Manifestos 2021: Scottish Labour
In the final part of this series, we look at the Labour manifesto. While the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats have made their manifestos available in large print and/or audio, Labour and the Tories have not. Nor is the manifesto available in Gaelic or Easy Read. All of the policies referred to in this article can be read here.
We are often told not to judge a book by its cover, but no one says anything about judging a book on its title. That is because titles often tell us a great deal. This election, Labour have opted not to use the term manifesto, instead preferring the term “National Recovery Plan”. It makes a statement. Readers are free to judge what statement that might be.
Earlier in this series, I attributed the success of the SNP to the quality of its messaging. Perhaps I ought to do the same for Scottish Labour’s electoral misfortunes. Labour’s five “National Missions” are meant to be reminiscent of Beveridge’s five evils which must make the undergraduate who wrote this document feel tremendously clever. In places, this manifesto, delayed by two days, feels like the product of an all-nighter before the deadline. For example, the fifth of the missions, Community, is a 27-page amorphous blob; unwieldy prose covering anything from Sport to Housing.
As terrible as the structure is, I will do Labour the service of sticking to it. The first of the National Missions is a “Jobs Recovery”. Labour’s Jobs Guarantee is more specific and robust than the Youth Guarantee currently offered by the SNP and Greens (although the Greens want to extend it up to the age of thirty). Instead of the government being able to tick the box with training programmes, Labour wants to give paid work in the Scottish public sector to anyone under the age of 25 who is currently unemployed. These jobs will devote 20% of their time to training. Learn while you earn is a far more inclusive approach for young people whose families need an extra wage coming in.
The commitment to “Invest in the Scotland of Tomorrow” is infuriatingly vague. The inevitable decline of North Sea oil & gas is the elephant in the room of the Scottish economy. Up to 30,000 jobs could go in the next year. Labour’s approach is strikingly similar to the SNP’s – “grow the Scottish National Investment Bank” and continue the Just Transition Commission. Essentially, more of the same. Where the two parties are separated is specificity – the SNP have committed to spending £33 billion on infrastructure in order to create 45,000 jobs. Even if Labour intend to do this, the messaging is so poor that we just have to guess.
The opacity persists in the second national mission: “NHS and Social Care Recovery”. Labour promises a “long-term and sustainable pay deal” but unlike the SNP does not say how much they will offer NHS staff. It is not as if Labour believes that parties should not set out their positions on pay and conditions: one of the better parts of the manifesto is a commitment to make the minimum wage for carers £12 per hour. Labour also tells us that “mental health and wellbeing need to be taken seriously” but, unlike the Liberal Democrats, they do not offer much in the way of specific policy. The idea of a “no wrong door approach” is good, but that’s about as concrete as the detail gets. When reading a manifesto, voters have a right to know how much a party is going to spend and how it will allocate resources. This National Recovery Plan does not plan for resources. There is an abundance of rhetoric and a dearth of policy. That should worry potential Labour voters given that Anas Sarwar has indulged in some wild claims regarding Labour’s record on health.
There are a few policies worth noting, however. One is a commitment to abolish all forms of PPP, and mixed public financing, including the Scottish Futures Trust. Perhaps this is the beginning of a realisation from Blairites like Sarwar, just how badly they got it wrong during their eight years as the dominant party in the Scottish Parliament. On health inequalities, there are concrete suggestions: safe consumption centres for drugs, “incentive to quit voucher schemes” for smokers and “a social responsibility levy on alcohol sales”. So basically, the SNP’s approach to public health.
The third of these “National Missions” is to “Move the Scottish education system to the top of international league tables”. By all means, criticise the SNP’s mishandling of schools – goodness knows they deserve it. But using systems such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as the primary metric by which to measure improvement in education is calamitously glaikit. When the director of PISA, the foremost league table, feels the need to warn against “short-term fixes designed to help a country quickly climb the rankings” then for God’s sakes don’t base your policy around doing exactly that. Between this, and a proposal that every pupil should have a “Personal Comeback Plan” it is fair to infer that education under any Labour-led administration would become even more tokenistic and bureaucratic than it is under the SNP. The “Personal Comeback Plan” will require multiple teachers to fill in multiple forms when they could be… teaching.
