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Getting Scotland

Brian Taylor | 12:45 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

Ed, we are conjoined to believe, "gets Scotland".

It is said that Mrs Miliband's younger - and now more prominent - son understands the concept of a distinct Scottish body politic.

This might simply mean, cynics will say, that he is content to treat Scotland with benign neglect, untroubled by developments north of Hadrian's Wall.

Not so, says Iain Gray. Ed "gets Scotland" in two ways: appreciating the need to underline the status of the Scottish party; and appreciating that Scotland will provide the first test of his leadership, with the Holyrood elections in May.

"Getting Scotland", by that interpretation, should mean a place for Mr Gray in the party's National Executive Committee - what we journalists were once pleased to call the "ruling NEC".

It should mean an enhanced emphasis upon policy autonomy for the Scottish party.

As I have noted frequently, the party which legislated for Scottish devolution remains the least devolved of the political parties in spirit.

Longer term, it might even mean a further evolution of Mr Gray's role from the present confines as "leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament".

Discontented voters

Will Scotland "get Ed?" Depends on what he says, depends on what he offers, most notably in his conference speech here in Manchester tomorrow.

Among delegates, there is a sense of anticipation - but also of apprehension: concern that he may not be able to define his political and economic stance in a fashion which appeals to discontented voters.

Concern, in short, that the party's arcane electoral system has generated the wrong result.

And what of Scotland? Iain Gray produced a policy announcement today. It was one which will cost money rather than save it.

The plan for a "living wage", currently set at £7.15 an hour, is of relatively limited scope.

It would apply to those public sector employees who do not currently receive such a wage.

Labour would then attempt to persuade private sector employers, through such devices as procurement contracts, to follow suit.

Tax credits

It would cost £20m - but Labour argues that the experience in Glasgow, where the city council pursued such a course, is that absenteeism declines, improving efficiency.

It would also involve a fiscal transfer from Edinburgh to London.

That would happen because improving the pay of public servants would, in some cases, lift them out of tax credits.

The Scottish government would face the cost of paying the higher wages while the tax credit money saved would revert to the Treasury.

For Iain Gray, though, this is a declaration of priorities: an assertion that, within difficult economic circumstances, he would still find money for the lowest paid as advance compensation for the cuts to come.

It is a statement of values.

And those cuts? We get the Comprehensive Spending Review from the Chancellor on October 20.

Within a month from that, John Swinney will spell out his consequential Scottish budget decisions.

Balancing books

At that point, Labour will offer a critical narrative upon the Swinney plans, perhaps indicating what they like; certainly stressing what they dislike.

But there will be no shadow Budget from Labour in Scotland.

No full, detailed indication of how they would balance the books, how they would do the sums.

That will be reserved for the party's manifesto in advance of the May elections.

This will be a source of contention.

Unless there is sufficient outline detail in the response to Mr Swinney, Labour will face pressure from their rivals - governmental and opposition - to show more of their hand.

To say what they would do about the economy, about public spending.


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