Scottish independence, Ed Miliband & progressive politics

On the 4th June the Scottish government’s Expert Working Group on Welfare issued its report on the possible shape of the social security system in an independent Scotland. They recommended that:

  • The minimum wage be gradually increased to the level of the living wage (thus lifting many working people out of benefits altogether, and limiting overall spending);

  • Benefits be annually up-rated in line with inflation;

  • The Work Capability Assessment for sickness and disability benefits be abolished, and replaced with a new, fit-for-purpose assessment developed in consultation with sick and disabled people;

  • The bedroom tax be abolished;

  • The one-size-fits-all Work Programme be abolished, and replaced with measures tailored to the particular needs of the individual, and responsive to local circumstances;

  • The current system of petty and vindictive sanctions deployed against claimants be abolished, and replaced with one that is ‘proportionate, personal and positive’;

  • Carer’s Allowance be paid at the same rate as other out-of-work benefits.

(Some of these recommendations are noticeably lacking in detail. This is because the Working Group proposed that many of the further-reaching of its reforms be considered in the period immediately following a Yes vote by a ‘National Convention on Social Security [… comprising] employers, citizens, faith groups, trade unions and voluntary organisations, amongst others’.)

None of these measures may be adopted, of course. For these policies, and policies like them, to be put in place the government of an independent Scotland would have to draft the legislation, and the Scottish parliament would have to enact it. A Yes in September’s referendum will ensure that Scotland is always governed in accordance with the wishes of the people who live and vote there, but it won’t necessarily ensure progressive government – that will depend on who people in Scotland choose to elect.

But even so it’s clear that these proposals, taken collectively, are indicative of a definite tendency. Even if they are never implemented, they stand as a demonstration of what might be possible in an independent Scotland. If there were to be a progressive majority among the Scottish electorate, and therefore a progressive majority among MSPs, policies like this might be possible. Already the progressive majority in the current, devolved, Scottish parliament has delivered an end to right-to-buy in Scotland, while the regressive majority in the UK parliament has extended it in England.

The abolition of right-to-buy could be accomplished because housing policy is one of the areas of responsibility that is devolved to the Scottish parliament. Welfare policy, however, remains under the control of the UK parliament at Westminster, so the changes that the working group has proposed are only possible in the event of a Yes vote in September’s referendum.* In the vote goes No, Scotland’s welfare policy will continue to be determined by whichever party forms a majority (or the largest minority) across the whole of the UK – which is to say it will be determined by either the Conservatives or Labour.

It’s no secret that the Conservatives, left to their own devices, would like to pursue a significantly more punitive regime in welfare policy. They regard those cuts they have already made as pale shadows of the red-bloodedly anti-welfare policies they would like to introduce, so if the Conservatives win the next general election outright, or function as the dominant partner in another coalition, there’s little doubt that Scotland would have an even tougher welfare settlement imposed upon it. In the event of a No vote, people of a progressive bent in Scotland would be entirely dependent on the Labour party if they wanted to see their hopes fulfilled. For this reason it would be very interesting to have some clue as to the general direction that a UK-wide Labour government might take in respect of welfare policy.

Well, come with me now to the 19th June (a fortnight after the Scottish working group published their proposals), and a speech that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, gave on just this topic. The major headline to come out of that speech was that Jobseeker’s Allowance would be completely abolished for everyone aged 18-21. People of this age would instead have to sign up for a Youth Training Allowance, which they would only be eligible for if they were undertaking training, and would in any case only be paid to them if their parents were poor. Miliband also announced that, for those who continued to be eligible for it, Jobseeker’s Allowance would be paid at different rates on the basis of how long claimants had been working, not their level of need.

As with the Scottish working group proposals, it’s important to remember that these policies might never be implemented. Labour may not win, and having won they might chose to act differently. But – as with the Scottish proposals – they can stand as an indication of the UK-wide Labour party’s thinking on this issue. Even if these specific policies are dropped, it’s clear that the Labour party is minded to further restrict access to out-of-work welfare benefits, at least for some. It’s also clear that they want to impose yet more inflexible, one-size-fits-all schemes on at least some of those who are looking for work, and to back them up with the existing sanctions regime. The announcement also shows the party is happy to further undermine the principle of the welfare state as a universal safety net that treats everyone equally on the basis of need.

The party is making these sorts of policy announcements, of course, because it judges that they will appeal to floating voters in England. The demographics of the UK being what they are, a party has to win in England if it is to win across the UK as a whole, so there’s no surprise that the UK Labour party is tailoring its announcements to what it believes will be popular in England, as opposed to what would be popular in Scotland. (In fact, this development is so unsurprising that I suggested more than 18 months ago that the likelihood of UK Labour having to announce English-centric policies that would alienate Labour voters in Scotland, perhaps driving them to vote Yes as a consequence, was a key reason why the Scottish government had proposed scheduling the independence referendum for a date only a few months before the 2015 elections. Much of what I said in that post is arrogant, bumbling nonsense – but that aspect, at least, I got right.)

Setting aside the reasons for Labour announcing these kinds of policies, the consequences are clear, because the division between welfare proposals made north and south of the border are so stark. It’s obvious that a Yes vote, while it offers no guarantees, does provide the best hope of progressive policies being introduced in Scotland. At least with independence progressive voters, if they were to form a majority in Scotland, would not see their ambitions thwarted by the need to court popular opinion in England. This, as I say, is obvious – but, bizarrely, Ed Miliband himself has tried to make the opposite case.

On Friday, he gave a speech in Edinburgh in which he said that voting Yes would lead Scotland into ‘a race to the bottom’, and that progressives had no option as a result but to vote No. His argument for this was that

a border between England and Scotland means we are more likely to have two countries competing against each other with lower taxes, lower terms and conditions and lower wages.

On one level this is a statement so obvious it doesn’t need making – until Scotland is independent, it it literally impossible to have two countries competing against each other, so of course that becomes ‘more likely’ after independence. But this is not to say it is actually at all likely that Scotland will decide to ‘compete’ with England by shredding pay and conditions for workers. On the contrary, the expert working group proposed just the opposite of this kind of race to the bottom when it suggested that the minimum wage be raised, gradually over time, to the level of the living wage.

That proposal may never be acted on, of course, just as Ed Miliband’s promises in his speech to tackle zero-hours contracts may never see the light of day. This is the way it works with democracy – all sorts of people set out their stall for what they’d like to see happen, but it only comes to pass if they can persuaded a majority of their fellow electors to vote for it. But at least, under independence, people in Scotland will only get the policies they themselves vote for. If people in Scotland cast their votes for parties that want to slash and burn their way through welfare policy then, yes, it will be destroyed. But it won’t be destroyed against their will, and as a by-product of a politician from England making policy to appeal to voters in England.

All of this has happened within the confines of a single month – the expert working group’s suggestions for progressive reform of welfare policy in an independent Scotland, Ed Miliband’s promise of regressive changes in welfare policy if he wins in 2015, and his subsequent attempt to persuade progressive voters in Scotland to vote No. That’s what makes it so easy for progressive voters in Scotland to compare what Miliband says in Scotland with what he says in England, and to contrast both with what might be possible after independence. I suspect many will reject Mr Miliband’s assertion that a No vote offers the best hope of progressive policies being introduced in Scotland. On the contrary, I suspect that many will see the expert working group’s proposals as a powerful reason to vote Yes.

* – As far as I’m aware, none of the Unionist parties is proposing to include full control of welfare policy in the additional powers they have belatedly decided to promise they will transfer to the Scottish parliament if the referendum vote goes No.

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