Manifesto Check: SNP uses welfare to trump Labour

Fare thee well. Danny Lawson/PA

The SNP’s 2015 manifesto devotes significant space to welfare. The future of the welfare state was a very important issue in the Scottish referendum campaign, with the Yes campaign arguing the only solution to fixing it was for an independent Scotland to taking full control over social security and the wider welfare state.

Continuing that theme, the 2015 manifesto’s welfare pledges revolve around explaining how the SNP would exert its influence on this policy area if involved in supporting a minority Labour government.

The manifesto outlines changes to a number of aspects of the current social security system, largely centred around changes put in place by Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms, that the party would want to see scrapped or reformed. It argues that welfare payments ought to be increased at least in line with the cost of living, that the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance should be reversed, the roll out of Universal Credit halted, and the conditionality and sanctions schemes reviewed.

It also argues that contrary to the recommendations of the Smith Commission, welfare should be devolved to Scotland in its entirety:

The proposals in the Smith Commission should be delivered in their entirety as soon as possible, which would then create a platform for the transition to Full Fiscal Responsibility where Scotland would, in effect, raise almost all of its own taxes and therefore become solely responsible for its social security system.

By talking about welfare in this way, the SNP is trying to position itself as a natural parliamentary ally to Labour should the opportunity arise without giving up its growing political advantage. Attacking the Conservatives’ welfare reforms and proposing a shift to the left on matters of social security will be welcomed in principle by many within Labour and the wider left across the UK.

But Labour’s support in Scotland is under highly effective assault from the SNP, which is eagerly claiming the mantle of “social justice party” for itself. So even though much of what is in the SNP’s manifesto may be quite palatable to them, we should expect Labour’s candidates and spokespeople to, nevertheless, be on the offensive.

In any case, the clear demarcation between the UK dimension of welfare and the role it could play in further devolution is not as clear cut as it may appear.

For example, the Smith Commission report did state that social security payments for disabled people should be devolved. This means that, theoretically at least, the changes to Disability Living Allowance may well not be a UK-wide issue sometime between now and 2020.

The SNP’s manifesto is also quite vague on exactly how full fiscal responsibility would be reached. With the fall in oil price significantly and negatively impacting upon revenues generated in Scotland, the question over how full devolution of welfare would be funded remains an important question.

By keeping this pledge vague and open, the party can both assure its natural support that it remains resolute in collecting more and more powers for Scotland and moving ever closer to independence, and guarantee to other, more sceptical voters that Scotland would not find itself having to cut current levels of public spending.

Overall, the manifesto has been carefully framed to make negotiations with Labour, should they arise, easier. Indeed, the welfare proposals are both a mechanism through which the SNP can endear itself to left-leaning voters in the rest of the UK while maintaining the perception amongst its supporters in Scotland that it is the most effective party at championing social justice in Westminster.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.

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