received_10152479075421238Nick 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.

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19 thoughts on “A lack of political courage

  1. A lack of courage. Easy to say when you are on a decent income, but raising tax will raise the tax rate for ALL payers, until a more flexible system is in place. Same with council tax. Its quite simply too crude a method.
    What did the average council tax go up in the years Labour were in power at Holyrood? Did I see 65% increase somewhere? In eight years?
    Why would any sane person vote for this possible Labour future?

    I would prefer Scotland to have access to all tax raising avenues. I would prefer to see tax raised on alcohol, tobacco and other consumables which are not essentials. I would like Scotland to be able to encourage indigenous economic growth.
    But we got stiffed by the Unionists adherence to Smith, so as to force any future Scottish government to rely on this utterly useless, overly crude, income tax varying mode of fund raising.

    We could also ditch the H of Lords by pulling out all Labours members. I see the Lords Speaker has run up hundreds of pounds, for her car to sit while she watched an Opera. But no, Labour wont pull their people out, preferring to make the same vague, empty promises they have over the decades.

  2. Good article. Scottish health,education and social work,and our many other local services, have lost funding,staff and morale.
    Labour needs to oppose the freeze while clarifying greater auditing, transparency and accountability to bust the Tory smearing of public services.We need to be the decentralising Party for accountable,well funded support to our local councils.Public knowledge of Councils duties needs to be increased.

  3. Let me easily explain what a lack of political courage looks like.

    When labour in Scotland promotes campaigns and advocates for Tory Government rule over Scotland from Westminster relative to a Scottish labour party rule over Scotland from Edinburgh then you have a lack of political courage accountability responsibility and desire for leadership from the perspective of a labour party presence in Scotland.

    Rather than take the reins of power over Scotland in Scotland labour in Scotland would rather the reins of power remain with a Conservative Tory Government in Westminster.

    1. I don’t think that this is what a lack of political courage looks like at all. And Labour have never campaigned for a Tory Government so why write such nonsense?

  4. Once again the Labour parties focus is on how to screw more out of ordinary taxpayers who are already paying instead of looking at how we can get the richest people & businesses who pay nothing to pay their fair share so that we don’t have to subsidise them.

    I get why the Tories won’t push for this but tell me why is it that the Labour party also refuse to even consider it?

  5. Political courage is where you fight tooth and nail to gain full powers of authority accountability responsibility and control over your Nation State from your own Parliament against all opposition political military and media.

  6. “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.”

    Nick you are living in Walter Mitty land if you think that any party would consider the measures you suggest prior to an election to be in goverment for the next 5 years, once the SNP is elected and they have it in the bag with a large majority then they no doubt will introduce more new bold visionary policies. The Scottish Labour sections policies on raisiing tax and council tax means that they will probably be beaten into 3rd place by the Tories. The lack of courage was shown by the Scottish Labour section voting with the Tories against giving Scotland more devolved powers with (FFA) Full Fiscal Autonomy.

  7. Well said Nick.Most Scots are of a centre left persuasion.They have a choice between a pro Union centre left party and a pro independence centre left party.IF Labour want to pick up some votes from independence supporters it will require much better candidates and much better policies than the SNP have to offer.

    1. what happens when scottish people realise the dream of independence is dead, and that the snp are an administrative government at best?

  8. 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.

    Well that made me chuckle.

    the labour base is the very old, union officials and central belt bigots. You are right on one thing, the bigots in your base are already on the move to ukip.

  9. Nick Hopkins asks what a centre-left party should have done differently. The answer is nothing – Scotland has already got a very successful centre-left party and there is no space at present for any other.

    What Scottish Labour need is a left-wing agenda based on socialist principles, starting with a radical land tax and a rousing declaration that Scotland should be governed for the benefit of the Scottish people, who own the land we stand on.

    1. Taxing land is hardly left wing. It isn’t any different to taxing property. It isn’t based on any ability to pay.

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