What a small pensions policy problem says about the current state of the SNP

August 20th, 2017

Getting beyond rhetoric and identity politics

These are unsettling times for Scottish nationalists. Just over a year ago, in the wake of the EU referendum, support in Remain-voting Scotland for independence was spiking. With the British government scrambling to form a coherent line on Brexit, the Scottish government hoped to turn the crisis into an opportunity by forcing the pace for a further independence referendum

It hasn’t worked out that way at all. On the one hand, the Conservatives have successfully presented themselves as the party of the union while Labour under Jeremy Corbyn have reclaimed the badge of progressiveness. In 2017 the SNP’s coalition did not completely unravel, though they lost 21 seats, but with their support evenly spread and with their opponents’ strength geographically concentrated, the SNP face the next general election with trepidation: they could easily lose more than half their remaining seats with only a small drop in their vote share, depending how their opponents do. A Clegg-like pasting is entirely conceivable if the SNP cannot find fresh momentum.

What has gone wrong? The SNP had achieved hegemony in Scotland by presenting itself as the face of progressive politics in Scotland, binding Scottish identity to progressiveness and both to the SNP and independence. This zeugma is no longer working. The Conservatives are confronting them on identity while Labour is outbidding them on progressiveness. It seems that campaigning on the politics of identity is not enough in the long term.

How has this happened? The SNP can reasonably point to the fact that no one had anticipated the success Labour would have in the general election campaign. However, many observers had pointed out that they had employed all difficult policy decisions in the service of the campaign for independence. That was never going to work indefinitely and the only question was when it was going to stop working. The answer, it seems, is sometime around now.

There’s a useful recent case study. In the 1990s, the UK government decided to equalise state retirement ages for men and women at 65. This was enacted in the Pensions Act 1995 and would take effect for women born after 6 April 1950 on a phased basis. In 1995, the women potentially affected would have been 45 or younger. The change was much-discussed in the newspapers at the time, as you would expect. No direct communications were sent out, perhaps because it took effect from 6 April 1997 during the 1997 general election campaign, so the incoming Labour government did not pick up the baton from the outgoing Conservative government that implemented it.

This programme was accelerated in 2011 so that the state retirement age for men and women could be increased to 66 after October 2020. Again, the change was phased in.

In the last two years an action group of affected women has sprung up called WASPI. Egregiously named (Women Against State Pension Inequality is the very reverse of what they are campaigning for) but with a strong sense of injustice, they are seeking compensation for what they perceive as inadequate notice of the changes. They claim not to ask for the state pension age to revert back to age 60?, but since they are asking for a non-means tested bridging pension to provide an income until State Pension Age, this looks like a distinction without a difference.

The government has stood firm – rightly, in my opinion (I find it hard to conceive of a much less meritorious campaign in a time of straitened public finances: the main change was introduced at least 15 years before it took effect). However, WASPI campaigned vigorously for support during the general election and those opposition politicians who were on the hunt for votes were willing to offer their support. This included the SNP, who have loudly proclaimed their support for WASPI, lamenting that:

“In government, we will always use the powers at our disposal to protect the poorest in our society and mitigate the worst excess of the Tory government. However, with the limited social security powers devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create new pension benefits”.

Unfortunately, the SNP has been caught out on this. Scottish ministers have the power to make discretionary payments if they so wish. Labour have pointed this out to the SNP, who have abruptly changed their tack and said that it was not for the Scottish government to pay for injustices in the UK-wide social security system.

Hmm. It’s hard to see how this is “using the powers at our disposal to protect the poorest in our society and mitigate the worst excess of the Tory government”. It looks more like a cynical attempt to exploit a sense of grievance without offering any meaningful assistance (probably because the SNP, like me, does not think this is a worthwhile priority). But Labour have been able to outflank the SNP on this because of the powers that the Scottish government has but is not using. When are the SNP going to move beyond words and start acting?

For the Scottish government now has very substantial powers. Just under two years ago I pointed out that the SNP had very cautious about using the Scottish government’s powers. I suggested then that the extent of those powers meant that: “The SNP has successfully for many years positioned itself as a party for all Scotland. That time may well be drawing to a close in the next couple of years.”

I’ve made some rubbish predictions in the last couple of years so it’s nice to return to one that has aged well. Labour have enjoyed increased success with their unabashed pitch from the left and I firmly expect them to go into the next round of elections promising to use Holyrood’s powers to the utmost, including the powers to tax and spend. What will the SNP be offering? More cautious actions and stirring words? Because if they are, I don’t think that’s going to be enough. Time for the SNP to start thinking through some radical new policies for Scotland and not just rhetoric and identity politics.

Alastair Meeks