Ian Swanson: Labour might have a good idea but no-one’s listening

Kezia Dugdale has a plan, but is anyone listening? Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Kezia Dugdale has a plan, but is anyone listening? Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

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KEZIA Dugdale pledged at the Scottish Labour conference at the weekend that the party she leads will never support independence.

But perhaps more significantly, she was not arguing for the constitutional status quo. Labour now has an alternative proposal - federalism, or ‘devolution all round’.

It is not a new idea. Liberal Democrats have been advocating it since long before the Scottish Parliament was created.

But it potentially represents a coherent, sensible way of organising powers for nations or regions within a larger state.

In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, many thought if this kind of maximum devolution had been on the ballot paper it might well have won.

And if the current global uncertainty, the disruption of Brexit and reduced oil prices are going to make people hesitate about independence, stronger powers for Scotland within a federal UK could arguably be a popular and pragmatic option again.

Under the right circumstances, Labour could find itself championing the winning argument.

But the trouble for Ms Dugdale and her party is that current circumstances are far from favourable. Indeed, they are so unfavourable that no-one is listening to Labour. The party could come up with the most wonderful policies in the world and it would do them no good because the voters have switched off.

Arguably Labour’s best hope is to develop a set of bold and clearly thought through policies and stick with them, despite the public’s lack of interest, knowing that one day people will inevitably start to become disillusioned with the SNP and look round for alternatives. If Labour is there, ready and waiting with a coherent programme worked out it will be in prime position.

Ms Dugdale has argued a federal solution would allow Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England to take more responsibility for what happens in their communities, while safeguarding the pooling and sharing of wealth across the UK.

She was keen to promote the policy at the conference and gave star billing to Sadiq Khan, who delivered success for Labour by seeing off the Tories in last year’s London mayoral contest. Unfortunately in a pre-conference newspaper piece Mr Khan chose to compare nationalism to racism, sparking a furious row which then overshadowed most of the conference.

Jeremy Corbyn, in his speech to the delegates in Perth, reaffirmed Labour’s plans to hold a People’s Constitutional Convention. He promised: “We are committed to redistributing more power and wealth across our nations and regions” - although commentators noted he did not use the word federalism.

One big problem with the policy, however, is that at the moment there seems to be little interest or enthusiasm in England for regional assemblies or even a stand-alone English parliament.

In 2004, a previous Labour plan for regional assemblies in England was abandoned after a referendum in the North East rejected the idea by 78 to 22 per cent.

A People’s Constitutional Convention could look at all sorts of options to devolve powers across the UK, but it may prove difficult to persuade the English regions to show the same interest as Scotland.