Lamont questions future of universal freebies – mature politics or political suicide?

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont this week gave a speech challenging the orthodoxies of Scottish politics, threatening an end to some universal benefits.


Whilst this week’s news in Scotland concentrated again on the status of negotiations between Whitehall and Holyrood over the format and logistics of a referendum on independence, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, nine months after being elected to the post, this week delivered a speech challenging some of the underlying orthodoxies within Scottish politics and raising the prospect of an end to some universal benefits such as free tuition fees and free perceptions.

Declaring the SNP to be lying when they claim Scotland is a land where “everything is free”, Lamont said starkly:

“Some might… argue that John Swinney thinks it is in his political interests not to protect Scotland from the Tory cuts, but to let them run free in the hope that the pain that causes ordinary Scots will help him in the referendum. I am not going to get into an auction with the SNP.

They might cry freedom but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie. Someone always pays for it in the end. A council tax freeze, for example, costs. It’s cheap to say, but expensive to fund.”

Triggering a debate over what exactly Scotland can afford to continue providing, she drew on the warning of the government-established Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, chaired by Dr Campbell Christie – which concluded in 2011 that in Scotland “public spending is not expected to return to 2010 levels in real terms for 16 years” – and comments by Lord Sutherland, the architect of free personal care.

In 2008, Lord Sutherland had declared:

“Unless there is a marked increase in the share of taxation in the Scottish economy, quite significant cuts will have to be found in other programmes to continue to fund the present structure of care.”

Attacking the SNP’s views of progressive politics, Lamont argued:

“Alex Salmond says he’ll make Scotland a progressive beacon. Well, I have to ask what is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefitting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze?

“What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?

“What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can’t get a job or a place at college?

She continued:

“I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need. But if the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich.

“Alex Salmond is quick to point to the high levels of welfare in Scandinavia but those universal benefits are paid for by high levels of taxation. Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world.

“And I will not tolerate a country where the poorest pay for the tax breaks for the rich. For the last decade Scotland’s budgets have grown rapidly but we are in a new age with less money and more demands. We need to say what we want Scotland to be, what we can realistically afford, and how can we, in reality, make Scotland better.

“This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options.”

Pledging that as leader she would “always be honest and true”, Lamont went on to question the viability of free prescriptions, free tuition fees and a council tax freeze.

Announcing the establishment of a new taskforce on public spending in Scotland, to be led by UK shadow Treasury minister Cathy Jamieson MP and the Scottish shadow finance secretary Ken Macintosh AM, she concluded:

“In a time of scarce resources, we, as a society, must make sure that those resources we have go where there is need and where there is opportunity.”

Whilst the SNP sought to attack Lamont for seeking to cut key public services, across much of the Scottish press, her speech was simply “brave” in the sense of it being political suicide.

Writing in the Herald, for example, Iain MacWhirter says:

What she is proposing has left commentators such as Alex Massie in the Tory-supporting Spectator cock-a-hoop at what they see as Ms Lamont’s conversion.

But how are poor Labour candidates going to sell this on the doorsteps:

“Good day, I am your Labour candidate and I stand for keeping bobbies off the beat, increasing your council tax, making granny pay for her prescriptions and making your children pay £9,000 a year to go to university. Can I rely on your vote?”

At The Scotsman, meanwhile, its leader questioned why Lamont is making life more difficult for herself than it needs to be.

Whilst dubbing the commission she is establishing as “laudable and constructive contribution to the political debate”, the paper went on to observe:

One wonders if anyone in Ms Lamont’s office is taking on the role of the civil servant in Yes Minister, who would describe his boss’s initiative as “very brave”.

Because Ms Lamont is talking like a government minister who is looking for political cover for unpopular but unavoidable political decisions. She is not talking like a leader of the opposition who could – some of her colleagues would say should – be concentrating on the politics of opposition, free of the responsibilities of power.

Instead of picking holes in the SNP administration’s weaknesses, she chooses to attack the administration’s most popular policies. It may be laudable, even necessary in the long term, but is this politically wise? Will it have the voters flocking back?

On the constitution, too, Ms
Lamont seems determined to take the difficult path. With the SNP committed to independence, it would be easy for Scottish Labour to ally itself with a large part of the electorate and argue for a much stronger form of devolution. It is what many want, and no party is prepared to offer. She is dragging her feet in setting up the commission she promised would examine this issue.

One wonders why Ms Lamont seems intent on making life
difficult for herself.

The Labour-supporting Daily Record, however, has praised Ms Lamont, dubbing her speech the “sign of a serious politician”.

Its editorial notes:

The Scottish Labour leader has taken us off the constitutional roundabout and has got the political class talking for once about the real choices and issues that will affect life in Scotland in the next decade.

