It’s always the same. Razzmatazz aimed at winning back waning voters; Saatchi & Saatchi reconstructed and re-branded would-be leaders trying to win over their party; and big policy announcements aimed at, often cynically, putting political pressure on opponents.
The Tory party jamboree at Manchester followed the same identikit. Boris bumbled his way through a speech aimed at highlighting how affable he is while trying to hide his viscously right wing tendencies. Osborne oozed the future leader confidence he, at least, thinks he has in abundance while trying to make us forget the damage his austerity programme has done to individuals and families across the country. Its political slight of hand of which the most accomplished street magician would be proud: force the audience to focus on the right hand while the left hand palms the evidence of their failings.
We had a very similar approach from the Scottish Secretary when he announced that Scotland’s new tax varying powers could be given to the Scottish Parliament a year earlier than previously suggested.
This big announcement was aimed at suggesting to the Scottish people that the Tories are absolutely committed to devolution and keeping their word on “the vow”. It also gave the Scottish Party Leader, Ruth Davidson, the opportunity to immediately say that the Tories would campaign in Scotland to reduce income tax compared to the rest of the UK; as misguided as such a policy approach may be with the Scottish electorate.
What was in the Scottish Secretary’s closed left hand as he enthusiastically waved his open right hand before our eyes? What wasn’t he saying? What was the announcement really all about?
The simple fact that the Scottish Secretary does not want you to think about is that tax raising powers in isolation is at best worthless and at worst dangerous. His ploy is an attempt to hand the Scottish Parliament a package that will self-destruct in their hands.
This may sound overly simple but the simple fact is that politics often is very simple – it’s simply about doing what is right. People pay income tax out of their earnings. We have, I believe, a fairly clear redistributive consensus among the Scottish people. Unlike Ruth Davidson, the vast majority of Scottish people believe that taxes should be at an appropriate level to allow us to provide first rate public services and to properly support the vulnerable in society. We believe that working people have an obligation to society as a whole and to the less fortunate that manifests itself through our taxation system. That, in turn, means that our political leaders have an obligation to working people.
They have an obligation to ensure that we are safe and secure in our workplaces to ensure that we pay the taxes that will drive their political goals and policies.
They have an obligation in relation to creating training and apprenticeship opportunities. They have an obligation to ensuring work places are safe, free from discrimination and other forms of abuse and mistreatment of workers by employers. They have an obligation to ensure that employees who are injured at work or mistreated by their employers have access to justice in the civil court for the purpose of advancing compensation claims; and the employment tribunals to obtain redress and, where appropriate, restorative remedies.
In short, handing the power over income tax to the Scottish Parliament is worthless unless it is accompanied with the power to reverse the significant, vitriolic and abusive attacks on workers’ rights we have seen from Westminster over the last 6 years. The Scottish Parliament should have the power to reverse section 69 of the Enterprise Act; to abolish Employment Tribunal lodging dues; to reduce the qualifying period for unfair dismissal; and throw the legislative abomination that is the Trade Union Bill into the bin.
Powers over income tax and control of employment law and health and safety are 2 sides of the same legislative coin.
Without devolving health and safety and employment law, providing the Scottish Parliament with power over taxes is a bit like installing a bath into a house that has no plumbing.
We must not fall for the Tories tricks. We must force them to open their left hand, to show that it’s empty. And we must not to give up on the natural evolution that is the devolution process until we have full devolution of employment and health and safety law.