Scottish Labour should seize the opportunities of Brexit
Tom Harris, the satisfied if not victorious Grand High Panjandrum of Scottish Vote Leave, says Scottish Labour’s post-Brexit action plan was a missed opportunity to take the initiative on a host of issues.
As a Labour Party member I am not accustomed to bursts of optimism. But I submitted, briefly, to the feeling when I read yesterday morning that Scottish Labour had produced a post-Brexit action plan.
As I say – briefly.
The party’s “action plan” is worthy, of course. It reheats, for the most part, policies and soundbites that have been well used in recent weeks and months. Lots of talk about “investment” and “using the new powers” that are on their way to Holyrood from Westminster.
This “plan” did what it was intended to do. It garnished a few column inches in the press, a couple of headlines on the evening news bulletins and a sentence or two from Kez or Jackie. But it won’t do what it should be doing, which is informing the debate in Scotland up to and beyond the point at which we leave the EU.
No one reading this “plan” will be inspired. No one will read it and think, “Yeah, Scottish Labour really know what needs to be done.” Just look at the language used in the “plan”: “Brexit is likely to make matters worse… confidence is dissipating… uncertainty is the greatest concern for business…” Where’s the Rev. I.M. Jolly when you need him?
And yet there is an opportunity here for the party to take the initiative, to out-manoeuvre its opponents at Holyrood. But in order to do so it needs to adopt an entirely different mindset from the one it has had since the events of June 23.
Or perhaps Labour is happy to leave the “hopey changey” stuff to Ruth Davidson?
The decision on our EU membership has been made. While the Scottish Government contrives new excuses to hold a second independence referendum and spends taxpayers’ money flying Nicola Sturgeon around the continent to get selfies taken with EU leaders, they are deliberately refusing to talk about the opportunities for Scotland that will arise from Brexit.
Take minimum pricing of alcohol. Earlier this year, academics at the University of Sheffield concluded that a 50p minimum price per unit in Scotland would result in a reduction of more than 2000 deaths and nearly 39,000 hospital admissions in the next 20 years.
Yet because the UK is currently a member of the EU, we are subject to the dictats and judgments of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that has ruled that, a democratic mandate to introduce minimum pricing notwithstanding, such a move is against EU law and is therefore illegal.
Where is the Labour MSP making the case for minimum pricing to go ahead once we’re outside the EU and free from the judgments of their lordships sitting in Luxembourg? Who in Scottish Labour will champion the cause of saving those 2000 lives once judges in a foreign court can no longer overturn votes by MSPs?
Next, public procurement. How quickly we forget that the threat hanging over CalMac until recently was there because of our legal obligation to seek tenders for the service throughout the EU. Outside the EU, the Scottish Government can decide for itself the rules by which such public contracts are tendered. Isn’t that something worth welcoming? Isn’t that something that might have warranted a mention in any “post-Brexit plan”?
At the STUC in Dundee in April, Nicola Sturgeon announced that her government, if re-elected the following month, would introduce new rules that would mean that any company that had been found guilty of tax dodging would be prevented from bidding for public sector contracts. She might as well have added: “… in an ideal world.” As I pointed out at the time, such a policy would be against EU rules and would be struck down as soon as it was legislated for.
So where is the Labour MSP willing to take a stand against such companies, who could, indeed, be frozen out of public procurement processes once we’re out of the EU? Anyone?
Lastly, and most importantly, why does Kez and Jackie’s plan make reference to new powers from Westminster but not to the new powers from Brussels? Scotland’s fishing communities voted Leave because they have lived through the devastation wrought on them by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Yet on the day we leave the EU, it will be Scottish, not EU, policy that applies to fishing and agriculture.
What will such a policy look like? Who’s doing the work on it? What do the fishermen think? What do the farmers think? Has anyone even asked them? Why hasn’t Scottish Labour initiated a consultation process among such communities, in the absence of the Scottish Government doing so?
While the SNP do what they do best – encourage division among the people of Scotland – there is an opportunity for Scottish Labour to embrace the will of the (UK) people.
Championing the right of Holyrood to impose minimum pricing of alcohol isn’t about nationalism, it’s about democracy. Creating a public procurement policy that favours ethical behaviour isn’t protectionism, it’s progress. Consulting farmers and fishermen about their future isn’t parochialism, it’s leadership.
It’s been a long time since Scottish Labour has inspired optimism in itself, let alone in Scotland. Brexit, counter-intuitively for a party that supported the Remain campaign, has given it an opportunity to do exactly that.
Will it take it?