Monday 27 January 2020

Playing the federal card

Over the weekend, Labour’s remaining leadership candidates have been competing to see who can come up with the best way of strengthening ‘our precious union’ although none of them managed to articulate what’s so precious about it or why they want to maintain it.  And, as seems inevitable when Labour’s thoughts turn to devolution, one of them has played the federal card.  In this case, it’s Starmer, who has at least recognised that a federal UK with real power for the nations and regions means breaking up England into smaller units.  He didn’t put it that way, of course – but that can only be the outcome of setting up regional parliaments with full powers over all devolved areas.  A federation which leaves England untouched can never be a federation of equals.  In truth, what sounds like a radical plan is little more than an attempt to kick the can down the road by setting up a long-term process which will lead to a written constitution at some unspecified future date after listening to people's opinions (and guess what the reaction in England will be?).  Too little, too late.
Long-Bailey took a trip into an imaginary past where the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd “were meant to be on an equal footing” with Westminster.  (Spoiler: No, they weren’t.  That was never the intention of any part of the Labour Government which set them up.)  She went on to argue that she wants “our Scottish parliament and our Welsh parliament to feel as completely autonomous and independent as they possibly can whilst having that collaborative relationship with Westminster”.  If the relationship with Westminster is collaborative rather than hierarchical, I can see nothing much wrong with that, although it sounds a lot like what I’d call independence.  I hope that an independent Wales would always be willing to collaborate with our neighbours in these islands and beyond.  I rather suspect that “as completely autonomous and independent” as possible has a rather more limited meaning for her than for me, and that her idea of "collaborative" is rather more of a straitjacket.  And the one thing that comes through very clearly is that she somehow thinks that strengthening devolution will regain Scotland for Labour; and I suspect that party political objective is the real aim for all of them.
Nandy doesn’t seem to have had much of import to say in the eyes of whoever wrote this piece, merely talking vaguely about handing power back to the nations and regions.  It’s another version of alternative history, because the regions never had the powers (whatever they are) which she says she wants to give them back.
Thornberry sounds much more like the authentic voice of Labour which we know so well, and whilst she seems to be on course to be knocked out of the contest soon, I rather suspect that her traditional approach is the one that will actually be followed by Labour, whoever wins, after a decent period has elapsed in which to bury all talk of federalism.  Bash the SNP, label them as tartan Tories, and wait for the voters to return sheepishly to the Labour fold.  It’s not exactly been a successful strategy to date, but it does at least show that she understands the problem she’s trying to solve – it’s nothing to do with devolution, independence or the best interests of Wales or Scotland, it’s all about how Labour can win the seats it needs to form a government in London.  The problem isn’t a constitutional one, it’s about those contrary Scots refusing to vote the way they’re told to vote.

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