Labour’s doomed in Scotland and Ed needs to put Sturgeon in her place: so scrap the Barnett Formula

Seemingly, there is little Ed Miliband can now do to diminish the threat posed by the SNP’s remarkable insurgency. Poll after poll shows Labour facing a total wipe-out in Scotland. It isn’t a case of just losing badly; this is the stuff of total annihilation.

Meanwhile, the Conservative campaign thinks it’s on to something by warning that a minority Labour government, reliant on a bloc of SNP votes, will be a bad deal for England. As a message, it’s an exocet targeted at voters in battleground seats south of the border, where the prospect of the Scottish tail wagging the English dog seems iniquitous.

Ed Miliband can’t fix the first problem; what will be, will be. Scottish Labour is going down in flames. The bigger question for Labour strategists is whether its woes in Scotland are cyclical, the tail-end of the vortex generated by last autumn’s referendum on independence, or a more structural shift. Has the SNP now eclipsed Labour as the social democratic voice of Scots, as they contrast their simple promise to end austerity with Labour’s more complicated (and more realistic) UK-wide offer?

Although Labour’s campaign in Scotland is doomed, it can still use its setback to address its second problem: showing the SNP would not be left calling the shots.

All the party needs is a popular measure that confronts the Tory narrative that Miliband is in Sturgeon’s pocket. Something that shows Labour can make tough choices and, crucially, reassures voters in English marginals that it’s is on their side.

There is a policy proposal that fits the bill, a magic bullet Labour can fire that hits all these targets: scrap the Barnett Formula.

There is no-one in British politics who can make a plausible case for a public spending formula that sees a fifth more spent on Scotland than England. The only reason it has not been amended out of history by now is down to decades of political inertia and a tactical belief that it would add grist to the nationalists’ mill in the run-up to last autumn’s referendum.

Well, to mix metaphors, that ship has sailed. Now, in the interests of good government, let alone basic fairness, the formula has no place and its demise is timely, regardless of the election. But it remains a powerful card for Miliband to play. By coming out now and arguing that the Barnett Formula is outdated and unfair has no electoral downside for Labour. The Scottish party’s fortunes simply can’t get any lower.

So while scrapping Barnett would be unpopular with Scottish voters, it would be a bold, transformative move that showed Ed Miliband was primarily concerned with hard-pressed English taxpayers. (Furthermore, it would even amount to a clear Labour spending cut).

As for Nicola Sturgeon, where is she going to go? She’s ruled out a deal with the Tories and has been at pains to suggest her nationalist agenda will not mean that England misses out. Backing Labour is the only realistic option the SNP has.

Let her struggle to explain why a forty year-old exercise in crude pork-barrel politicking that benefits Scots at the expense of English taxpayers is still defendable; especially if Labour was to rechannel the Barnett excess back into the UK-wide NHS.

The scale of Labour’s electoral problems in Scotland could take years to fix, but the party can still make impending electoral disaster bend to its advantage by scrapping Barnett. To paraphrase the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Labour needs the serenity to accept the things it cannot change, the courage to change the things it can and the wisdom to know the difference.

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52 Responses to “Labour’s doomed in Scotland and Ed needs to put Sturgeon in her place: so scrap the Barnett Formula”

  1. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Why should Scotland get Barnett money if it is a net contributor. Being a net contributor would suggest Scotland is wealthy. Why dosen’t Scotland give the Barnett formula money to it’s impoverished Welsh cousins?

    PS…. there is fear and alarm south of the border.

    We demand to know what the SNP have done to Dogan Arslan!

  2. John Williams says:

    Speaking from Wales, we would weep with gratitude if the Labour Party abandoned its insistence on keeping the Barnett formula to buy Scotland, with us Welsh being the net contributor to the subsidy. But, as Jim Gallagher, Gordon Brown’s special adviser told me to my face, Wales won’t ever be independent, but Scotland might, so Wales is not important

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