19 October 2014

Scottish Labour: in the beartrap?

A question of low, cynical politics: what happens to the Smith Commission on enhanced devolution if and when Labour drags its feet? What do the Liberals and the Tories do? In Westminster's recent debate on English votes for English laws - oh, and #devosomething for Scotland - William Hague told the Commons:

"The enactment of what we are all talking about on Scottish devolution is of course after the general election. Draft legislation in January, a bill to be introduced whoever wins the general election in May. So that is to be enacted at the beginning of the next parliament. I believe that we can, the country can reach a decision."

A guileless reading of this comment suggests that the UK government is committed to "constructive cross-party working" - which is really to say, getting Labour onside with whatever the Smith Commission comes up with. The Greens and the SNP can go hang. The critical question is: who might hold the keys to Downing Street? The possibility - even the likelihood - of a hung parliament being elected in 2015 significantly complicates this question. But it also opens up opportunities for political mischief - if the coalition parties prove sufficiently Machiavellian and are willing to play fast and loose and ruggedly political with the constitution. 

There was a certain sinister grace to the way in which, after the referendum result, Cameron drew a dagger on the Labour Party. Osborne's fingerprints were all over it. The quid pro quo for enhanced Scottish autonomy? English votes for English laws. By hook or by crook, Labour looked buggered. Which of these unpalatable choices would sir prefer? 

If Labour ratted on additional autonomy for Scotland to save its Westminster skin, Miliband's 35% strategy would be bust by ructions in his Scottish heartlands. If not, and the party endorsed the idea of constricting the voting rights of its Scottish MPs, there is a real possibility of Labour being in government but not in power when it comes to the English domestic agenda of health, education and so on. Alternatively, as recent weeks have seen, Labour could choose to box itself in on the issue, stammering out unconvincing accounts of why their representatives from Glasgow should be allowed to impose their preferences on tuition fees and models of health service delivery on the English people. Quite the predicament.

Hague's conciliatory comments might suggest that Cameron's unanticipated backstab was a rare lapse in the consensual tone which will predominate in the discussion of more devolution for Scotland. I'm not so sure. If we take Hague seriously, then the Smith Commission would have to settle on whatever lowest common denominator the reluctant representatives of the People's Party are willing to agree. But what if Hague's comments are not the innocent, good faith commitment they seem, but a canny bit of expectations management, anticipating another blow of the stiletto to an unsuspecting Labour's soft underbelly?

If Labour's willingness to endorse additional autonomy for Holyrood falls significantly short of the level the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are willing to accept, they are presented with a clear political opportunity to sideline the Labour Party, to sow discord internally, and to imperil the base strategy which seems Miliband's best hope of seizing back power. And with a general election pending, why not take it? Labour's submission to Lord Smith goes no further than their Devolution Commission. Complacent as ever, Labour's scheme seems to be to huddle behind the guarantee that the Commission is a cross-party process, sheltering the party from its own lack of ambition, secure in the belief that they must be kept on side, come what may. This may prove a serious political misjudgment.

If I was a Tory, pondering the general election, I'd have mischief on my mind. At present, I'd be quietly cultivating the idea that this cross-party coalition would deliver. You've got to keep your options open, after all. It might come off. Perhaps the Labour negotiators will be willing and able to advance from their pre-referendum position, only too happy to use the escape hatch of the Smith Commission process to flee from and forget their bungling past plans for enhanced autonomy. But if Labour lives down to expectations, participating in a grudging spirit of mendicancy and paucity of ambition, there's a political bear trap ready to be sprung, and few reasons for the Tories and the Liberals not to spring it.

If the outward show is anything to go by, the governing voices in Labour seem to think a lowest common denominator deal will cut it. But what if the Tories and the Liberals take a different tack? What if, instead of scurrying to whatever squishy middle Labour is willing to occupy, they sideline the People's Party entirely, collapsing the all-party Smith Commission and endorsing a newer, more radical vision of Scottish autonomy which excludes Labour and denounces them for a nest of  useless fearties?

