Wednesday 20 September 2017

Written Constitutions

Think back to your Higher History.

The whole of Hobsbawn's "long 19th Century" (1789-1914) was about insurrections against absolute monarchies. In 1789, 1830, 1848 (in spades), 1870 and at various other points in between "the people" rose up in "revolution". But, while their protest was invariably about particular urgent grievance, their demands invariably included "A WRITTEN CONSTITUTION!" Not so much to prevent these grievances from recurring but rather, if they did,  to provide a non revolutionary means for their resolution.

For revolutions might be glorious things, even on occasion necessary things. But they involve violence. Violence in which people get hurt. Even, if they succeed, people "hurt" on the winning side who do not live to celebrate the victory.

How much better if matters can be resolved at the ballot box within a commonly based agreed set of rules (for that is all a constitution ultimately is) and with an ultimate independent arbiter in the form of a Supreme Court?  A Court constituted in accordance with...... the Constitution.

Nobody gets hurt (except perhaps reputationally) and certainly nobody gets killed. And that surely has to be progress.

So that is why the Nineteenth Century's long march towards progress involved the steady adoption of constitutions. It is also why, within my lifetime, as they emerged from fascist totalitarianism in southern Europe, or communist authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe, that almost the first step of every Country was to adopt a constitution. For, today, every democracy in the world, (except four, a point I refer to in my footnote) has a written constitution. And it is also why the first act of any right wing coup, in any previous or temporary democracy, is to "suspend the constitution".

It is against that background that events in Catalonia have to be judged.

After the death of Franco, Spain became a democracy. And it adopted a constitution. Which was put to a national referendum in 1978. At which referendum it was approved overwhelmingly, including by 91.4% of voters in Catalonia.

And that constitution  included the declaration that Spain was indivisible.

There are, as there almost inevitably are, provisions for that constitution to be amended. But in respect of this provision it hasn't been.

And it is against that fact that events in Catalonia need to be judged. For as much as the establishment of a constitution is an aspiration (over more than 200 years) of the left and ultimately an achievement of the left, then the ability of any person or interest or faction to defy a democratically approved constitution can only be a defeat for the left. For while that defiance might on one occasion be about unilateral secession, it might on another be about freedom of speech, or religious observance or sexual equality.

And yet that is precisely what is being attempted in Catalonia. Even if some of the partisans of a unilateral repudiation of the Spanish Constitution don't appreciate that. I say some, because as with the dark underbelly of Scottish Nationalism, I'm sure many realise exactly what their politics truly are but just prefer to keep that quiet for the moment.

But I want to finish by talking about the first written constitution, which inspired so many others, that of the United States of America.

What was the American Civil War about? Today it is thought about being to free the slaves, Except it wasn't. Initially it was simply about the "right" of the southern states to unilaterally secede from the union, contrary to the Constitution. Emancipation followed only after nearly two years of actual fighting.

So let us be clear. That's the parallel. Anybody who supports the unconstitutional events in Catalonia have but one exemplar, Jefferson Davis. And let's be equally clear, any true democrat, Scottish or otherwise, should be standing with Lincoln. Not so much for the Union but for the Constitution. For all of us, but particularly those of us on the side of progress, benefit from there being a constitution. Don't ask me, ask those who died before me for that very principle.

Footnote. The four Countries are the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. The second and third follow "our" example, The final one? These people are Israelis, They've presumably concluded they'd spend so much time arguing over what should be in their constitution that it was easier just to not have one at all. 

Monday 11 September 2017

Tax (again)

I've written about tax before and you'll gather from that that I am not antipathetical to targeted tax increases BUT

We are twenty years on from the Devolution Referendum when 63% of the Scottish people voted for a devolved parliament with tax raising powers and yet we have never used these powers.

There are two reasons for this. The Labour reason and the SNP reason.

The Labour reason was initially quite simple. While Labour was in power at Holyrood, we were also in power at Westminster. The political reality always was that a Scottish Labour Government could not imply, by raising taxes here, that a UK Labour Government was itself not raising sufficient tax to fund public services properly. Not just not raising it, to be clear, to fund public services properly in Scotland but logically also failing in that task UK wide. And that political reality was particularly the case when, during, the whole of that period, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Scottish Labour's easily most favourite son.

