Ian Swanson: Gordon Brown Vow may not be much

Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy unveil The Vow Plus. Picture: PA
Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy unveil The Vow Plus. Picture: PA
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GORDON Brown’s intervention in the referendum debate gave a much-needed boost to the No campaign when opinion seemed to be tipping the opposite way.

Now Labour is hoping he can do the same for the party in Scotland in the run-up to the general election.

Polls suggest Labour is going to lose out badly to the SNP and they hope the former prime minister can work some magic with his continuing appeal to Scottish voters.

In a series of passionate speeches in the closing days of the referendum campaign, Mr Brown set out a strong case in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK which went beyond many of the platitudes from some other politicians.

He also held out the prospect of stronger powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK – a promise translated into The Vow, endorsed by all three UK party leaders in a concerted bid to see off independence.

Alex Salmond is convinced it was Mr Brown’s intervention that made the crucial difference, though a study by academics has concluded the promise of more powers for Holyrood had only a minimal effect on how 
people voted.

When the Smith Commission, set up in the wake of the referendum, published its proposals for further devolution, endorsed by all the UK parties, Mr Brown declared: “The Vow has been kept, as promised.”

But on Monday he appeared alongside Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy in Edinburgh to announce Labour would go further.

Despite its previous status as the totem of the anti-independence camp and the proof of the pro-UK parties’ good faith, The Vow, it seems, is no longer enough; Labour is promising The Vow Plus.

The party says if it wins the general election in May, it will deliver Scotland powers to top up welfare benefits and pensions.

But despite right-wing claims of a “benefits bonanza”, Mr Murphy was careful not to promise that a Labour government in Scotland would actually use such powers.

“What we’re announcing isn’t the particular hikes we would have on any of the benefits,” he said. “What we’re saying is that parliament will have these really wide-ranging additional powers that they haven’t had. The detail of how you configure all of those benefits, of course, depends on the economic circumstances.”

The Vow Plus goes some way to answer critics’ claims that the draft legislation published last month by the UK government to give effect to the Smith Commission proposals were a “watered down” version of the original package.

But without a commitment to use new powers to make a difference, Labour risks being caught up in what it has always decried as an abstract obsession with the constitution and which powers Holyrood does or does not have.

The Lib Dems have pointed out that in the Smith Commission, Labour was the most cautious on transferring welfare powers to Holyrood, only for it now to claim the package is not enough.

Voters have shown themselves fairly sceptical about politicians’ promises on most issues and perhaps about the pro-UK parties’ promises on devolution more than most.

Whether or not The Vow helped sway the referendum result, returning to that territory now may not prove the most convincing way for Labour to persuade Scottish voters they should vote them back into power.