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Balancing the books

Brian Taylor | 16:58 UK time, Saturday, 30 October 2010

Here in Oban, a substantive speech from Iain Gray: with a succession of detailed policy announcements.

A national care service, a single police force for Scotland, fewer health boards, guaranteed apprenticeships, a living wage of £7.15 for the public sector.

So no complaint about an absence of detail. But still key challenges and questions.

Firstly, the new care service and the single police force (matched by one for fire and rescue) will substantially curtail the role of local authorities. They can be expected to kick.

Secondly, while savings can be expected from, for example, removing police HQ functions across Scotland, those will be down the line. Initially, reorganisation tends to cost money.

So Labour will still require to find savings in order to balance the books from next May, should they take power.

Those might come from pay restraint (which Iain Gray endorsed in a BBC interview but did not spell out in his speech).

Or they might come from allowing increases in council tax. Such increases, I believe, would be limited. Labour would only allow a local authority to push up council tax if it had exhausted efficiency savings and could demonstrate a detailed purpose for the rise: in other words, it would effectively be hypothecated.

Still on spending, I expect Labour to follow three broad phases.

Firstly, they will subject John Swinney's budget to critical scrutiny and analysis.

Secondly, probably off stage, there may be cross-party negotiations regarding the shape of that budget.

Finally, in time for the May elections, Labour will put proposals for balancing the budget in its manifesto.

To date, all the parties are stressing the upside of their proposals - while rather sidestepping the downside. The voters - who endured such an approach in the UK General Election - will demand more.

PS Harriet Harman has now withdrawn her attack on Danny Alexander as a "ginger rodent". But not, one notes, her comment that the Lib Dems in Scotland were political mutants who had turned into Tories.


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