She is mocked by opponents for saying that politicians have to go beyond populist, crowd-pleasing choices because the money is too tight to mention in the next decade.

But she’s right to say it’s not going to be promises of more of everything for nothing (copyright Alex Salmond) because everyone knows that we are going to have to choose between a little of something or nothing at all.

People are already questioning why they should get free prescriptions or free bus travel while their nephews and grandchildren can’t get training or jobs.

Appealing to people’s better nature is not a proven vote winner – but it is the sign of a serious politician, and the beginning of a mature debate.

But perhaps the difficulty for Lamont, after what has proved a controversial speech to say the least, can be typified by twin headlines; one in The Spectator which proclaimed

“Shock Development: Scottish Labour Grows Up, Repudiates Own Past”

Whilst the New Statesman declared:

“Scottish Labour’s support for cuts plays into the SNP’s hands”

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19 Responses to “Lamont questions future of universal freebies – mature politics or political suicide?”

  1. Gregor Addison

    Johann Lamont has declared Labour a policy free vacuum – it’s not clear if they are for free prescriptions (as with Labour in Wales) or against them; will she bring in an expensive bureaucracy to means-test this and other “freebies” like free bus travel for the over 60s; will she bring in tuition fees or not? We don’t know. She doesn’t know. But what we do know is that Johann Lamont has set her aspirations low. Instead of supporting further powers for the Scottish Parliament to vary and raise tax, to set our own priorities, we are to attack the idea of universal benefits. Johann Lamont is saying to the middle-classes (whose votes she presumably needs to win an election), we can’t beat the bankers, we don’t support further fiscal powers, so we’re coming for you. Last week we were told she had taken control of the Labour party and ended a turf war; little did we know that this week she’d clumsily start a civil war.

  2. Newsbot9

    Political suicide. Expensive means-testing, government control over people, is the wrong approach. Adjusting the tax rate to claw back the cost of the benefits from the rich is cheaper and involves less intrusion, and puts the burden on people who can afford it.

    The SNP must be laughing at her. It’s…silly, to put it mildly, and shows just how far Labour have moved into the centre.

  3. Thomas William Dunlop

    Moved to the centre? This policy shift really drives Labour crashing straight into the right hand ditch. Not some where you can expect to get votes from in Scotland (unless they want to compete for the 15 percentage core Tory vote).

  4. Newsbot9

    Oh, there’s a larger right wing vote in Scotland than that, but the Tories managed to thoroughly alienate it, as Labour are alienating the left across Britain.

    And I still view this move as primarily centralist-statist.

  5. Drew Edward

    Universal benefits are paid for by taxation, the same way taxpayers all contribute to health, education, social care and welfare. ‘Something for nothing’ and ‘freebies’? I had no idea my education and health which helped me into a job and decent standard of living to contribute to the tax system was such a burden on the state.

  6. uglyfatbloke

    Cameron must be delighted – at last the has someone reliable to really support his polices at Holyrood….what was she thinking!

  7. uglyfatbloke

    BTW…..Is Ken MacIntosh really a member of the Welsh Assembly? I thought he was an MSP…and one of the better ones at that…what was HE thinking to let this happen?

  8. Thomas William Dunlop

    Depends on where you want your centre to be. I think the political centre in Scotland is definitely to the left of the one in the UK. Here in Finland and in Scandinavia in general, it is like wise, left field. Even the conservatives up here are for universal healthcare, benefits and taxes to cover it. If they argued otherwise they would be marginalized

  9. Newsbot9

    I’d point out that the left in the UK are effectively disfranchised by Labour’s shift to the centre and the electoral system…although people I would have expected to try are…not interested in changing the situation.

  10. Thomas William Dunlop

    At least we can agree that there is no establish political party of the left. I do not see any one coming round any time soon either. This I see as the independence movements big play, and why the real left in Scotland are for it- If you can shift the centre further to the left by getting the centre to adopt progressive social policy, you start to build a society that is more live-able for people. For the rest of the UK, I think it would be a real wake up call, in terms to organise itself. I would like to state that I am not a member of any political party, never have been. I just think that the world would be a better place without the GB, sabre rattling and all.

  11. Newsbot9

    Ah, you’re talking about shifting the Overton Window, Frankly…I view that as something imposed by a broken voting system. If there is a sensible, PR-based voting system then a wider variety of views will typically be heard in any case.

