Nick Hopkins looks at all the opportunities missed in the latest Scottish budget, and asks what a centre-left party should and could have done differently.
What, as a politician, are you for? What do you want to do with the power that you have, or that you want to have? Anyone seeking our vote should be able to answer those questions.
If you’re a centre-left politician, I expect you to be for the tackling of poverty, the spreading of opportunity, and the best public services we can afford. And as all sensible social democrats know, it’s not enough to be for good things. Delivering them depends on growth, on our ability to tax appropriately, and on winning elections. So I expect you to be clear about your plans for those too.
Life’s not easy for a centre-left politician in most of the UK (or almost anywhere in the West) right now. In the post-crash era of stuttering growth, majority comparative (if over-leveraged) affluence, ageing populations, and undramatic, unphotogenic poverty largely hidden behind closed doors, the social democrat’s lot is to be continually frustrated at the electoral difficulty of winning the arguments for using tax to redistribute and invest.
So what do you do, as a good centre left politician, when you’re in a much more fortunate situation and your electoral difficulties are pretty much dealt with? What do you do if you have huge power in a parliament with few checks and balances, if you stand on the verge of a second absolute majority in that parliament, with polls suggesting you will hoover up more than half of the votes at next year’s election?
Surely you break at least a little free of the intense frustration that you must feel? You have the opportunity to save many vital public services, to do more to tackle poverty, and to use the moment, and the space granted you by your country’s left of centre self image, to make a clear statement about the sort of country you govern. You know that nothing can touch you electorally. If now isn’t the moment to raise tax and fight back against austerity, then when?
Last week, the practical means to do this for Scotland were there for John Swinney. He had two obvious mechanisms through which he could immediately protect Scottish public services and Scottish people from the impact of Osborne’s cuts: raising the Scottish Rate of Income Tax, and abandoning the Council Tax freeze. He chose to do neither.
So perhaps we now know what Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are not for. They are not for making the sort of choice that someone with pretentions to be on the centre left should be making. Maybe they are not really, when it comes to down to actually delivering, for good centre-left things at all.
Of course Nats will defend Swinney and answer that using current SRIT powers and scrapping the Council Tax freeze would have meant hurting hard pressed people on low incomes. But those defences both overstate the pain that would be involved, and understate the consequences of his inaction for those with less.
So what should Labour do in response? The brave move would be to propose a penny in the pound on income tax, and a temporary rebanding/ regearing followed by a raising of Council Tax in advance of forthcoming long term changes to local taxation. At a local level, Gavin Yates’ article here this week was right: why not raise Council Tax, and dare Swinney to claw back the cash?
Politically, Labour could make clear that the hit to be taken by households is small, pin the cuts on Swinney and Sturgeon as well as Osborne, and stress at all times both our realism and our idealism, and our determination to live up to Scotland’s perception of itself. We could remind people that local government cuts often mean more service charges, swallowing up some of the money that tax cuts save.
Practically, we could match our pledges on tax with a pledge to be creative about helping people on low incomes, exploring rebate options, campaigning to cut Scottish households’ bills through energy and telecoms clubbing, and investing in credit unions and money advice.
But I can’t see us doing this. The Tories are too close to us, breathing down our necks electorally, and we’re too frightened of losing our precarious hold on those aspirational working and middle class voters who have stuck it out with us.
So, looking at my own party’s situation, I see I was unfair to the Nats. Like us, it’s not that they are not for good things. It’s just that, like us, they haven’t got the courage to ask for the money to do them.
But their lack of courage is less excusable than ours; their being in power means it is more serious; and their electoral strength means it is less understandable. Swinney’s budget on Sturgeon’s behalf will deliver worse public services, fewer jobs, and more poverty. And the moral scandal of the government of a professedly anti-Tory country ploughing a Tory line on tax at a time of austerity.