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THERE are too many seasons to count since Scottish Labour last performed in concert with the Scottish trade union movement.
But with his election as party leader this weekend, Richard Leonard is poised to lead the party and union affiliates into new collaboration.
Conducting Scottish Labour is a particularly difficult job. Five leaders have passed on the baton in the last decade. While Leonard is well-known in union circles, the public is yet to get the measure of the new leader.
The initial reviews are likely to depend on how well he articulates his repeated commitment to “real change.” What will it sound like? How well has it been costed?
Leonard’s policy statements have been relatively cautious. On tax — perhaps the biggest Scottish policy issue, due in part to joint-union pressure for a fully funded public-sector pay rise — Leonard has suggested raising tax for those earning over £70,000 and £100,000, though has not specified what the rates would be.
He has also proposed a 1 per cent windfall tax on the wealthiest 10 per cent, though it is contested whether this is possible within the Scottish Parliament’s powers.
And he has reaffirmed his commitment to Scottish Labour’s policy of raising tax across the board, but has not stipulated how much this would raise for public spending.
Perhaps Leonard has a deliberate strategy of reticence until policies are ready for public airing. There is a parallel here with when the UK leader’s office evaded the media’s attempts to pin Jeremy Corbyn down until the manifesto was ready to be unveiled, in what proved to be a triumph for Corbyn.
From a Scottish policy point of view, the problem is that the powers of the Parliament are still predominantly fiscal, so demanding “real change” means funding real change.
And for unions, a tax rise is the central demand of the cross-union campaign for a public-sector pay rise, and details of how tax would be raised affects the settlement that workers can demand.
Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget announcements tomorrow will determine how much public workers’ pay will rise across England, which the Scottish government will use to emphasise its own restrictions.
The Scottish Finance Minister Derek McKay has committed to taking inflation “into account,” but the challenge for Leonard is to push McKay beyond this, and to lay down Scottish Labour’s plan for above-inflation, restorative pay.
Some partisans will dispute the need for policy precision. It is the principled position of many trade unionists that the labour movement should make demands on behalf of the working class without being duped into stating how the demands would be met — we raise the problems for the government to solve.
This attitude remains, incidentally, a core part of GMB’s own political strategy in Scotland and Leonard may well be carrying his old memos with him into his new role.
But while this might suit the industrial wing of the labour movement, it is not suited to a parliamentary party whose leader, at least in his opening gestures, will be judged on policy and budget plans.
Leonard has a theme in the pay campaign, a parliamentary stage, and an ensemble of union affiliates who are counting on Labour to make their demands resonate at Holyrood. They deserve a strong debut.
Cailean Gallagher is a member of the Labour Party and works at the Scottish Trades Union Congress. He is writing in a personal capacity.
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