The ERS held its first Labour Party conference event this morning. The subject was “What next after the Scottish independence referendum?”
At one level this should not be so contentious – Scotland has been promised significant devolution of new powers by all three of the big Westminster parties. A very rapid timetable has been established as part of ‘The Vow’, a promise for future powers published on a now-famous Daily Record front page.
The importance of fulfilling The Vow is not to be underestimated. As the psephologist Professor John Curtice said at our event, Yes lost the referendum but won the campaign. At the beginning of the campaign around 35% of Scots supported Scottish independence, and by the end it was 45%. At the start of the campaign the balance of opinion in Scotland was that the Scottish Parliament should be the most powerful institution by 2:1. Now it is 4:1, and less than 20% of Scots support the status quo vis-a-vis powers.
Change is particularly necessary for Scottish Labour, Curtice argued. The map of Yes votes in the Scottish referendum looks much more like the Scottish Labour vote than the SNP one. Strong SNP (but affluent) areas in the North East voted against independence, but Labour strongholds like North Lanarkshire voted for.
There was concern from Edinburgh Council Leader Andrew Burns and Sarah Boyack MSP that empowering just the Scottish Parliament would simply mean centralising power at a different level. Both advocated ‘double devolution’ of power down not just to the Scottish Parliament but also to local authorities. Boyack pointed out that Labour’s devolution commission advocated devolution of welfare programmes such as the Work Programme to local government. She argued that less important than devolving power to new institutions is devolving power to communities, and that this sometimes meant going even below local government.
There was also concern that none of this would be easy. Richard Howitt MEP pointed to the cynicism which could greet reform. John Curtice argued that the promises made for more powers had already essentially been overtaken by Scottish public opinion, which is now more radical than the proposals of the three main parties. He warned of the problematic issue of trying to get consensus with the SNP and said that Labour is riven over devolution due to a historic view that welfare provision should be universal everywhere.
Yet as Boyack argued, change is coming, and that change is not necessarily predictable.
Finally, there was consensus amongst the Labour politicians on the panel that a Constitutional Conventionwould be the best way to guarantee real citizen involvement in the nature of our constitution, rather than a Westminster or Whitehall ‘fix’.
This evening we look at the English aspects of this debate, with John Denham, Ben Bradshaw, Alison Seabeck and Lewis Baston. If you’re in Manchester, do come along – 8pm Exchange 6-7