This morning, the Labour Party launches its 2015 manifesto in Manchester. It pledges to hold a UK wide "people-led" constitutional convention and commits any new Labour government to additional Scottish devolution. The key paragraph reads as follows:
"In September 2014, people across Scotland voted overwhelmingly for change. Labour will keep its vow and implement the Smith Agreement in full. And we will go further, with a Home Rule Bill to give extra powers to Scotland over tax, welfare and jobs. Rates of income tax will be set in Scotland. Billions of pounds of social security spending will be devolved, including benefits that support disabled people. The Work Programme will also be devolved along with a greater ability to invest in capital projects.
The new devolution settlement will recognise the strength and security offered by being part of the United Kingdom. We will maintain the Barnett formula, and Scotland will continue to benefit from pooling and sharing resources across the UK."
For all of its superficial conclusiveness, this paragraph leaves urgent questions about the contents of the "vow plus", advanced by Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy, unanswered. Labour pledge to "go further" than Smith, but go on to list only policies which the Smith Commission agreed to devolve, and which we already find in the draft clauses of the Scotland Bill published by the Scotland Office.
There is nothing here which the Tory and Liberal Democratic coalition have not proposed. So what more are Labour proposing? What precise elaboration on the Smith heads of terms are they planning? Smith came to the conclusion that housing benefit could not be disentangled from the universal credit. No mention of housing benefit here. So what is the scheme, Jim? Ed?
Nothing in today's manifesto affords even a speck of illumination. We are left where we started with Labour: no minimum wage, no pensions, no employment law, no Equality Act, no national insurance, no housing benefit, no universal credit, no broadcasting, no corporation tax, no inheritance tax, no capital gains, no renewable energies, no oil.
The draft clauses of the Scotland Bill were clearly Treasury work: grudging, minimalist and controlling. There are a number of different ways in which the broad, airy proposals of the Smith Commission might be realised, some bolder, others more cautious and limited. The devil is, proverbially, in the legal detail. And in drafting that detail for Alastair Carmichael, UK civil servants adopted the most restrictive alternative at every turn. In the light of today's manifesto, I increasingly wonder if the Murphy/Brown "vow plus" rhetoric really amounts only to this -- a commitment to give effect to the Smith Commission in a very slightly more ambitious way than the outgoing coalition has proposed. Haud me back...