If this was to work politically, they'd have to make the collapse of the Smith Commission look like Labour's fault, and justify it on the grounds that Labour lacked ambition for Scotland. A summary survey of the newspapers this morning suggests that this is a story which many folk would be only too willing to accept and believe. You can imagine David Cameron's speech, delivered in Edinburgh, more in sorrow than in anger, gleefully appropriating Labour's devolution vocabulary and giving them another dose of Osborne's dagger:

"We entered this process in good faith. As the record shows, we always hoped and believed that a common sense deal could be struck which would reflect the aspirations of the Scottish people, and which all of us, every UK political party, could endorse. I made a solemn vow. I promised the Scottish people that we'd get this done, and I will keep faith with them.  
It would be a dereliction of duty on my part, to allow the Labour Party's lack of ambition and vision to stand in the way of honouring our promises to the Scottish people.   
It is with some regret, therefore, that I today announce that it has not been possible to include the Labour Party in our radical plans for Scottish Home Rule. We want to see a powerhouse Scottish Parliament, responsible for what she earns, able to take big decisions about public services and welfare. Labour, by contrast, want a second-rate assembly with powers not fit for Scotland's place in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. That is not acceptable to us, and I believe, is not acceptable to Scotland. 
At every turn, Labour as blocked good ideas for Scotland, and good ideas for the United Kingdom. Because of their lack of vision, and their lack of faith in the Scottish people's capacity for greater self-government within the United Kingdom, we had to leave them behind. Scotland and Britain expect more than this discredited, clapped-out Labour Party is able or willing to offer them. 
But we are not disheartened. Our plans go further, are bolder. We are ambitious for Scotland, and for the United Kingdom. And if we are re-elected in 2015, we will give Scotland the powers she needs. Part of this country, but able to set her own priorities. Part of Britain, but with real home rule." 

Cue hilarious turmoil in Labour's back yard in Scotland, as the "party of devolution" is well and truly trolled. Do the Tories stand directly to benefit in terms of additional seats and MPs? Probably not. But Labour's campaign in Scotland in 2015 is already shaping up to face formidable difficulties. Things don't have to go calamitously badly for Ed Miliband in Scotland to put his position in Westminster at risk.

If Labour hopes to run the general election as a base strategy + alienated Liberal Democrats, anything the Tories can do to disrupt and imperil Labour's base of support looks worth doing. If they support the devolution schemes anyway, why not try to squeeze partisan political benefit from it and screw over your opponents at the same time? I know what I'd do.

If Labour prove reluctant and unambitious negotiators in the Smith process, there's obvious space for a counter-intuitive Tory strategy here, and a golden chance to fling a lit firecracker into the powder magazine of the Scottish Labour Party. Don't be shocked if they take it.


  1. "Do the Tories stand directly to benefit in terms of additional seats and MPs? Probably not."

    It wouldn't surprise me if the Tories picked up three or four extra seats, simply because the Liberal Democrats face a probable wipe-out in mainland Scotland, while the Labour vote will be much reduced. The Tories, on the other hand, have already been reduced to their core vote and are coming from a very low electoral base. Expect the BBC to spin any minor revival as proof that the promise of further devolution has saved the Union.

    1. Mr Anorak,

      You're right: it was a loosely worded aside. Certainly, there are spots of the country where they look potentially in contention, but I doubt their attitude to more devolution will be of the essence to it.

  2. A good dissection of the current scenario. It will be a hung parliament in 2015, so I would guess it will depend which other parties the Tory/Labour parties want to cajole and woo in order to support their new coalition government in Westminster. Tories + Ukip + Northern Ireland parties? Labour +....maybe the ever adaptable Lib Dems, what's left of them?
    Hopefully any SNP/Green/SSP MPs will give any new coalition a wide berth, whatever they are "promised".
    The Smith Commission has no intention of delivering anything except what it is told to by whichever of the Westminster parties is currently pulling it's strings.

