Ewan Crawford: Equitable universal benefits... right this way
In the strange world of Opposition politics Labour’s latest tactics appear to be a textbook case for right-wing strategists, writes Ewan Crawford
ACCORDING to the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, there appears to be some alarming Zimbabwean-style inflation when it comes to lawyers’ salaries and fees.
Two weeks ago when she launched her assault on universal benefits she questioned why the children of a judge or lawyer earning more than £100,000 should be paying for university tuition only from their taxes instead of being charged a further individual fee. But just a few days later it seems the legal profession in Scotland has benefited from a dramatic lottery-style windfall.
It’s no longer those earning a mere £100,000 that Ms Lamont is concerned with. The sons and daughters of parents in that happy category can sleep easy in their feathered beds. Writing in a tabloid newspaper she was instead asking: “Shouldn’t the son of the lawyer on £200,000 pay something towards their university education?”
It is not clear why it is only male children who have lawyers for fathers who are in her sights, but who knows what the financial target will be next week: perhaps it will be doubled again or even tripled and it will be the daughters of doctors feeling the heat.
The truth is that ordering the very few Scots who earn these sorts of salaries out of the universal system will save a comparatively tiny amount of money.
To find the cash out of individual charges to pay for the sorts of things Labour has been talking about – such as 80,000 extra college places – any means test is clearly going to have to kick in at a much lower level and take in people on middle incomes.
But that is one debate Labour seems less keen to open up, which begs the question of who, in Ms Lamont’s own words, is carrying out the con trick.
All of these services are of course not free in the sense that nobody pays for them. All tax-payers contribute.
But, as Martin McKee, a professor of European Public Health, has written in the British Medical Journal, one of the tactics used by those who wish to destroy the European model of welfare is to create a system in which the rich see little benefit flowing back to them from the state.
This, as can be seen from the experience of the Unites States leads to pressure from those on higher incomes for lower taxes and much reduced services.
In an uncanny echo of the strategy now adopted by Labour, Professor McKee and his co-author, Cambridge University academic David Stuckler, say groups in society are deliberately pitted against each other. “Who benefits from this progressive degradation of the welfare state?” they ask. “Obviously not the lower classes. But nor do the middle classes, as the new, complex, and individualised systems are more expensive than what existed previously, often of poorer quality, and invariably far more complicated. The real beneficiaries are the very rich, who no longer have to pay for services they never used anyway.”
It is truly astonishing that the leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland is now adopting, wittingly or otherwise, these tactics of the right.
For the independence referendum, the events of the past two weeks, will I believe change the terms of the debate. I have been one of those hoping the SNP in particular would place much greater emphasis on the sort of progressive, more equal, Scotland that could be realised as an independent country.
A sense of mission is required because the way Labour has sided with Conservative ideology, much in evidence in speeches by Ruth Davidson and George Osborne in Birmingham yesterday, means all the gains of devolution are in danger or being washed away.
In its stout defence of the collective ethos that until two weeks ago appeared to be the prevailing progressive consensus among the dominant parties in Scotland, perhaps the SNP has found a new confidence in promoting that mission.
All of a sudden the risks of doing nothing look substantial because we have been told everything is on the table: personal care, tuition fees, prescription charges, indeed all universal services.
In addition, the Prime Minister has again warned of many more billions of pounds of cuts, none of which Labour has promised to reverse.
This makes negative campaigning from the Yes side largely redundant. Nothing could really match the bleakness of the picture painted of the future under the current constitutional arrangements by the champions of Westminster control.
In addressing this it should be pointed out that abolishing tuition fees and providing free personal care does not exactly amount to receiving Scandinavian levels of welfare on US levels of taxation – the latest Labour/Tory distortion.
New parents in Norway, for example, are entitled to 46 weeks of parental leave at 100 per cent of their salary. For those sorts of benefits, an independent Scotland would indeed need to have a further debate about taxation.
But government figures show an independent Scotland would have healthier public finances than the UK as whole. Hundreds of millions could also be transferred from defence spending, including Trident.
Just as importantly, however, the onus is on the Yes side to demonstrate convincingly why powers over tax policy, energy, employment, competition and other key areas, will lead to much greater private sector employment and therefore tax revenue.
That job is clearly far from complete but after the last two weeks the size of the potential receptive audience has surely increased.
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