Thursday 4 February 2016

Three buts.

I'm very much in favour of Labour's proposal to raise Income Tax by 1% to help defend public services in Scotland. Others have set out why this is both a progressive and necessary initiative and I won't duplicate their efforts here.

The buts that follow are therefore offered in a spirit of constructive criticism.

They are all hugely informed by the vox pops offered by the Daily Record in its coverage of the issue to which, if I could find a link, I would direct you. For the public are our masters in these matters and rather than spending time on commentators interpreting their views it is altogether better simply to ask them directly, which is precisely what the Record did.

So my first but is this.

We will never sell this policy if we present it as aimed at preserving jobs in local government. People who work in local government, and their unions,  are understandably interested in preserving jobs in local government. The general public are not.

The general public are interested in preserving local government services and indeed public services more generally, and recognise that this service delivery creates or preserves employment, but they have no sympathy at all for the idea that local government's objective is to employ people as a virtue in itself.

So we should talk about preventing increased class sizes, protecting vulnerable children, keeping open libraries and other community facilities, maintaining roads, providing adequate care for the elderly, making sure we can use a taxi, or a public house, or a fast food outlet in relative safety. Employing only just as many people along the way as are required to do that. And not a single person more.

And, while we are at it, once the decencies of a living wage are dealt with, paying only enough to ensure that those adequate to these tasks can be recruited in sufficient numbers.

To return to the vox pops, while some of those maintaining that they'd happily pay more tax if they could be sure it will be "spent properly" are clearly making a self serving excuse for actually being unwilling to do so for any purpose, by no means all of them are. We have to recognise that. And acnowledge Labour's own culpability in reaching a situation where that Nats think they can knock lumps out of The "Cooncil"(s) with impunity.

And my second but is this.

There are no votes in gloating.

Our activists are having a great time pointing at the SNP and shouting "Tartan Tories". It's good fun. I've done it myself. And those few politically engaged who have pledged their allegiance to the SNP in the genuine, if deluded, belief that their social democratic veneer was something other than a tactic are certainly looking pretty silly. At best keeping a low profile and at worst writing pathetic pieces maintaining that while "of course" they are in favour of progressive taxation, they are just not in favour of this particular progressive taxation because............well because.....because Nicola is against it.

But the vast majority of people are not politically engaged. And few of those who have left Labour for the SNP have done so in a sincere belief that the SNP are suddenly to the significant left of Labour. Rather they believe that the SNP are, at the same time, something new and something familiar. Something new in that they are more patriotic (and who isn't patriotic) and yet something familiar in that, publicly at least, they are that sort of non-ideological, don't frighten the horses, force that characterised Scottish Labour before the rot of complacency set in.

So the idea that Labour being suddenly, once again, clearly to the left of the SNP will bring electoral reward in itself is an entirely illusory one. If it was otherwise we'd have seen a Corbyn bounce rather than, it appears, precisely the reverse.

And that leads to my final but.

For the moment, a significant section of the electorate are lost to us. A very significant section. For they have genuinely been sold on the idea that you can eat a flag. It's not a majority, we put that decisively to the test sixteen months past, but it is certainly a plurality.

More than one of the randomly chosen Record interviewees suggested that instead of raising Income Tax we should simply be given more money from "Westminster", apparently completely unaware of how well we currently do in that context. That being the reason the SNP (the SNP!) seem reluctant for the Scottish Parliament being more responsible for raising its own revenue in the current fiscal framework talks. One interviewee even suggested that the simple solution was for us to be allowed to keep "the oil money", apparently unaware that there is currently virtually no oil money. Nor will there be for the forseeeable future.

That problem will not be solved by a Scottish Labour leadership unwilling to say regularly and loudly that, with or without £500 Million from 1% on income tax,"Osborne" austerity would be a drop in the ocean compared to the £7 Billion black hole in our public finances that an independent Scotland, within three months, would be facing had things gone otherwise in September 2014.

And to realise that, until that argument is won, no amount of tactical positioning, in the context of devolved Scottish elections, will be enough, in itself, to restore our fortunes.

Come next May, Labour should not be ignoring this, we should be confronting it head on.