    1. Potentially difficult choices to be made here.

      We can rule out any prospect of a coalition, but if the numbers add up, you might expect folk to come chapping, with a confidence and supply deal.

    2. Agreed, with EVEL confidence and supply is the best the SNP could get, but they could extract useful booty from that. Like the power to hold binding referenda whenever and on whatever we might so wish.

      The Greens in NZ enabled three successive Labour led minority coalitions to be stable and got several policies through as a result.

  3. Which path do Scottish Labour follow,Gordon Browns or Independent Labour?

    1. Those two paths offer ScotLab a choice between two horrendous alternatives.

      The "Independent Labour" notion being floated at the moment may have long-term benefits, and it could now be paying dividends if it had been pursued in 1999 (or even in 2007, when Wendy Alexander took a tentative step in that direction and was promptly defenestrated). But at this stage, a rebranding is nowhere near enough. Its only chance of credibility would be for it to decontaminate itself assertively disown not just the Blair-Brown legacy, but most of ScotLab's record in Holyrood. A referendum vote for independence would have created the opportunity to do so promptly and credibly; but after Labour's calamitously pyrrhic "victory" in September, it would take a decade for IndyLab to earn respect.

      On the other hand, the Brown path condemns ScotLab to continued decline, probably precipitous, in the hope that the still-breathing shadow can help rescue English Labour.

      So, ScotLab has a choice of two forms of car-crash. They might as well toss a coin.

  4. Brilliant analysis, noting the ruthlessly Machiavellian approach being taken by the Conservatives.

    But it studiously avoids mention of the elephant in the room.

    For all their mutual loathing, the SNP and the Tories have long shared a common enemy in Labour. Now, for the first time in decades, their wildly contrasting objectives meet in a huge tactical opportunity. Each has independently laid a trap for Labour, which has managed to simultaneously manoeuvre itself into both traps with such determination that they have effectively merged.

    The SNP and Tories are careful not to acknowledge this, and to avoid creating a Molotov-Ribbentrop moment. But is was notable that in last Tuesday's devo-debate in Westminster, the SNP and Tories extended to each other a respect which both denied to Labour.

    It suits the SNP to detach Scotland as much as possible from Westminster, and the Tories have belatedly woken up to the opportunity which it offers them. The Tories had a similar (tho much weaker) chance in 1992, but chose not to take it; this time they would be fools to miss their chance.

    UKIP is redesigning the English political landscape in ways which may damage all the LibLabCon parties, and will certainly hurt the Tories. Out-devolving Labour is the Westminster Tory chance to do some remapping in their own favour ... while Scotland gains the powers it seeks.

    1. Studious evasion, indeed. A topic worthy of another blog.

    2. Mine enemy's enemy is my friend. Simple as that.

    3. Aye but look at what Hitler started in Russia after they ganged up to betray the Poles

  5. I think your basic account is right. For the Tories, England is the prize and Labour is the main enemy. Scotland is a sideshow and some incidental benefits for the SNP are a price worth paying if Labour gets comprehensively shafted.

    But your analysis largely ignores the joker in the pack - UKIP. Imagine the following scenario (not all that improbable). Come April 2014 the polls show UKIP doing well in England but languishing in Scotland. So Nigel Farage announces that devolution poses an existential threat to the UK and that UKIP promises to abolish the Scottish Parliament, do away with the Barnett formula, and anything else you care to think of. This could resonate well with the kind of English voter that UKIP is targeting, damaging Labour and Tories alike. In Scotland 90% of the voters would be outraged and the SNP would benefit hugely. Would UKIP really care? If they ended with a solid footing in a hung Parliament the resulting constitutional crisis could lead who knows where.

    The key point is that, with at least five significant players, the Westminster election increasingly resembles a game of multidimensional chess, where apparently counterintuitive moves can produce startling results.

