Six months from today voters in Scotland will go to the polls to answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. Whilst that milestone will understandably prompt a wave of comment from UK media columnists, it perhaps obscures a development of more substantial importance in the referendum campaign today.
After two years of deliberations, the Scottish Labour Party has today published the recommendations of its Devolution Commission on enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament. This is not a document that many voters will read in full; nor will it be the type of game-changing moment in the campaign that the Scottish Government sought with the publication of its white paper on independence. Nevertheless, by setting out their stall on greater powers for Holyrood, the Labour Party has taken a significant step forward in moving the debate on from independence versus the status quo.
The lack of a clear alternative vision for Scotland’s future has long been a hindrance to the pro-UK parties. It has left them vulnerable to characterisation by the Nationalists as the parties of no-change, denying the Scottish people a greater say over their own affairs. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have all to varying degrees pledged to look at more powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote, but until now there have been precious few specifics of what would be on offer.
The conference in Perth may be the most important party political conference in the UK this year…
winning back the support of those instinctive Labour voters who may be toying with a Yes vote is crucial in the months ahead.
Most polls show that while there does not appear to be a majority for independence, there is significantly more support for enhanced devolution. The Devolution Commission recommendations present Scottish Labour a chance to fight the more positive campaign in the final six months that many critics of the No campaign to date have been calling for.
Labour proposes that the Scottish Parliament should raise around 40 percent of its budget from its own resources. This will be achieved by enabling Holyrood to vary income tax by up to 15p in the pound – a significant increase on the current tax varying powers, albeit there are those who believe Holyrood should raise 100 percent of its budget. Some aspects of welfare policy would be devolved for the first time – most notably housing benefit – whilst Holyrood would also be given oversight of delivery of the Work Programme, which Labour proposes to devolve to local authorities.
These proposals, amongst others, will be put to Scottish Labour conference in Perth this weekend and will almost certainly be endorsed by the party. There have been rumblings of discontent from Scottish Labour MPs, anxious at the prospect of their role in Westminster being diminished as more powers for Scotland go to Holyrood. However these difficulties appear to have been resolved and Scottish Labour continues to believe that pensions, most welfare benefits, VAT, defence, international affairs, national insurance and corporation tax should be Westminster matters.
The conference in Perth may be the most important party political conference in the UK this year. Scottish Labour remains the party that can fire a No vote and secure the future of the Union. Labour was the clear winner in Scotland at the 2010 General Election and winning back the support of those instinctive Labour voters who may be toying with a Yes vote is crucial in the months ahead.
There are two factors which will be vital in this regard: firstly, can the party demonstrate that it is firmly behind the proposals the Devolution Commission has set out and show that it has a positive vision for a strong Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, can Ed Miliband persuade Scots that he is on course to become Prime Minister in 2015. This is crucial in turning the Commission’s proposals into reality, but also in giving Scottish voters belief that they do not face unpopular Conservative-led governments in Westminster for the foreseeable future.
Miliband does not have the obvious native appeal to Scots of predecessors like Gordon Brown and John Smith. He must demonstrate his commitment to Scotland’s future in the UK and articulate a vision which persuades voters that they do not have to vote for independence to achieve a fairer Scotland.
He has every incentive to do this. Not only does it chime with his own instincts. It is essential for his own Prime Ministerial ambitions – if Labour was to lose 40+ Scottish MPs in Westminster his task in forming a government in 2015 is made all the greater.
Labour’s fight for the Union begins in earnest this week. All eyes on Perth.