One of the more amusing aspects of being an SNP MP is being lectured by political opponents as to what your policies are, usually by Conservatives, who get it wrong. However, the publication of the Wilson Growth Commission report has seen some extraordinary claims by Labour politicians too. The irony of it being referred to as the ‘Cuts Commission’ is not clever politics but a timely reminder that Labour in Scotland is far from removed from the Corbyn vision of a socialist Britain. Such was the desperation of some to claim that it is now policy that the fact that it is a discussion document to now be debated by the SNP seems to have passed them by.
It is a debate that should be looked forward to by every SNP member. In my own defence, I have missed the two briefings for MPs due to a debate on the gig economy and insecure work, and my commitments on the Work and Pensions Select Committee. Therefore, I have not had the opportunity to debate my own thoughts directly with Commission members. Below I lay out my own thoughts on the report: in some cases saying what I believe to be missing, where there is room for development, and to challenge some commentary assumptions.
The document itself diagnoses rather well the key challenges facing Scotland and Britain of a Tory Brexit. An isolationist view of the world, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which the hardline Tory Brexiteers crave would mean a damaged economy, facing difficult key decisions on public services and regulation. That is what they want: a light touch regulation system, fewer rights in the workplace, a minimalist enforcement regime for minimum wages and tax compliance, as well as cuts to environmental and food standards. The irony that many of these same Brexiteers recommend investing in foreign markets appears to be lost on them.
The Growth Commission publication is not without criticism, and neither it should be. It is an opportunity for SNP members to debate what kind of vision and country we wish to see. Among the key assumptions by many so-called political commentators is that the Commission have produced a report which is ‘realist’, and will reach out to ‘no’ voters. This assumption is based on theory that all ‘no’ voters support limits to public spending, and support some measure of austerity.
These assumptions by commentators are not based on my personal experiences or based on polling numbers in the lead up to, and after the independence referendum. Indeed, there is clear evidence that a significant proportion of the ‘no’ voters feared, and were persuaded that, independence would bring about more austerity and restrict public spending choices. SNP members have the opportunity to debate how economic growth can help the poor, the unemployed and people stuck in dead end jobs, in insecure work, or a public sector worker still on a pay cap because they work for a Westminster government department.
The report disappoints in respect to corporation tax. As someone who was elected and re-elected on manifestos which did not promise to cut corporation tax, pegging corporation tax to the British rate risks a race to the bottom. We should be discussing how we can use the full range of tax powers to benefit infrastructure projects and boost productivity, and provide a vision that an Independent Scotland can be a more attractive place to live and work.
The lack of union input was also, to say the least disappointing. The terms of reference state that its aims were for delivery of economic growth and to see that growth spread across all communities, and for all sectors to see the benefits of that growth. Key to this is to maintain public spending, far from the shouts of austerity. The report correctly identifies that progressive, fair and active employment policies should be at the heart of the strategy. The union movement is a perfect body to be consulted on such terms, particularly at a time when unions in Scotland are developing some of the sharpest young minds in developing campaigning and policy, who see the merits of both independence and socialism, and the development of workplace policy is critical to economic growth. The Workers (Rights and Definitions) Bill I introduced was developed alongside consultation with Better than Zero activists who provided shocking examples of insecure work.
At a time of wholesale office closures in HMRC, the body responsible for tax and minimum compliance, we need to develop a tax compliance policy alongside the debating the Growth Commission. Following the current British regulatory regime in this area reduces tax take, and would run counter to the work of many MPs who have challenged the alarming figures of workers not being paid the statutory minimum wage rate.
The current Westminster model finds many towns and cities with the prospect of the HMRC employee facing the dilemma of deciding whether to travel miles to their new workplace, or to consider redundancy – only to find that their local Job Centre has closed and travelling miles to find work!
Of course having a regulatory framework which aligns with the rest of Britain is predicated on moving to a Scottish currency ten years after independence. This should be debated within the wider party. Many of us who look to a route to re-join the EU will have to consider whether this timeframe is compatible with EU membership application rules. One of the key attractions to independence by recent converts is our attitude to Europe and our outward international outlook.
All in all, there is a wonderful opportunity to use the Growth Commission as a template document for discussion. We should not be afraid to debate and share ideas. It is important that we reach out to those ‘no’ voters who are anti-austerity, and have a left leaning perspective. They are the key to winning the next referendum.
Chris Stephens is the (SNP) MP for Glasgow South West.