Former MP Sheila Gilmore, who helped run Labour’s successful campaign in Edinburgh Southern, says the idea of opening a new constitutional debate is a mistake. Labour’s focus should be on using the parliament’s powers.
Did Scotland move past the ‘constitutional question’ in this election? No. Does that mean we should embark on another period of bringing forward yet another set of changes, whether these are called ‘Home Rule’, ‘Devo Max’ or something else? I would argue not.
The eighteen months since the referendum has tended to confirm people in the view they took then. Those who voted No see economic developments since 2014, including the fall in the oil price, as demonstrating that it was ‘just as well’ Scotland didn’t become independent this year. However such developments did not appear to change the minds of most of those who voted Yes. As a result many voters continued, as in 2015, to align with political parties who most closely shared their views on the constitution. As a recent Ipsos Mori poll explored, policies such as a 1p tax rise were approved by some people in principle, but less so if they were told this was a ‘Labour’ policy.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that independence in the abstract was the reason why the SNP vote remained high. For many, independence is seen as the means to achieve whatever kind of society or change they want to see. So continuing to vote SNP is seen as the best route. For example, we met voters of a left-wing persuasion who liked Labour’s new UK leadership, but this had not persuaded them to vote Labour again.
In the constituencies where I was involved (mainly Edinburgh Southern but also Edinburgh Eastern) some people raised the constitutional question, but mainly to establish where Labour and our candidate stood. Did we want to see a second referendum? Had Labour gone ‘wobbly’ on independence? I would say that the majority of these questions came from former ‘No’ voters . Virtually no one was saying they wanted ‘more powers’ or ‘Devo Max’ or ‘Home Rule’ either explicitly or indirectly. One of my campaign jobs was to pass all the door-knocking queries to the candidate for a letter or a phone call. A need for yet more powers simply did not figure.
For those who want independence there is no middle ground which is satisfactory. It is never enough. And as the SNP has shown, it is reluctant to use what we have already got, in part because it knows that successful use of the additional powers would reduce support for independence. Those who favour independence as the best means to the ends they want may start to ‘peel off’ if these ends can be satisfied in other ways. In part also, especially during this election, the SNP did not want to face up to the hard questions, especially those on tax, for fear of losing support.
One doorstep discussion during the referendum summed this up for me. A woman with a young family told me she was thinking of voting ‘Yes’ because she thought there should be more powers. I explained about the new tax varying powers due to come in as a result of the 2012 Act . “Oh no, I don’t think we should be paying more tax. We pay enough already.” In the SNP fairytale world, powers seem to resemble a pot of gold rather than a series of choices.
In the last 10 years we have been round the ‘more devolution’ course twice, and for the SNP and its more fervent supporters it will never be enough.
In one newspaper article last week an SNP supporter told a journalist that she had watched the parliamentary debates on the most recent Scotland Bill and had been ‘appalled’ that English MPs had ‘voted to betray Scotland’ at the end of the debate.
Our experience speaking to thousands of voters was that the issues of concern were largely ‘domestic’ – issues about local schools, about the health service, about lack of GPs, about getting care for the elderly. For most of the last 9 years the SNP has added its own financial straight jacket to those existing because of having very limited revenue raising tax powers (i.e. the ones in the original settlement), by imposing the highly regressive council tax freeze with as much enthusiasm as George Osborne. So services are under great pressure and people are noticing. However clearly many voters did not believe that we could make a difference.
What we need to do as an opposition party over the next 5 years is not only hold the SNP to account but also demonstrate with practical proposals how the new powers can be used to improve services. If the Scottish Government says ‘can’t be done’, we need to be on hand with our suggestions. There needs to be a clear link made between contribution and outcome. This would apply both at central and local levels. If a council wants to increase council tax , for example, it needs to be specific about the purpose and the intended outcomes so that the electorate can judge its performance.
We have argued for the increased powers now available because we believe that these can help us make real change and improvement in Scotland. Why start arguing now, even before these new powers have been tested, that these are not enough? That makes it sound as if we don’t really believe our own arguments. People whose GP surgery has shut down, who are waiting for a social care package, who need child care places and more teachers can’t wait endlessly for the debates about the constitution to start up yet again.
Of course people want to know where we stand – that is still firmly behind remaining part of the UK but in favour of making maximum use of the new powers now.