  12. Thomas William Dunlop

    Yes electoral reform would solve the problem to some extent and PR is a must. In addition changing the lords to a federal legislature and having strong local parliaments, Bill of rights, Sovereignty shifted to the PEOPLE (also locating Parliament away from London? Birmingham, SHeffield?). However lets get practicial. Who is going to be the vehicle to deliver it? The Liberals had their chance and flunked it both in terms of trust with the electorate and their ham fisted second best choice referendum on AV. There many people in Labour party that are dead against and well the Tories (need I say more?). Call me a cynic but I don’t see ordinary people demonstrating for this issue yet, either- they are too busy trying to scrape through they don’t have any spare time. A symptom of this you can see by following the referendum debate in Scotland. Not one of the unionist parties are willing to put down their cards on the table and say what they will deliver as further devolution BEFORE the independence vote. The reason is that they want to have enough room to back peddle on reforms. If this does not change before the vote, I think Scotland is lost to the UK. However I do find a certain kind of Irony that the only people who might win constitutional and political reform of the UK, are people who wish to leave it.

  13. Thomas William Dunlop

    ON electoral reform. I also had the idea that to circumvent the growth of political parties (who become corrupted and warp the system)) and limit the reach of lobbyists in politics, we could have a type of Jury duty in which people are seconded to parliament for 5 years (or the length of one session) to act as members of legislature. You could have them stand in election as well and have the local constituents vote on which one would represent them.Training would be provided at each stage. I think it would also foster better awareness and sensitivity of ordinary people to government on their behalf. Any thoughts?

  14. Newsbot9

    I don’t support that for the house of commons, but the second chamber, imo, could include a drafted component (along with inherited, appointed and elected ones)

  15. Newsbot9

    A bill of rights? We already have one. It’s called the European Convention on Human Rights, and we should also be under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, but the UK government has shamefully opted out.

  16. krackerman

    goodbye liebore – you’ve been a cancer on us for long enough – die quietly now and let us move forward.

    And as for those who say Scotland can’t afford these benefits – well 50bln paid into to westminster and 28bln back in pocket money. Why not keep the 50bln and keep the benefits?

    Yes in 2014!

  17. ScotsCalimero

    Lamont’s speech and belated intervention in the debate on social justice was poor to say the least.

    She did not open the door to a debate on social justice, Alex Salmond, in his “progressive beacon” speech invited her to the party some time ago.
    She has now returned her RSVP and with it, a reminder that Scottish Labour is fundamentally incapable of acknowledging that an SNP Government is at least attempting to formulate policy and discussion of a fairer, more just society in Scotland.
    How many SNP Government consultations have Scottish Labour refused to respond to? How many of Scottish Labour’s own policy initiatives has Johann Lamont Lamont lead her troops to oppose, simply because they have been introduced by the Salmond Government?

    That is why so many eyebrows have been raised at her adoption of the “something for nothing” Tory mantra, her failure to provide credibility over tax, or more honestly, all the economic levers which a Scottish Parliament could have (but does not and cannot under devolution), in its arsenal to attack inequality.

    It is patently dishonest for Scottish Labour to claim as Lamont does, that the SNP Government has deliberately sought to subsidise the wealthiest in society at the expense of those most in need of social support.
    Most Labour supporters will agree that there are some fundamentals of policy choice, such as the universal provision of medicines, without charge,for those in need. This costs Scotland around £50m per annum (or £1 per capita) and far outweighs the cost of means-testing, fraud administration, the impact on future health services for those avoiding drug treatment because of cost.

    Yes, some wealthy citizens can and possibly do benefit from so-called “free” prescriptions, but they are a tiny minority. Is Scottish Labour really suggesting means-testing for those who can afford to pay for their own operations, emergency medical attention, pre and post natal medical care? I suspect not and it is that which undermines everything which Lamont now decries about SNP provision of universality.

    It was a bizarre speech from Lamont, but not surprising. It came on the eve of the UK Labour Party’s Manchester Conference, where Miliband and Balls will be at pains to reduce expectations about spending plans.

    The UK Labour Party will adopt Tory/LibDem cuts, perhaps taking them further and deeper than George Osborne – if not Margaret Thatcher.

    That is the real reason for Johann Lamont’s feather-bedding of the “New Labour” cuts agenda. A “Cuts Commission”, timed to coincide with the next UK General Election – not Scotland’s referendum, or even Scottish Independence. Very little in fact to do with Scotland at all.

    That is the purpose of her slow, careless blue-Labour intervention, in a debate that started without her and will continue despite her.
    It was a dishonest, narrow and fundamentally flawed contribution both to the future of Scotland and the place of the Labour Party in shaping that new nation.

  18. Thomas William Dunlop

    You still want inherited and appointed sections in a reformed second chamber? Not very progressive and I am beginning to think you are not very serious about political reform in the UK. They are part of the problem in the UK- vested interests appointed by the aristocracy and established political groupings (the old and new lobbying groups, if you want). They only serve to entrench their own sections narrow interest in society and not the population as a whole.

  19. Newsbot9

    Yes. There are significant advantages to having portions of a second chamber which don’t have to consider public opinion, and which can resist party politics.

    That you are having a kneejerk reaction without considering the issues…that’s not very serious.

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