Labour unveils Team Scotland to take on SNP

13 Scottish MPs have been charged with the responsibility of taking on the Nationalists

Labour has assembled a crack-team of 13 Scottish MPs to spearhead the fight against the SNP in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, which the Scottish Government has pledged to hold sometime between 2014 and 2016.

Led by new Shadow Scotland Secretary Margaret Curran, it is composed of some of the party's brightest young Scottish talent, including Gemma Doyle and Gregg McClymont, and a number of its more established figures like ex-Defence Secretary Lord Browne and former MSP and Scottish Executive minister Cathy Jamieson.

Commenting on its formation, Curran said the new group - which she described as "powerful"- would focus on the "big economic issues" and work to "hold the government at Westminster to account day in, day out". In an echo of the attack line used by Scottish Labour during its disastrous Holyrood election campaign earlier this year, she also drew a parallel between the Nationalist administration in Edinburgh and the Coalition administration in London: "These are tough times for many families caught between a Tory government cutting too hard and too fast, and an SNP government whose economic policy simply isn't working."

However, the precise remit of 'Team Scotland' is unclear. How will it relate to the party north of the border, particularly in light of the latter's efforts to distance itself from Westminster influence? What part will it play in opposing Scottish Government policy, a role which had up until now been reserved for the MSP group? Crucially, will it be accountable to the next Scottish leader or to Ed Miliband?

These questions lay bare the dilemma Labour has found itself in with regard to Scotland over the last few years. For instance, if Curran's troupe is answerable to Miliband, the SNP will, rightly, take it as confirmation that the party has failed to come to terms with the nationalist dynamics currently fuelling Scotland's drive toward greater autonomy. If not, Salmond and his supporters will cite it as evidence that the Unionists are dancing to a separatist tune and claim a further, albeit minor, victory in their bid to dismantle the British political structure. Either way, Labour comes off second best and Curran certainly has her work cut out.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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