Amidst this buffoonery, it is hard to pay attention to some of the better education policies available this election. Promises to “increase ASN staffing (by) at least 1,000 additional specialist teachers across Scotland”, employ 3,000 more teachers, scrap Scottish National Standardised Assessments and to ensure that failing bodies such as Education Scotland and the SQA are “fundamentally reviewed” are almost impossible to pay attention to due to the inevitable superficiality that will follow a policy whose primary measure of success will be test scores. For fuck’s sake, surely the author could have pulled another all-nighter watching Season 4 of The Wire in order to understand why stat-driven approaches invariably fail?
The fourth of these missions is a “Climate Recovery”. At least the use of targets is appropriate this time, aiming to “achieve net zero emissions in Scotland by 2045”. Like most parties, there is a plan to “retrofit” homes in order to create “up to 19,000 jobs”. Unlike the SNP, Labour suggest that Scottish Public Pension funds should divest from fossil fuels and that the government’s infrastructure projects “should be prioritised to achieve net zero outcomes”. After reading that Labour “supports a national energy company”, will “instigate a moratorium (on) large scale incineration” and supports “land justice measures” I was almost persuaded that there is such a thing as “Green Labour”. Then the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition showed such a commitment to cutting emissions that he flew into to see the Jocks rather than take the ghastly train. Starmer owes an apology to the poor wee soul who wrote Scottish Labour’s climate change policy.
Last, but in no respect least, is the colossal “Community Recovery” section. It makes David Cameron’s Big Society look like a well-honed, coherent policy platform. Nonetheless, on their own, many of these ideas are good. Highlights include “abolish(ing) the council tax and replac(ing) it with a fairer alternative based on property values and ability to pay”; a Minimum Income Standard; building “120,000 zero carbon social houses” and “licensing provisions and taxation of AirBnB”. Beyond that, there is a host of things that Labour will “support” but not necessarily do. These include the “fan ownership of football clubs” and the introduction of a Higher qualification in film making.
Perhaps the most interesting policy in the whole manifesto is to: “Bring shoppers back to our town centres with a £75 prepaid card to every adult in Scotland to be spent in non-food retail businesses.” This is a compelling debate. Urban space used to be dominated by retail. Now retail is online. Should we, as Labour and the Tories in their respective ways advocate, use the state to artificially maintain the status quo? Or should we, as the Greens advocate, orientate urban space towards the arts? Is there a middle ground? Labour should be congratulated for progressing this discussion.
Labour’s “National Recovery Plan” might help the country to recover but it certainly will not help the Labour Party. Despite Anas Sarwar having a good campaign, Labour remains stubbornly low in the polls. One suspects the feedback to this all-nighter will be ‘could do better’.
Best Policy: For all of my acerbic criticism of their schools policy, the higher education section of this manifesto is commendable. In another ‘we got it wrong’ moment, not only will Labour maintain free tuition in Scotland, but they will create a minimum student income and “place rent controls on student accommodation”. As someone who went to university during Labour’s time in power at Holyrood and had to pay both tuition fees and a graduate endowment, I am rather pleased to see the party do right by university students.
Worst Policy: Basing all education policy around success in the international league tables (i.e. PISA). Seriously, it makes the Tories look decent by comparison. The manifesto also fails to contain a pledge for rent controls for people other than students, which I had been naïve enough to hope it would.
Weirdest Policy: The entire manifesto is un-costed. The only other Holyrood party to do this is the Liberal Democrats (and they are in fifth place). The Greens costed their manifesto knowing full well that they are likely to have a significant say in how Scotland is governed during the next five years. On the other hand, what was once Scotland’s natural party of government has now embraced the status of piss in the wind.