Just occasionally in politics, the mask slips and political parties reveal what they really are – rather than what they would like us to believe they are. Today in Edinburgh we experienced one of those moments. Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour Leader, unveiled her plans for ‘devo plus’ for Scotland – if Scots vote No in September. We expected something technical focusing on the new powers the Scottish Parliament would be gifted by a Labour government at Westminster. Instead, we got something fundamentally red in tooth and claw.
Indeed, Lamont could not have taken a harder socialist approach had she grabbed a red flag and waved it from the rooftop of the Scottish Parliament building. The words she kept using were ‘progressive’ and ‘redistributive’ but the message was clear – she intends to give the Scottish Parliament the power to hammer the rich, squeeze the middle classes and balance as many wealth inequalities as she can.
This is what she proposed:
- Giving the Scottish Parliament control over 15p in the pound of income tax across all tax bands.
- Allowing the Scottish Parliament to raise the upper and middle bands – without having to raise the lower rate.
- Preventing the Scottish Parliament from lowering the upper and middle rates below the UK level. To do that the parliament would also have to lower the bottom rate too (which would result in a drastic loss of income).
- Enshrining these changes in legislation at Westminster to prevent future administrations at Holyrood – whatever their political colour – from changing the system Labour introduces.
- Making property taxes more ‘progressive’ by making those living in more expensive houses pay more.
The consequences of this would be staggering. It would mean the Scottish Parliament could raise taxes on upper and middle income tax earners with relative ease but Holyrood would find it difficult to lower taxes in the same way. The way these changes have been proposed undoubtedly means that Scottish governments would be encouraged to raise taxes on the rich and middle-income earners and discouraged to lower them. These changes would also be written into legislation at Westminster, legislation which the Scottish Parliament could not change, regardless of who was in charge at Holyrood.
By doing this, Labour would effectively enshrine into law the right to raise income tax without a corresponding right to lower it. Such a move might be understandable – not acceptable but understandable – if this was being done as a piece of defiant socialist principle. But the reasons are a lot more narrow and absurd than that. Lamont wants to introduce these changes because she fears that a future SNP government might lower taxes on the rich in order to encourage tax refugees from south of the border and, somehow, hasten the break-up of the UK. This is an extraordinary reason to do anything quite as fundamental as this. However, there does seem to be some principle behind it too; Lamont does actually seem to believe in taxing the rich.
The Scottish Labour Leader made it clear she wanted to raise the top band of income tax back up to 50p as soon as possible. Her advisers were insisting today that she has no plans to raise the 40p band but, by giving the Scottish Parliament the power to raise this band as well, there is an ominous (if as yet unstated) threat to middle-income earners too. Taken together with her declared aim of taking more in council tax from those living in more expensive houses, it seems we have an agenda of tax-and-spend, sock-the-rich politics that Scotland hasn’t seen for many a year.
Why is this important for the rest of the country? Firstly because these plans will form one of the key platforms of Labour’s 2015 manifesto, but also because Lamont insists that she and Ed Miliband are singing from the same hymn sheet on this issue. Lamont’s advisers were talking this morning about how in tune the two leaders are, with Miliband backing a mansion tax and Lamont wanting the same thing in Scotland. They both want to put the top income tax rate back to 50p.
But, given that the overall message from Lamont was so overtly left-wing, UK voters should also take note. This was the real Scottish Labour Party here – not the one which pretends to sympathise with the squeezed middle classes or which tones down its socialist rhetoric. Being ‘progressive’ and ‘redistributive’ is what it wants to do and, if the Scottish and UK parties are indeed following the same course, then where Scotland goes first, the UK will follow.