    1. I think any attempt by UKIP in Westminster in 2015 to scrap the Scottish Parliament would lead to a pro-independence landslide in Holyrood in 2016 followed by a short and victorious IndyRef2.

  6. Cameron framing the debate as EVEL is very clever politics. Of course the Tories don't give a damn for Scotland, nor do they need to count on any significant support in Scotland to rule the UK - everyone knows that.

    But Labour are very vulnerable in Scotland now and as Andrew suggests, in turn so is Miliband's dismal 35% 'strategy'.

    The problem with the politics of triangulation, dissimulation, focus-group nonsense and ignoring your own base is that eventually the base gets fed up (the party hollows out) and of the other folks there is, eventually, no-one left to lie to.

    Thus SLAB are in danger of becoming as toxic as the Tories in Scotland. Perhaps more so. And, of course, in England it cannot be assumed that Labour are immune from the Ukip factor as the by-election result in Manchester hints at trouble ahead.

    Good. The idea that mainstream parties are politically immortal - no matter how moribund or dishonest, parasitical or corrupt - is a false one. Just look at the 'strange' death of the old Liberal party in the 1920s. The combined % vote that the two main WM parties have gained in UK GEs has been rapidly in decline for some time now.

    The old WM system is so unfit for purpose (see Tom Nairn on this for chapter and verse). Assuming that purpose is not simply enriching plutocrats and their political hacks then almost everyone senses the system is broken, even if that is only translated in a popular but inchoate feeling of anti-politics “sod the lot of them” etc.

    1. Was making the self-same point about the illusion of party political immortality to a friend the other day. Things change, and once powerful organisations slough off, sinking back into the obscurity from which they pulled themselves. Your examples are apposite. Those haughtily swatting aside UKIP and promising the "return to normality" should apply themselves to the recent political genesis of the SNP, and its trajectory from a band of eccentrics to where we are now. Political normality is always being redefined. Only a numpty can't see that.

      It seems to me that we've reached the bumpy end of the Thatcher/Blair model of thumping governments, and many folk are still working the experience out.

    2. Well thank you for those kind remarks.

      Yes political 'normality' is always potentially up for grabs. The SNP is a very good example & in NI who 30 years ago would have thought a Sinn Féin/DUP administration would have been seemingly happily in power together?

      What was unthinkable yesterday often becomes today's new reality.

      One structural feature of WM system that has keep a lid on such changes is, of course, the FPTP voting system. But even that isn't working any more. I expect 'hung parliaments' at WM for some time to come. At the last UK GE the two 'main' parties could only muster 65% of the votes cast. Compare this to say 1959 UK GE when the two main parties combined percentage of the vote was some 93%.

      As a previous commentator rightfully noted the WM system breaks down and becomes both politically and electorally very unpredictable with four or five parties having a realistic chance of winning seats. Interesting times indeed. As for the SNP and the Tories having a common enemy – well it's true but for radically different reasons and the SNP aren't daft enough to ever formally acknowledge such considerations.

      On the topic of the 'breakdown' of the established 'big' political parties across Europe there is an excellent essay come book review by Wolfgang Streeck (The Politics of Exit) in the latest 'New Left Review'. The book under review is Peter Mair's 'Ruling the Void'.

      This is an apposite quote from the book:

      “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

      Perhaps, perhaps not.

      Tariq Ali in the 'London Review of Books' has also for some time been writing of the 'extreme center' - essentially an incredibly narrow consensus by political elites around key ideological features of neo-liberalism and from which no-one in that elites wishes to demur.

      No better confirmation can be found for Mair’s main theses on ‘government by cartel’ and the 'withdrawal of elites' than in his brilliant analysis of EU politics offered in the final chapter of 'Ruling the Void'.

