There is an increasing acceptance that Labour is likely to form the next UK government. Post-conference polling shows the gap between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer is widening. So what does the party’s offer to Scotland amount to?
We analysed Keir Starmer’s conference speech and found it contained many blocks and betrayals of things Scotland was told it would have benefitted from under a Labour government. Here are five ‘Nos” from the speech.
Starmer said that when Scots decide how to vote they will be looking at the state of Britain as a whole. He said: “Be under no illusions. We must earn every vote. And we must understand that the Scottish people are not just looking at us. They’re also looking at Britain.”
The old saw that long periods of Conservative rule are a price worth paying to be part of the Union has worn thin for many. Scots listening to Starmer’s programme for government are likely to be underwhelmed and conclude that the Conservative/ Labour/ Conservative model is broken as far as Scotland is concerned. Starmer offered no change.
For the last couple of years, Labour have been talking up their plans for a ‘Great British Energy’ company. Now they have promised it will be based in Scotland. On the face of it that sounds like an attractive promise to Scots, who live in an energy-rich country but pay some of the highest energy prices in Europe. But it should really be called the Small British Energy company.
For those who have been calling for a major rethink of the UK’s energy infrastructure, it is a massive disappointment. There are huge issues facing Scotland and the UK in terms of energy: the privatised national grid; tax breaks from the Windfall Tax; the weakness of the London-centric regulation authority Ofgem and lack of a market framework for offshore wind and pumped storage.
Starmer could have proposed renationalising the energy grid. Only one other country in Europe has privatised the vital infrastructure. It is in need of a complete overhaul to make it fit for the just transition.
Instead, Starmer promised to give an unspecified amount taken from an £8 billion UK fund as seed money to a Scotland-based company that will be expected to go into partnership with the private sector. The hope is that this will help to get innovative energy projects like tidal off the ground. That’s nice – but it is a minor investment that is unlikely to make much difference to energy bills for many years, if ever.
Surely Labour created a Commission on the UK’s Future? Gordon Brown wrote a report which promised to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a Senate of the Nations and Regions. That makes sense to many Scots who don’t understand why a rogues gallery of unelected donors to political parties, yesmen and cronies should have lifelong seats in Westminster.
Labour promised to get rid of the UK’s swollen, undemocratic second chamber. But funnily enough, there was no mention of constitutional reform or the House of Lords in Starmer’s conference speech. Scots can conclude that meaningful reform of the UK constitution is not on the agenda.
Subsequently, reports have made it clear that abolishing the House of Lords is no longer on the agenda - instead there will be minor tweaks to the controversial 800-plus, undemocratic second chamber of the UK parliament.
Starmer did say the word ‘Devolution’, while listing things the Conservatives have not achieved. But he was talking about English regions. Just three years ago, Starmer himself was advocating ‘devo max’. But now he has changed his tune. Ian Murray, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, has ruled out devolving more powers to Holyrood.
The Scottish Parliament has less power than autonomous areas of many countries. For example, the Canadian Government responded to Quebec’s demands for independence by giving the area the right to hold a referendum when it chooses, a say over international trade deals and controls on immigration, most government spending and social security.
But the Labour Party has no plans to give more powers to Holyrood. That is despite the fact that since Brexit the Scottish Parliament’s powers have been undermined by the Internal Markets Act and the UK Government’s continual flouting of the Sewel convention.
5. No end to Brexit chaos
Starmer did mention Brexit in the speech. He said: “You know, they actually believe what comes out of their mouths….When they told you – to your face – that Brexit would only bring benefits to your business.”
But that was it. He didn’t say that the UK would move closer to the EU. He didn’t acknowledge how the forthcoming Brexit 2.0 will damage Scottish and UK trade and put Northern Ireland in a potentially difficult situation.
By ruling out single market membership and a customs union with the EU, Starmer has painted himself into a corner. Instead of fixing the increasing damage Brexit is causing to Scotland and the UK, Labour can promise only a few tiny changes.
Scots want to see the governments they elect to be able to pursue the priorities of the people. They want Scotland to rejoin the EU. They want to be part of an effective move to net zero and to rebuild food and energy security along with our European neighbours. They also want the freedom and opportunity to live and work across the EU. They are unlikely to get that as part of the UK.
Unfortunately, Labour is fixated on public opinion in the north of England – where there are many more Westminster seats than in Scotland. The fact that Scotland did not vote for Brexit is not important in Labour’s scheme.
Many of those looking at Keir Starmer’s emerging programme for government will feel that there is not much there for Scotland. Their policies are focused on winning seats in England. Under the Conservatives or Labour there are a series of ‘Nos’:
- No change to the Con/Lab/Con carousel
- No solution to the energy crisis
- No end to the House of Lords
- No more powers for Holyrood
- No solution to Brexit chaos