The SNP reason is also straightforward. Raising the basic rate of Income Tax is electorally toxic. They know that from experience.

At the first ever Holyrood election, in 1999, the SNP stood on a slogan of "A Penny for Scotland." This envisaged the basic rate of Income Tax being 1% (a penny) higher than that in the rest of the UK. This didn't even involve a tax rise. The UK Labour Government was that very same year proposing a 1% cut in the basic rate and all the Nats suggested was Scotland foregoing that cut, using the additional revenue raised on increased public spending.

The problem was that, put to the test, "Scotland" proved a good deal less keen to "properly fund" public services than past rhetoric (not just by nationalists) had suggested. The Nats got a significant rebuff and by the 2003 election, John Swinney, the then leader, had ensured that the policy did not reappear.

Which it hasn't since.

And indeed, by the 2011 election, the SNP reason had become also the Labour reason. Neither Party stood on a manifesto suggesting raising the basic rate. Nor indeed did any other major Party.

But since then there have been two significant developments.

Firstly, in 2016, Labour did stand on a platform of raising the basic rate by I%.

And, secondly, last week in her Programme for Government, Nicola said

Ahead of publishing our draft budget for 2018‑19, we will publish a discussion paper on Income Tax to open up the debate about the best use of our tax powers. It will:
  • set out the current distribution of Income Tax liabilities in Scotland
  • analyse the implications of different options around Income Tax, including the proposals of other parties represented in the Scottish Parliament
  • set out the importance of the interaction of Income Tax policy with the fiscal framework
  • provide international comparisons of Scotland's Income Tax policy
  • better inform the Parliament and people in Scotland about the choices open to us to invest in our public services and support the economy in the context of austerity and Brexit
The briefing which accompanied this was clear. The Nats would consider the blunt weapon of raising basic rate tax but only if the other Parties were prepared to also dip their hands in the blood. And, by implication, if they weren't, then the SNP wouldn't act unilaterally. Despite being the Government.

Now all of this leaves Labour in an awkward position.

You see, we didn't win the 2016 election. Indeed we didn't even come second. Now, at the time, this was attributed to "circumstances" in general. And, to be honest, that's probably what was the main cause. But we also benefited in 2016 from nobody thinking we were ever likely to win and so being bothered to much to pay attention to our tax policy. 2021 is likely to be a very different election.

And in 2016 nobody thought there would be a UK General Election for five years, so the tax policy of the Scottish Labour Party wasn't of any interest as any sort of exemplar for our likely UK tax policy. In 2021 we will be within a year of such an UK event and, you see, even John McDonnell didn't risk a basic rate increase in our "left-wing" UK manifesto earlier this year. And so that question would then be asked. Including if we'd still maintain higher taxes in Scotland if there was a Labour Government at Westminster.

And you see, the reason Mr McDonnell was not proposing to increase the basic rate (or indeed the income tax of anybody earning less than £80,000) was that he got that this would have been incredibly electorally unpopular. Which indeed is why no Chancellor of any Party has done this since Denis Healey in....................1975.*

But, and it's a big but, the idea of raising income tax is not unpopular within the Scottish Labour Party. Indeed its popularity internally is probably in inverse proportion to its unpopularity with the electorate. Because extra revenue means extra spending. Particularly potentially spending on public sector wages and local government jobs. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a desired outcome of the public sector trade unions, who are our principal funders, and of the many local councillors who co-ordinate much of our activist base.

Now, because they are against "austerity" and would pay more tax to end it, they assume that this view is shared more widely. Regrettably however all the evidence suggests that it isn't. Which is what is got in spades by Nicola. For she also now has a significant cohort of Party members who would equally like higher taxes and more public spending but she has been careful not to commit to actually doing this, just to consulting about considering doing so. Which ultimately she won't. No matter what you think of her she is not stupid.

