that means passing a legally competent referendum bill. The Scottish Government know how strong (and how weak) their legal position is.  Even Alex Salmond acknowledges this; on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Wednesday morning, he said there was ‘no problem’ about a Section 30 order.  A Section 30 order, with some strings, offers them as legally certain a route to a referendum as there can be.  Trying to block the order really means taking a punt either on winning a political battle as they lose a legal one, or counting on the Parliament’s existing legal powers as adequate for a referendum bill.  This is, in a way, a Clint Eastwood moment.  The lawyers advising the Scottish Government know just how empty their legal armoury is, so just how lucky does the SNP feel?

The political dilemma the SNP face would be greater if the UK Government had handled the issue of a Section 30 order with greater competence.  As it is, the initial reports and presentation have left a clear impression that this is an exercise designed to undermine Scottish control of a referendum.  That impression may not be justified, but the failure to understand how difficult the politics of this were in Scotland is a major failing by the UK Government.  The Liberal Democrats seem to have done as good a job as possible in recovering the situation, but the best that can be said is that they’ve turned a disaster into a mere cock-up.  (Politics being the rough game it is, an achievement like that seldom gets much notice let alone reward.)  On top of that, there is also the huge gap that clearly now exists between the three unionist parties.  A cross-party effort will needed to run a pro-union referendum campaign, but this doesn’t augur well for assembling that sort of coalition.  Labour’s apparent determination to avoid talking about forms of enhanced devolution, while forcing a choice between ‘separation’ and the Union’, makes that all the harder.  (I’ll return to this issue in due course.)

On balance, this is both a necessary and a fair step in the constitutional debates.  A Section 30 order is the right way to put the powers to hold a referendum in the place where they should be.  Salmond has said that he wants a referendum ‘built in Scotland, which is made in Scotland and goes through the Scottish parliament’.   The order is a means of achieving that – and probably the only way of doing so lawfully.  It may not be quite what the SNP would choose in an ideal world, but it’s very largely what they want, in a workable way.  The key difference is over date, and that looks like a difference of nine months – a pretty paltry issue over which to have a first-rank crisis, especially as the UK now has a proposed referendum date from the Scottish Government.  Beyond that, there’s a difference about ‘authority’ to call a referendum, but that’s largely bluster.  The legal position is reasonably clear; the moral position is much clearer.  The idea that the Scottish Parliament has the power to cal the sort of referendum the  SNP want can be no more than a mirage.   Privately, the Scottish Government appear to realise how limited their legal powers are.  The UK Government (and the Labour Party) have now conceded Holyrood’s moral or political authority to call a poll.  The differences are really rather slight.  Rejecting the order would be a very risky step indeed for the SNP, and it’s hard to see how they really gain from prolonging an argument over something that’s very close to what they want.

The likelihood has to be that after a modest amount of pushing and shoving the Section 30 order will be made.  Either the ‘constitutional crisis’ is bluster, or the SNP are more interested in prolonging a constitutional debate (or a debate about the debate), rather than holding the referendum they have said they want.  But the UK Government’s collective approach to constitutional politics has done their position a serious disservice, for which they may pay a high price.

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Filed under Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Referendums, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, Westminster