Their British leader, Ed Miliband, came north to argue that under a future Labour government the UK would be very different. He promised the Scottish Labour conference a “British race to the top”. A Labour government, he declared, would deliver a fairer and more equal Britain – a Britain in which the flame of social justice would again burn brightly. A No vote was a vote for social justice.
Predictably, this line of argument was warmly welcomed by Labour activists and supporters. It got them off the hook of appearing to be on the same side as the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. They were now able to argue that the austerity cuts, the welfare reforms, the attacks on the public sector were the result of the wrong kind of UK government not of the UK itself. It also allowed them to project a British Labour government as the socially just alternative to the break-up of Britain.
Unfortunately, Labour’s real policies fail to match Ed Miliband’s conference rhetoric. Far from re-igniting the British flame of social justice, the declared policies of a future Labour government would simply carry on where the Coalition government leaves off. While the unionist press and media hunt down the SNP’s plan B for a post-independence currency, no one seems to have noticed that Labour lacks its own plan B alternative to the core policies of the Tory/Lib Dem government.
It is widely acknowledged that the majority of the Coalition’s planned austerity cuts have yet to be implemented. £25billion worth of cuts to public spending are scheduled to occur in the fiscal year 2015-16, conveniently after the UK general election in May 2015. It is a given that these cuts will go ahead in the event of another Tory or Tory-led government. What is less well understood is that they will also go ahead in the event of a Labour government. Both Miliband and his shadow chancellor Balls have promised to match the Coalition cuts “pound for pound” as part of their deficit reduction plan.
Labour in Westminster also voted with the Tories and the Lib Dems to place a cap on welfare spending. We know from the latest available figures that there are now 820,000 people in Scotland who are officially classified as living in poverty. This represents an increase of 110,000 over the year before. When the cuts planned for 2015/16 are implemented the number of Scots living in poverty will crash through the million mark. Labour’s support for capping welfare spending at a time of rising demand for welfare support means that in government they too would hit the poorest and the most vulnerable workers.
Like the Tories and the Lib Dems they have become strangers to the very idea of social justice. With the sole exception of the Bedroom Tax, Labour backs the Coalition government’s wider welfare reform package. The attacks on people with disabilities, the sanctioning of JobSeeker’s Allowance claimants, the scourge of the “fitness for work tests”, the £18billion package of cuts to a range of welfare benefits all carry “Labour” as well as “Coalition” branding.
While the gap between rich and poor widens and the number of working poor rises, the one-time “People’s Party” turns a blind eye and promises to get tough on the welfare scroungers in pursuit of a friendly headline in the Daily Mail. At a recent independence hustings two Labour politicians tried to argue that Scotland should remain part of the UK as an “act of solidarity” with workers elsewhere on these islands.
A trade unionist in the audience had to remind them that during 13 years in government Labour had steadfastly refused to repeal the Tory law making solidarity acts between workers in Britain illegal. Indeed, it was a Labour Prime Minister who boasted that the UK had the toughest anti-union laws in the European Union. Both Labour and Tory governments want to keep those laws in place.
Ultimately, all Westminster parties are deeply influenced by the political culture prevalent in the south east of England. Below a line drawn from The Wash on the east coast of England to the Bristol Channel on the west coast there are 302 Westminster parliamentary seats – almost half of all seats in the House of Commons. Winning a UK election means pitching your appeal and your policies at that southern electorate. That stark electoral reality has drawn all of the Westminster parties on to the same political terrain as outlined above. We can only break with their socially unjust policies if we first break with the British state itself.