      In my gentle attempts to get the 'peat worrier' to go to the 'dark side' I'll offer up the link for those than want to read the whole essay/review:


  7. I'm obviously no Labour fan anyway, but I find the idea of a 35% strategy pretty off-putting, making Miliband look (even more?) like a Craig Levein-type figure (that's a football analogy, LPW). Such displays of non-ambition deserve to be punished, and I hope the electorate does so. As a result - and due totheir apparent willingness to give us more devolution than Labour - it seems I'm put in a position of wanting the Tories to win the next election, which is not a position I want to be in. This makes me hate Miliband and Labour even more.

    For all my misgivings about Labour in Scotland, I should at least be hoping they beat the Tories in a UK election. They've fucked up spectacularly. But this is what happens when a party seemingly succumbs completely to focus-group, non-principled politics.

    1. *lives up to reputation by furrowing brow furiously at the invocation of the mighty Mr Levein*

  8. All I would add to this is,if the SNP manage to get 30 Westminster MP,s that is the mandate for independence,and the Westminster party (I know parties,but I think of them as one party) cant do anything about it.They could of course ignore the referendum as one Parliamentary session is not bound by the previous session.

    1. Er. No it isn't Charles. We just asked the Scottish people what they wanted; as things stand, they don't want independence. Entirely wrong to consider or pursue any strategy which does not take that democratic decision seriously.

  9. This bear-trap is certainly something to watch out for.

    I think Labour could avoid it if they had an English devolution plan that had the simple voter appear of EVEL and might actually work, city devolution or devolution for the North. But they don't.

    I think they are in long term trouble in Scotland. See attached essay for details.


  10. Shhh, it's a very likely scenario. don't let them know. Of the 3 Unionist parties, the Conservative and Unionist party opposing Indy is no surprise, they opposed devolution. LibDems is a bit of a surprise but then they're part of the Coalition "we're in a difficult position". But Labour was questionnable to say the least. Sharing a platform with their arch-enemies, but more than that, the loathed party of the Labour heartlands. Within hours of the result Cameron launches his pre-prepared strategy while pictures of Labour and Tories kissing and hugging each other at the NO result are still lingering on our unionist TV screens, punching fists in the air and shouting triumphantly.

    Behold Smith and lo and behold, Labour submission dated April 2014, no change, covering letter confirms that. Conservative "these are our plans, but it's a floor, not a ceiling". LibDems better anyway. So Conservatives up their ante, the LibDems agree, the Greens probably agree with some additions, and the SNP, being aware of the possibilities, also go along with it "disappointing, not what we want, but in the spirit of compromise it'll do for now". The only thing I disagree with in the article is this: why does that make Smith fall apart, it takes the "majority view", and that's its proposal, done and dusted, delivered early (always a good thing). Cons and Libs start implementing - they don't need Labour votes in the HoC.

    Then on 7/5/15, SNP capitalise "we accepted the will of the people, and will co-operate to deliver the new powers in 2015". 30 or more MPs at Westminster, Tories perhaps get as many as 3 or even 4, better than 0 or 1, the only question is what's in it for the LibDems - perhaps a move towards their Federalism, as their claim in the election.

    SNP at Westminster are already EVEL mostly, they co-operate to get that in as part of the balance of power along with the 20-40 UKIP MPs who get "their" EU referendum. Westminster delivers Smith, even UKIP can get some kudos in Scotland to up their vote "we were anti-indy but not anti-Scotland". Everyone's a winner. Oh whoops, I forgot Labour. Ah well. so has much of Scotland.

  11. Just to endorse Joe Kinnear’s plug above for Peter Mair’s book Ruling the void. Mair argues that democracy is struggling right across the developed world but some his points are particularly relevant to Scotland, not least the distinction between procedural and popular democracy. On Mair’s view procedural democracy (the rule of law, diversity of free institutions, etc.) can chunter on without any clear mandate. But redistributive policies – that is, policies that most people would recognise as progressive – can only be legitimated by the will of the majority. And a system of asymmetric devolution such as the UK has now (and is likely to have for the foreseeable future) makes a clear popular mandate virtually unachievable. There are different peoples involved (Scots, English, etc.) saying different things, with no decisive forum of expression. So progressive politics is stifled.

