A few months ago I wrote that federalism, a bit like my wardrobe, was coming back into fashion. Well, my wardrobe is still struggling, but yesterday Kez Dugdale took the journey towards federalism a step closer with her speech to the IPPR.
Labour, at both Scottish and UK levels, faces a potential squeeze as voters take a binary position on constitutional issues - nationalist v unionist and/or Brexit v Remain. Complicated in Scotland by the significant cross over between these camps. Neither should be the focus of a socialist party, but the choice is to ignore it and hope politics as normal will return, or face up to reality and adopt a credible position.
It is tempting just to say that the Scottish Government should get on with the day job, as Bill Jamieson does in a classic rant in today’s Scotsman. I could add that it is quite extraordinary that only one Bill has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament in the six months since the election. Nonetheless, we have to accept that voters are viewing issues through the prism of constitutional issues and as Labour’s own research shows, there is an appetite for a distinctive Labour position that is neither unionist nor nationalist.
In Scotland, there has been some criticism that Scottish Labour hasn't articulated a position after the Scottish Parliament election strategy of ignoring the constitution failed. The Deputy Leader, Alex Rowley, has been promoting a discussion, but this is often wrongly branded as some sort of leadership challenge to Kez Dugdale. Anyone who knows Alex knows full well that this is absurd. Others such as the Red Paper Collective have also been articulating the case for progressive federalism.
Yesterday, Kez attempted to set out the beginnings of a Scottish Labour response. This was deliberately done in London, which puts the initiative in the context of the U.K. Labour initiative, led by John Trickett MP, looking at power across the UK. This hasn't made the progress many of us would have wished, due to the entirely unnecessary and damaging distraction of the UK leadership contest this summer.
This is important because whichever way we cut the constitutional powers, we have to address other power relationships. The power of corporations, the City of London, the growing wages gap and broader inequality. Scotland is not immune from these power structures, even under independence.
A new Act of Union is a clever presentational way of addressing the issue, even if I can hear the groans from our law school professors! It also recognises that federalism in England, has to be a matter for those living in England. The UK is an asymmetric state which makes true federalism challenging. It’s why I personally prefer Home Rule, using its proper historical meaning.
Brexit is an opportunity to rethink devolved powers. The Smith Commission focused on fiscal arrangements, but it was too timid on other powers. I was therefore particularly pleased to see the commitment to devolving employment rights, something that has broad trade union support in Scotland.
I am personally open to a range of constitutional options in response to Brexit and the wider political crisis. Home Rule or federalism is certainly one of those and deserves to be properly articulated. It might also encourage those who support other solutions to up their game.
Yesterday, Kez signposted a way forward for that debate and the initiative should be welcomed as part of new political strategy. For those who point to gaps, I would say it was a speech, not a policy document. This approach also leaves room for a detailed discussion in the run up to next year’s party conference.