David Gow identifies an opportunity for Scottish Labour to set out a realistic alternative to Osbornomics.
The “pernicious” (Tory MP David Davis) policies set out by George Osborne in his autumn statement demand a coherent, radical riposte from the Labour movement.
The IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) has laid out how pestilential they are in loading 88% of the proposed deficit reduction up to 2020 on spending cuts – hitting the working and looking-for-work poor and “hard-working people and their families” most of all.
The normally ultra-smug Osborne is clearly rattled by the savage response his plans for a further five years of making the poor pay for the 2008 crisis, shrinking the state to its smallest size since the 1930s and doing little or nothing to boost pay and productivity have received. Labour front-benchers are angry but, so far, have barely laid a glove on the chancellor.
This is a great opportunity, in the final days of the leadership and deputy leadership election campaigns, for Scottish Labour to respond to the challenge posed by Osbornomics with more than just “austerity-lite”.
Or with a mere recital of social democratic intervention by the state to mitigate this assault on people. Or with an unfunded commitment to reverse all these and earlier cuts – which is what the ‘45’ crusaders would have us believe could be delivered painlessly by a Scottish government if only we had voted Yes on 18/09.
There is just five months to go the UK general election so a new, fully-fledged Labour response may be impossible by then (not least because we haven’t moved forward economic policy much in the last 4.5 years). But it must be ready long before Scotland goes to the polls on May 5, 2016.
Scottish Labour will have to be ruthlessly honest with voters about what can be achieved, including with the new powers promised to Holyrood by then. No false promises about the kingdom of heaven on earth; no supine blaming of “Westminster” or “the markets” if improving people’s lives suffers the odd setback on the way.
But it will have to offer something different from what we proposed in 1945 or 1997. Something that addresses globalisation and its discontents.
Labour will have to recognise that Scottish voters are, for the most part, conservative – not preternaturally social democratic or socialist in their attitudes. This has been spelled out with blunt honesty before, notably by Gerry Hassan. It leaps off the pages of the annual Scottish social social attitudes survey. It was underlined only this week by Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh Uni in her inaugural lecture on “the imagined electorate” – with evidence that Scots consider themselves more liberal towards, say, gay marriage or relatively lenient punishment for youth offenders than they are in reality. It even deflates the Scottish government/SNP notion that the much-vaunted 63% of Scots wanting “devo-max” of tax and benefits are ready to embrace a decisive break with pan-UK policies on, say, pensions or even tax-bands.
As Prof Henderson has said elsewhere:
“We can see that there is widespread support for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament in the areas of tax and welfare. We shouldn’t assume, however, that this means people want policies that are radically different than those operating elsewhere in the UK. It’s part of a familiar devolution paradox: Scots want their Parliament to make key decisions about taxes and welfare, but our survey shows they still want the outcomes of those decisions to keep Scotland in line with policy choices made elsewhere in the UK.”
Many of us are not caught up in that paradox or share the (Scottish government) belief one can have social democracy, let alone socialism, in one country. Here’s a trenchant recent view for instance from James Stafford. A more generally pessimistic view about the future of social democracy is abroad, viz Neil Lawson of Compass on what has been called “Pasokification” (the demise of the Greek socialist party to a husk).
But he and others in the “Good Society” project can see that, at the very least, a pan-European dimension is vital if we are to deliver fairness and equality and that requires joint efforts to promote a living wage, invest hugely in skills and training, rebuild infrastructure, enable lending to innovative small businesses and the like.
The IFS says that Osborne and the Tories are embarked upon a “fundamental re-imagining of the state” as they target, inter alia, a further cut of 1m public service posts. Labour, spearheaded by its Scottish wing, needs to offer a new empowering role for the state that goes beyond the traditional response to crisis.