But of course Labour is currently in a leadership contest where the selectorate is not the general public but rather these same "anti-austerity" forces. So the temptation will be to play to the gallery. Particularly as neither candidate will want to be characterised as "to the right of Kezia Dugdale".

However, this would be a strategic error. Because we are now in a three cornered fight here. And winning the 2021 contest is frankly unlikely to be delivered by simply being to the left of the SNP. And who is to say they would by then be our main rivals anyway? Ruth Davidson has to date been characterised as a one trick ("save the union") pony. A criticism to her credit that she takes on board and is trying to remedy. But the danger is that Labour gratuitously provides her with another string to her bow. "Vote Tory and not only will you remain in the UK, you'll also pay no more tax than anybody else in the UK". And Ruth Davidson isn't stupid either.

Now, Labour might be prepared to take that on, to make the case for higher taxes and higher spending. For Scottish public sector workers to be (even) more relatively numerous than English public sector workers and better paid into the bargain**. And for that to be paid for, significantly, by higher taxes on Scottish private sector workers. But we shouldn't labour under the misapprehension that this will be universally popular (sic) with the Scottish electorate. No matter how well it might play within the Scottish Labour Party.

* That's not the same as raising the total income tax take.  George Osborne (!) did this between 2011-15 by significantly reducing the threshold at which higher rate (40%) tax fell to be paid.

** In writing this blog I have tried to get a figure for what percentage of Scottish Government revenue expenditure ultimately goes on wages. I have been unable to find this. But 65% of UK Government expenditure is spent in this way despite the UK Government also having current responsibility for the big ticket item of almost all  Welfare and Pension payments. So it is not unreasonable to assume the Scottish figure to be significantly higher. 

Sunday 3 September 2017


So, in keeping with the dubious allegiance she showed towards the Labour Party throughout her short lived career, Kez has departed the scene at a time of maximum disadvantage to us. As it was described to me, not so much "Forced out" as "F****d off".

Having risen like a rocket she has come down like a stick. Although a stick that will no doubt float about among the flotsam and jetsam of the Scottish quangocracy for some time to come.

Unlike some of the press speculation, I'm not sure she will (re-?)join the SNP. She's far more use to them as a poundshop Henry McLeish and I suspect that's the role they'll want her to play at least until she can announce a Damascene conversion to Nationalism in the event of a second referendum. She's still quite young, so she might indeed live to see such an event.

Anyway, good bye and, just goodbye.

So, to the future.

I admitted long since that I abstained in the last Scottish Labour leadership contest as unfortunately I simply didn't think that "being a nice guy" was sufficient for Ken McIntosh to garner my support. I genuinely wanted neither candidate to win. This time however, although I will be supporting Anas, I would be genuinely content for either candidate to win.

There is an old joke that the Scottish Labour Party has more factions than members and there is some truth to that but left/right is only one divide and actually by no means the deepest of these. There is, for example, the West against the rest divide. Then, within the West, the Glasgow against the rest divide. Then, in Glasgow, the South West against the North East divide. Then, in North East Glasgow, the North against the East divide. Detailed political followers of the City will know that to be true. Then there's the divide between those who have "chosen" to support the Labour Party and those who were born into it. Between the thinkers and the doers. Between the secularists and those of a religious persuasion. (This latter group used to be code for Catholics but now includes Muslims and even practising adherents of The Church of Scotland). Between those who think prioritised gender politics are an essential element of Socialism and those who......don't. Probably most importantly, between those who hate the Nats more than the Tories and vice versa.

And that's before you even get started on the Green/Grey divide. Never mind the relative newcomer of Brexit.

But these divides have always been there. Even the apparent new European kid on the block for those of us old enough to remember Alex Mosson's "Europhile" challenge to Janey Buchan's "Eurosceptical" (I put that kindly) position as Glasgow's Labour MEP.  (Asked exactly what his platform was, the future Lord Provost famously replied "I'm standing, that's my platform").