    1. Mair's work is very good. As you suggest Dennis within the odd asymmetrical polity that is the UK genuinely progressive politics are structurally blocked in way than they would not be in a more homogeneous and unitary polity and population (such as a Norway etc.)

      That's part of the heartbreak of the 18th/19th - Scotland was pregnant with putative hope and progressive possibilities only to suffer a political miscarriage. That's why being a lefty communitarian type I can never forget nor forgive. It really has been a grieving process for many, myself included.

      Especially I cannot forgive the Labour party for ideologically being on the side of reactionary politics - let alone their moribund and dishonest tactics during the campaign.

  12. Brilliant analysis of the politics, but I'm still disturbed by the way the entire Scottish media and commentariat has been drawn into the idea that "more devolution" in the form of the Strathclyde Commission blueprint is a good thing.

    The truth is that without the control of oil revenues, which isn't going to happen, the less "devolution" we get the better it is for Scotland. Tax powers is a euphemism for reductions in the block grant, because the Barnett Formula will apply to less of it.

    One or two or the more - well, I hesitate to use the word "principled", let's say "loose cannon" - Labour MPs have pointed this out in public and been largely ignored. I do wish someone somewhere would say "Hang on, never mind the abstract powers, what do they actually mean for the budget in practice?"

    More isn't better when it comes to one-sided "devolution". We're in danger of being offered 50 lashes and demanding 100.

    1. I don't agree with this at all Rev. The SNP are hardly like to sit around like gomogues with their mouths gaping open, and accept any such disastrous settlement.

    2. What is it that you imagine they could do about it?

    3. The SNP are still the overall majority Government in Scotland, and will be until March 2016. As I understand it, any Scotland Act can not be implemented without the approval of Holyrood. The simple answer is that if a damaging package of powers, and you're totally right to have concerns about that, is put together in the Scotland Act and passed, SG refuses to accept it, and causes a Constitutional crisis.

      I believe the threat of this was enough to force the HoC to remove a couple of bits that reduced powers from the Scotland Act 2012, even though in the event, the silly extra tax-raising power (cost) and the removal of renewables powers got through. I suspect the SG let that through so as to concentrate on the Referendum and get the Section 30 Order. Whether with a bit of horse-trading or not, no idea.

    4. The problem is not the asymmetry.

      The problem is that a devolved body which raises some of its funds is very vulnerable to tweaks by the Treasury, designed to create pressure on the local taxes.

      The higher the proportion of funds raised at the lower level, the less the vulnerability to Treasury manipulation.

  13. If I remember rightly the "Vow" and the aftermath comments by Cameron and his ilk included words to the effect that the Barnett grants to Scotland would be continued without change in addition to full income tax devolution etc. Rev Stu seems to be ignoring the fact that the SNP/Scottish Government are very much involved with Smith and I am sure they will fight their corner hard. If there are moves to recommend changes to Barnett by the Smith Commision or the Tories et al later you can be sure that the SNP will squeal loudly and demand that other revenues be devolved to replace it.

    I believe that the SNP is in a strong position vav Smith because the SNP and the Tories seem to have a common interest in wanting a 'good' devolution settlement, a) by the SNP in the interests of Scotland, b) by SNP and Tories to damage Labour in Scotland, and so to make it more difficult for Labour to gain a majority in the UK in the future, and c) so that Cameron can claim that he and the Tories are honourable people and have delivered a fair and just settlement for Scotland and England.

    Scots have clearly indicated that they want a substantial devolution of powers as part of the Referendum result so if Labour continue to cavil about the terms and keep arguing for DevoNano it will play right into the SNP's hands and do Labour untold harm in the months before GE2015.

  14. Your website is written in Martian, and it would cost $89 to transfer that sum of $35 to my bank account for a loss of $54 so, no thanks.

  15. yesinyref2,

    What does gomogue actually mean? Is it a bit like a gargoyle,or what?

    Online dictionaries have proven entirely useless.