RIGHT, stop what you are doing, turn off the TV, take a deep breath and try to focus. This is going to be quite hard to follow.
On 14 April 1997, Tony Blair said: “Labour has no plans to introduce fees for higher education”. Elected 16 days later, they went on to introduce tuition fees of £1,000 per year. Page 20 of their manifesto for the 2001 election said: “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them”. They won, and universities were then allowed to charge up to £3,000 a year, tripling the burden.
After the 2010 election, Labour voted against the controversial coalition decision to further triple tuition fee limits to £9,000 a year. Then, a few months later, leader Ed Miliband announced a commitment to taking the limit to £6,000 or double what he voted to freeze weeks before.
Giddy? Strap yourself in. Labour’s manifesto in Scotland in 2011 pledged to maintain the Scottish Government’s policy on free education for all with “no upfront or back-end tuition fees for higher education”.
They didn’t win so we cannot know if they would have stuck to that one. But we must congratulate their new leader Johann Lamont, who won a major political award for a speech she gave in the summer attacking the SNP Government for sticking to their manifesto commitment on free education while also reneging on her own. Even in this perverse political climate that took some doing.
Scotland was, with the SNP in charge, the “only something for nothing country in the world”. Universal policies like free education and prescriptions and the like are subsidies to the middle classes and the rich. So goes the story.
The new leader was careful only to criticise free prescriptions (which Labour introduced with the NHS in 1948), free higher education and a council tax freeze, with spokesmen saying she didn’t mean free elderly care or bus passes. But that’s all changed with a commission targeting all devolved universal policies for review.
Last week her deputy, Anas Sarwar, was criticising the SNP for fulfilling its manifesto commitment to free personal care for the elderly, a policy that Labour introduced in July 2002. And that is despite the fact that he was elected on a 2010 manifesto that said, “In Scotland we led the way, extending the frontiers of the welfare state with the introduction of free personal care. Our ambition to do the right thing by older people was right.”
Clear? Neither am I. What we are witnessing must be gut-wrenching for lifelong Labour members and supporters to endure. I, for one, have never doubted the best intentions and motivations of the party. I am certain its members joined because they want to make the world a better place. I know they want what’s best.
But they are being pulled in all directions and contorted to chase votes in the north and south by defining themselves against their different opponents rather than for what they believe in their soul.
The result is a party position that is exhausting to follow. We were in favour of many universal benefits and indeed proud of them, now we are still in favour of those the coalition in London want to abolish but not the ones the Government in Scotland want to keep – at least not those ones they want to keep that are different in policy from the rest of the UK such as tuition fees where we are in favour of them in the rest of the UK but want to cut them from £9,000 to £6,000, while we were in favour of not having them in Scotland but now think the lack of them is an unsustainable middle-class subsidy but have yet to say whether £6,000 or £9,000 is too high, too low or just about right.
Breathless? I am. All the more confusing when Labour in London say child benefit should be universal even for millionaires: “I’m in favour of it because it is a cornerstone of our system to have universal benefits,” said Miliband. “Universal benefits are an important bedrock of our society.”
So are they or aren’t they? And where will the line be drawn?
It seems wherever the SNP try to draw it. My instincts are that good people will be agonising at the contortions their party is being put through as it wrestles to understand where it fights on two very different fronts. Labour must restate what it is for, rather than what it is against. And that must include unlocking thinking on Scotland and how to make good the unsustainable financing of Home Rule.
There is a huge place for the Labour Party in the Scottish debate it once commanded. But to rediscover and modernise its purpose, leaders must open their eyes and their minds. Too many regard the SNP in Scotland as a more mortal enemy than the Tories in London.
That’s a crying shame when you consider the continent of common ground they should enjoy. Growth and jobs should be the focus of all rather than cutting unifying and affordable public benefits most once believed in. And all sides must recognise that the personal enmity that boils as they gaze across the Holyrood chamber damages their ability to lead a country that just isn’t wired to buy the hate they seem to feel. «