It’s Spring – and the Party Spring Conference Season is almost over. In the week that saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, aspects of her legacy linger on. Scottish Labour for instance is determined to remind voters that there IS such a thing as society. Indeed, it will be a key theme for the Party’s UK leader, Ed Miliband, when he calls for a “new settlement” to heal economic and social divisions in Britain.
The Scottish Labour Conference is meeting over the weekend in Inverness. Delegates there will hear Mr Miliband say that this settlement will combine “proper rights to work with a real responsibility to do so”. He believes that the people of the UK need a new start, comparable to that offered by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. He will argue that she gained power because voters wanted change. He believes the same is true today, that people are tired of failed economic policies and mistaken welfare changes.
The question of independence will also figure strongly at the conference. Scottish Labour is a unionist party; but it also favours greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. So we’ll see Mr Miliband argue that independence is a divisive policy, while the party’s Devolution Commission, set up last year, believes there’s “a strong case for devolving income tax in full” to the Scottish Parliament.
The commission was made up of MPs, MEPs, union members and academic advisers. It’s been examining whether to give Holyrood responsibility for raising roughly half of the £30 billion it spends every year. Its report says that there is a case for devolving income tax but with some reservations, quite big ones. So if they led to a cut in the money coming to the Scottish Government or charges were proposed in the so-called Barnett Formula which defines Scotland’s share of UK funds, that would be a step too far.
As the report explains, “it is important to consider the stability of funding for public services. This is an issue to which the proponents of other models of fiscal devolution have given insufficient consideration. We have no wish or desire to make Scotland’s public services poorer.” It adds: “We would not want to devolve income tax in a way which would increase the administrative burden on employers, and individuals.”
However, party officials say the report is just “the start of a debate, not the end of it”. That’s because these recommendations are controversial. There have been suggestions that some Scottish Labour MPs would stay away from the conference in protest. They believe that such a full transfer of income tax would be a step too far, one on which they had not been sufficiently consulted.