Labouring away

ATTENTION was drawn this week to the nascent Scottish Labour leadership race and the divergent early fortunes experienced by candidates Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar.

On its face, the contest between the two MSPs is yet another iteration of the wider struggles the Labour Party has faced between its ‘left’ and more ‘moderate’ elements.

A relative political unknown, Leonard was cast as the Corbynista favourite; the familiar Sarwar, the centrist’s choice.  Given that Scotland was the only part of the UK where Owen Smith won last year’s Labour leadership vote, Sarwar was no doubt banking on strong support from the rank-and-file to see him through.

We won’t know to which side the party will commit until the race concludes in November, but there’s no question that Leonard has enjoyed the better opening.  While the former GMB organiser quietly hoovered up union endorsements this week, Sarwar was forced to defend his family business’ decision to not voluntarily pay its workers the ‘real living wage’, something that even prompted a skewering from Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister’s Questions.

If you consider lingering concerns in some quarters around his wealth and decision to send his children to a private school, it looks as though his campaign may be in need of an early reset so as not to lose support amongst the party’s membership.

A genial first leadership hustings this week may point towards a comradely contest, though with early polling suggesting a race that is too close to call, one can be sure that the knives aren’t ever too far away.

Elsewhere at Holyrood this week, tax was on the agenda in the form of a debate on a Labour motion calling for increased taxation to enable greater investment in public services.

Edinburgh took control over income tax rates in 2016 and the status quo has largely prevailed since then, with the SNP choosing thus far to only vary the threshold at which the 40p rate begins.

But there has been steady political pressure to increase rates for top earners and Nicola Sturgeon said in her Programme for Government speech earlier this month that she wanted an ‘open discussion’ on taxation. Finance Secretary Derek Mackay confirmed that this would take the form of a cross-party consultation later this year designed to find consensus on the issue.

The SNP ultimately abstained from the vote on Labour’s motion, saying the move was necessary so as not to ‘prejudge’ this aforementioned discussion, though there are indications that the party plan on introducing its own legislation in due course.

Social security is another newly devolved power the SNP is gradually coming to grips with.  While legislative power over a number of benefits has already transferred to Holyrood, delivery responsibility for these benefits still lies with the UK Government while a new Scottish Social Security Agency is established.

This moved one step closer on Monday, which saw an announcement that Dundee had been chosen to host the Agency’s headquarters.  1,500 jobs are to be split equally between it and a support office in Glasgow, with a further 400 locally-based positions across the country.

Alongside this, Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman also outlined new Bedroom Tax mitigation measures and Universal Credit flexibilities, continuing her confident performances and showing why she has been mentioned by some as a possible future Cabinet Secretary.