The “something for nothing” society. That’s how Johann Lamont characterised Scotland under the SNP in her first serious policy speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party last week. A land where greedy and ignorant voters have been seduced by Alex Salmond’s electoral bribes on free personal care, tuition fees, bus passes, prescriptions. The fact that these were Labour policies as recently as last year’s Holyrood election doesn’t appear to trouble Ms Lamont. It should. I’ve heard this described as “courageous”; I think it’s just daft politics.
Free personal care was introduced under the Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, as was the abolition of upfront tuition fees in 2001. Concessionary bus passes for pensioners was also a Labour policy and their health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, claimed credit for the abolition of prescription charges as recently as the 2011 election campaign. In that same campaign, Iain Gray, Lamont’s predecessor as Labour leader, promised not to reintroduce university tuition fees, up front or post grad. As for the council tax freeze, Labour claimed credit for this policy in the local election campaign in Glasgow only months ago and promised to maintain the freeze for five years.
The Lamont List is an astonishing act of political self-harm, comparable to Gordon Brown’s scrapping of the 10p tax band in 2008. Only that was one own goal – Lamont’s List represents a whole tournament of own goals delivered in one speech. You just can’t do politics like this, as if you have ideological amnesia, and don’t even attempt to explain why policies that you commended to the electorate only a year ago have suddenly become unsustainable. Perhaps if the Scottish government had plunged itself into financial crisis, but it hasn’t. The SNP has been running balanced budgets for years while paying for these “unaffordable” policies.
This is Nick Clegg without the apology.It is very rare for a politician to promise cuts BEFORE they reach office. Normally the name of the game is to attract voters, not alienate them by promising to axe popular policies. . Even if you do intend to review these “freebie” policies (which of course are not free) the time to do it is when you are in government. Promising, in opposition, to take away a whole range of universal benefits only hands ammunition to Alex Salmond, who will use this in every speech from now till the next Scottish elections.
A BBC survey survey of one thousand voters on the eve of last year’s Scottish parliamentary elections showed that the abolition of university tuition fees is the third most popular policy in Scotland. Number two is increasing the number of police on the beat, the cost of which Ms Lamont also questioned in her declaration of war on universalism. And the council tax freeze, which she said is unaffordable, came in at number six, while free prescription charges – also facing the Lamont axe – was number ten on the policy pop charts. It looks as if the Scottish Labour leader has gone through the list of the most popular polices in Scotland and decided to dump the lot. All she needs to do now is abolish free personal care and bus passes and she wins the teddy bear.
Ms Lamont’s aides have been insisting that the latter two policies are unlikely to be targeted in the review to be headed by the academic, Professor Arthur Midwinter. But I can’t see why they should be exempt. If Labour is proposing to save money by ending universal benefits, then you might think free personal care and bus passes would be high on the list. Professor Midwinter has made clear there are no ‘no go’ areas in this review.
Ms Lamont insisted yesterday that her new policy agenda was not a manifesto. But I can’t think of anything else to call it, unless it is the second longest suicide note in history. She has described Scotland as “only something-for-nothing country in the world”, as if it was an edition of “Shameless”. Universal benefits are no longer going to be universal. The money just isn’t there anymore, and anyway it’s wrong for wealthy people to benefit from things like free prescription charges when they could pay for themselves. “(The SNP) might cry freedom, but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie”. Well, she should know because Ms Lamont voted to abolish prescription charges in the Scottish parliament and voted for free personal care and promised not to increase tuition fees in the 2011 election campaign. Labour were living a lie it seems. So how do you tell when they aren’t?
Anyway, is it a lie? There is a presumption that universal policies are unfair and regressive. But it is often fairer and more efficient for services to be paid for centrally through general taxation, which is itself based on ability to pay. Free prescription charges for example costs £57 million, a relatively small sliver of the £34 billion Scottish budget, but up to half of that saving will be lost through the cost of constructing a new bureaucracy to manage the transition and identify and collect from those who are to pay in future. The nugatory savings from bus passes or the winter fuel allowance are hardly going to pay off the national debt. Free personal care for elderly people is expensive at a cost of £360 million, but much of this is saved in the NHS by helping keep older people independent in their own homes rather than occupying beds in hospitals. And surely she isn’t seriously proposing to impose tuition fees in Scotland after what has happened in England.
These are fair and humane policies and the Scottish Labour Party should not be so eager to abandon them. Nor are they all Nationalist “freebies”. Indeed, the former Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, once cited free personal care as the policy he is most proud of after the smoking ban. Is there anything in Ms Lamont’s policy treasure chest to match that? Is she going to be proud of restoring prescription charges? Will people cheer her on the street for re-introducing tuition fees?
Alex Salmond is often accused of political opportunism, of making crowd-pleasing give-aways. But voters respond positively to these policies because they agree with them and there is nothing wrong with governing in accordance with the popular will. Voters like universal benefits for a reason: they hate means tests, which many people regard as demeaning in a civilised society. Universal benefits are efficient because people don’t have to go through the complex and bureaucratic process of claiming them, which is why they are a good way of delivering national objectives. Most Scots believe access to higher education should be based on ability, not ability to pay. And the “freebies” are clearly affordable because they have been delivered by the Scottish government within the strict confines of the Barnett bloc grant.
But greatest objection to Ms Lamont’s proposed cuts is that they will not save much money. A few hundred million is not going to butter anyone’s parsnips. 60% of Scottish public spending goes on the salaries and pensions of public sector workers. The most direct way to cut spending is by cutting the size of the state bureaucracy, starting with those highly paid council officials, and Ms Lamont is not proposing that.
What she is proposing has left commentators like Alex Massie in the Tory-supporting Spectator are cock-a-hoop at what they see as 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 taxes, 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?”