Few issues demonstrate how comprehensibly Labour has left the field of political debate, and the consequences, than that of pensions.
Older people are more inclined to vote and therefore have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of elections, particularly referendums given recent experience.
So it was a smart move by the party to pick up the matter of women’s pension age.
Women Against State Pension Age Inequality (Waspi) was a protest movement gathering momentum when Barbara Keeley first brought their plight to parliament last December. In the Lords Joan Bakewell took up the same cause reading out a string of heartbreaking testimonies she’d received from women in their 60s forced to work when their health was failing or claiming benefits for the first time in their lives.
Their complaint is not that state pension age is being equalised but that a certain cohort of women born in the 1950s are bearing the brunt of it and were not given adequate information before changes to their entitlement were implement.
One of the starker examples given is that a woman born in February 1953 would have retired at the start of this year while her sister born 12 months later has to work three-and-a-half years longer before drawing her pension.
About 2.6m women are affected.
The then shadow pensions minister Nick Thomas-Symonds and his impressive team took up the issue as Waspi grew in size and influence. By the start of the year MPs from all parties were being contacted by angry constituents affected.
At which point Jeremy Corbyn reshuffled his team and gave the pensions brief to Angela Rayner. Her press man said she needed a couple of weeks to get to grips with the issues. But a high profile debate on the issue had been scheduled to take place in the House of Commons within days of her appointment.
And here’s the thing. That debate was called by the SNP.
They’d sniffed something and figured hitching their wagon to Waspi could have a number of happy outcomes for them.
Labour should’ve muscled them aside. Instead it stood aside.
So keen on the Waspi issue were the SNP that they gave Mhairi Black the lead on it, having previously only sprinkled her political stardust sparingly.
She and the SNP took ownership of the issue and they are determined to lead to victory. This week, they published the results of research they commissioned from Landman Economics setting out what can be done to help the Waspi women and the costs of each option.
The SNP’s preferred option is to ignore George Osborne’s 2011 act speeding up the equalisation process and set the clock back to 1995 when the policy and timetable were first announced. This would see women’s pension age hit 66 in 2026 rather than 2020.
That plan is costed at £8bn, significantly less than the £30bn quoted by the government to pay for the Waspi campaign’s demands. The SNP claim it can be paid for out of the National Insurance Fund which currently has a surplus balance approaching £30bn.
So even if Labour have flaked, the Waspi women at least know the SNP care about them.
Except the SNP only care about one thing – independence.
Nothing wrong with that, it’s their raison d’etre. But they are only interested in pensions as a means to an end.
The Scottish independence referendum of 2014, like the European referendum just passed, was won and lost among the old.
Pensioners didn’t trust the SNP with their pensions. They bought the Better Together claim that their income was more secure in the UK, because pensions remain reserved, paid in and out on a UK basis.
The SNP know that if they’re ever going to win a referendum they need an answer on pensions. Their answer is that Westminster can’t be trusted to pay you what you’re due, and that the Nationalists can – even though the latter part can’t actually be tested till after the event of an independence vote.
Trashing Westminster worked pretty well for the Brexiteers so it’s easy to see why it appeals to the SNP too. (Though neither of those groups would ever admit to having anything in common).
But there is another way.
Welfare powers are coming to Holyrood, still controlled by the SNP as it has been for nearly 10 years.
Under the Scotland Act, the Scottish parliament will have the ability to create new benefits, as long as it pays for them.
Ahead of the Holyrood election in May, Scottish Labour pledged to use the new powers to create a top up specifically aimed at women apparently hard done by at the hands of pension age changes. Around 100,000 Scottish women would be eligible and the plan was to pay for it by reversing changes to the top rate of tax threshold.
The SNP say Westminster made the problem, so Westminster must fix it. They reject the opportunity to be proactive and project an image of a party – and since they often like to conflate themselves with Scotland itself – and a country that gets things done and tackles apparent injustices even if it costs money.
Inevitably it’s easier to do nothing, to criticise Westminster and reject redistribution.
They are right that the nub of the issue lies at Westminster as long as pensions remain reserved. And as long as Labour sits on the sidelines talking to itself (with the honourable exception of the likes of Keeley, whose commitment to the cause seems unstinting) the SNP can take ownership of the issue and the narrative and bend it to their own aims.