True or not, the ‘no’ camp seem to be placing a lot of faith in his ability to win people over in the last week or so of the campaign. It’s hard to judge whether that faith is misplaced. His task is not an easy one with the momentum going the other way, and it isn’t made any easier by the differing perspectives held within his own party on some of the key issues, such as funding mechanisms.
Last week, he declared that the Barnett formula is a “needs-based approach” to allocating resources, and said: “I don’t think there is going to be much change in the Barnett formula at all in future years”. Speaking to a Scottish audience, I guess he didn’t have a lot of choice. But I can’t imagine that our own First Minister can have been best pleased as he prepared to make the journey north to support Brown and others in the Labour Party.
It’s a problem of Labour’s own making. They’ve had the facts and they had the opportunity to search for a way forward on funding which reconciled the different perspectives in Wales and Scotland. But they decided that it was too difficult, and bottled it.
But those different perspectives also undermine something else which was part of Brown’s key message. He said of the Union, “We are four nations that have come together. We have proved what no other four nations have proved, that we can allocate resources amongst each other, according to need.”
Given the large and growing geographical inequalities in the UK, and given the forensic dissection of the effects of the Barnett formula by the Holtham Commission and others, many would argue that the UK has proved quite the opposite – that it is in fact utterly unable to allocate resources according to need.
This has been one of the weaknesses of the unionist case from the outset – whilst, theoretically, a union ought to be able to redistribute resources fairly, successive governments have shown only limited inclination to attempt it. If they had succeeded, then the unionist case would have been very much stronger; but claiming to have done something which has patently not been done only draws more attention to the problem.
Worse still, if people like Brown really do believe that they have achieved this outcome, then we can be fairly certain that they won’t feel much need to change what they’re doing if they win the next UK election. After all, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”. I almost feel sorry for the “senior elected Labour politician in the UK”, as he finds himself bound to support a campaign which is, effectively, trashing the conclusions of the Holtham report and distancing itself from everything that he has been saying on funding. But only almost.