Blogging from Conference – Devolution: Constitution and reform

Over the past few days, I have been at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

On Sunday evening, I spoke at a Fabian Society Fringe Event titled ‘Devolution: Constitution and Reform’. Below is a short blog I contributed to the Fabian Review ahead of the event…

Less than a year from now Scottish voters will have decided whether we want to remain part of the UK or whether we will have voted for independence.

While opinion polls suggest that people remain unconvinced by the arguments of the ‘yes’ to independence campaign, there are still many voters who have not yet made up their minds. However there are signs that supporters of independence are increasingly frustrated that they remain 20 points behind.

This week one of Alex Salmond’s former advisers Alex Bell wrote in the Guardian that he believed that under the leadership of Alex Salmond the SNP were squandering the opportunity to set out a clear vision for an independent Scotland and how it might use the powers nationalists have campaigned for down the years.

In an attempt not to scare the horses the SNP have backtracked on their historic beliefs – so they now want to keep the pound, keep the Queen and stay in NATO. Whenever Labour or Better Together point out the potential problems that independence would bring we’re accused of scaremongering or being negative. But whether it’s on the deficit we’d inherit, or the sustainability of welfare the SNP don’t want the debate.

Although the SNP have now been in power since 2007 they have argued that a long run in to the referendum was needed so that they’d have time to set out their detailed case for independence. However we won’t see the SNP’s 500 page White Paper until November this year even though there are apparently teams of civil servants diverted onto independence workstreams.

In our view, this is evidence of the SNP putting Scotland on pause and their party interests ahead of the people of Scotland.

This strategy has led to increased frustration amongst the ‘yes’ camp as they are worried they are not winning the argument. Only this week former SNP adviser Alex Bell criticised Alex Salmond for failing to set out a vision for Scotland.

For Labour the priority in the next year is to focus on how we’d strengthen the devolution settlement. For us, devolution was one of our founding principles. Devolution is about our journey to true home rule – not independence.

The Better Together all party campaign led by Alistair Darling has done an excellent job of asking tough questions about the debt that we would inherit if we separated from the rest of the UK, of the impact on the sustainability of welfare and pensions and what we’d lose with separation. But Labour must develop the devolution argument.

That’s why last year Labour leader Johann Lamont established our Devolution Commission. It presented its interim report ‘Strengthening Devolution: Powers for a Purpose’ to Scottish Labour Conference, making recommendations to space the debate on whether it would make any sense to devolve further fiscal powers beyond the Calman Commission recommendations. In contrast to the centralising SNP, ‘Powers for a Purpose’ also makes the case for re invigorating our local councils and empowering communities.

In the same way that devolution in the UK is about partnerships between asymmetric nations – not one size fits all – Labour should set out our principles for strengthening local leadership to deliver uniformly high standards while respecting the different geography and priorities across Scotland.

Across Scotland local council leaders are doing the hard thinking of how they deliver quality services with significantly less staff and money, but with greater demands. Our cities are asking for access to the City Deals that English cities have struck with the UK Treasury to enable a more effective joined up approach to training and employability. Our islands’ councils are asking for help to develop the generation of renewable energy off our shores.

Double devolution is also about empowering communities to shape important local decisions. Labour also has unfinished business with our land reform agenda. Rural communities have been transformed and a ‘can-do’ attitude mobilised. We now need to extend those opportunities to our urban communities.

The challenge is to think through how we re energise and build resilience in communities by developing civic leadership and mobilising both human and financial resources to deliver social justice and better life chances across the country.

The Devolution Commission is now holding roundtables with local government leaders, and trade unions as well as engaging with the voluntary sector and businesses. The views of party members are crucial to the success of the commission and comments can be submitted online here.