The point is that we've always generally all got along well enough so long as we respected the equal commitment of our comrades to "The Labour Cause".  And I am in no doubt of Richard Leonard's commitment to that cause. He might not be widely known to the general public but he is well known inside the Labour Party (he was the Chair of the Scottish Labour Party!) as a serious thinker and, when required, actor. It would be fair to say that within the "Labour and Trade Union movement", his own activity has been more focused on the latter part. But that's not unimportant. For the unions to remain willing to sign the cheques it is important for them not to think they are writing blank cheques and "Richard Leonard of the G&M" will undoubtedly provide that reassurance. He is more than capable of doing the job of leading the Scottish Labour Party and an entirely credible candidate for the position of First Minister. Indeed his current relative obscurity might even be an advantage in allowing himself to be portrayed as a genuine "new start".

And, for the avoidance of any doubt, he is no sectarian. He was Anne McGuire's election agent! He worked for the GMB, hardly a hotbed of Trotskyism, and he has been at pains at the very start of his campaign to emphasise that he is a member of no internal organised faction.

So he'd be fine as Leader and, win or lose, will be an important player at Holyrood for years to come.

But I'm voting for Anas.

Partly, and this is also a factor in many of Labour's internal squabbles, simply out of personal affection. And indeed that his dad and I were and are great comrades. I also like the idea that within a generation we could go from it being controversial for Glasgow to elect Britain's first Muslim MP to no-one batting an eyelid about a potential Muslim First Minister.

But it's also because of Anas's character and record. Sure, he became an MP at an early age because of family connections, but these things happen. Danielle Rowley is Alex Rowley's daughter. Katy Clarke is Agnes Davies's niece. Karen Whitefield, Peggy Herbison's great niece. That's not a point against any of them but one very much in their favour. Nobody suspects that any of them might one day go off in the huff and join the SNP.

But Anas has never been someone to sit back and rely on patronage or birthright. He is a hard, hard worker. Always on the doorstep whenever a by-election requires it. Always willing to pitch up to speak at Party events or even just to swell the attendance by his promised presence. And he's a political strategist. Co-proprietor, with James Kelly and Frank McAveety, of Labour's survival in Glasgow in May 2017 and further revival in June. A revival which, had the former leader given them the resources, would have been more robust still.  A guy who has worked hard at his shadow health brief backed by meticulous research and helped by his being acknowledged as one of the best debaters at Holyrood. A man with, genuinely, few internal enemies. And in the Scottish Labour Party that in itself is some achievement.

But I want to just issue one word of caution to him. It will be a mistake for him to run as the "unity candidate" for it would imply that Richard Leonard is not. Anas is merely the more experienced candidate, the better prepared candidate and, when it comes to the bigger battle in 2020 or 2021 simply, at this time, the stronger candidate. Because, actually, as I say, the left/right divide inside the Scottish Labour Party is not nearly as significant as some would make out. I'm genuinely struggling to see what differences the two candidates will have within the devolved policy competencies or, indeed, on the constitutional question. And also a word of caution to Richard Leonard. Avoid at all costs becoming Jeremy Corbyn's candidate. That's not a comment on this specific leader but on any potential UK Leader. This must be a contest fought in Scotland and only about what's best for Scottish Labour. Simples.

One final point and that is about the deputy leadership. If it does indeed transpire that the contest for the top job is between two men there will inevitably be pressure on Alex Rowley to stand aside in favour of a (gender) balanced ticket. That would be a mistake. If credit for our revival in the west lies where I've suggested, then our revival in Fife is undoubtedly significantly Alex' achievement. Why should he go when he's done nothing wrong? There must be however an argument for adopting what it appears might be the UK solution to this same issue and having two deputy leaders. We have many well qualified potential candidates for that second role.

Anyway, I've quite enjoyed returning to the blogging so I suppose I ought to thank Kez for that.
Oh, and for one other thing. I am in no doubt that her conversation with Nicola on 24th June when she indicated that Labour might support a second Independence Referendum was a significant factor in Nicola deciding to call for one. With all the fatal consequences for the SNP which followed. So, I suppose, accidentally, perhaps Kezia's tenure did ultimately serve the interests of the Labour Party. I'm sure she'd be happy to know that.