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Time for a Glasgow Agreement

Ben Thomson in The Times

It may seem odd that a party that is neither in government in Westminster or in Holyrood holds the key to what Scotland looks like after the Referendum in 2014, but it is Labour that currently has the ability to shape what a No Vote will mean for voters. This is why the Labour conference this weekend and in particular its Devolution Commission is so important in setting out the direction not just for Labour but for whole of the “Better Together” Campaign.

With only one question now on the ballot paper, the SNP and Green parties only have any authority to set what Scotland would like under a “Yes” vote for independence. They will have no real influence until it is settled one way or the other in the vote to influence what a “No” vote might look like. That is the prerogative of the other parties and as Labour has more than twice the number of MSPs as either Conservatives or Liberal Democrats they have the moral mandate to lead the way.

It is now fairly obvious from all the polls that there is a huge swing vote of many Scots either because they are undecided on how they will vote in 2014 or because neither a Yes or No vote currently gives them what they want. In a poll last year over 40% of Scots wanted as their first option to remain in the UK but with significantly greater powers given to Holyrood over welfare and tax. Both sides recognize this: the SNP is now offering us if we vote Yes monetary, regulatory and social unions as well as keeping the union of the crown so a vote for independence now seems to increase the number unions not reduce them. On the other side the Menzies Campbell report on Home Rule proposes giving Scotland the power to raise the majority of what it spends, the Conservatives have now cross the line and set up their own commission and Labour’s Devolution Commission will report back during the course of the next year.

If the public are going to believe that they are being offered something different from the status quo in voting “No” next year at the the Referendum, then it is up to Labour as the largest non independence party in Scotland to lead the way and spell out what it means. Not only that if the public is clearly going to understand what a no means it will have to be agreed between the Union parties and promoted by the Better Together campaign. Otherwise what is being offerd simply won’t be understood or won’t be believed deliverable after the referendum.

This is a huge opportunity for the Labour party in Scotland to grab the initiative and capture the middle ground. Just like the Calman Reforms which led to the Scotland Bill, the Unionist parties need a credible forum to create a New Union with greater devolved powers but still firmly within the rest of the United Kingdom. If they are vague and cannot reach consensus then any change will be left to debate after the referendum when it will be the SNP government at Holyrood and Coalition in London that will lead the debate on what further powers will be devolved to Scotland.

The Devo Plus Group which has campaigned for greater powers for Scotland within the Union have proposed that a New Union should be formed in a “Glasgow Agreement” between the Unionist parties that sets out clearly the principals of what a No vote would mean and that would have the blessing of their party leaders in Westminster. If Labour were to take the lead on this, not only would it increase its own credibility as a party that can lead Scotland forward but also it would also give the Better Together campaign a far better chance of achieving the level of success at the Referendum that will put the issue of independence to firmly to bed for a generation.