FORMER Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was right to question universal services such as free tuition fees and prescriptions, according to leadership candidate Neil Findlay MSP.
Mr Findlay insisted he supported universalism but argued Ms Lamont was right to raise the issue as he launched his official campaign.
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The MSP was setting out his vision for the future of the country and Scottish Labour at a rally in his home town of Fauldhouse, West Lothian.
Ms Lamont, who resigned last month accusing Westminster colleagues of treating the party in Scotland like a branch office, faced criticism in 2012 when she attacked what she described as a “something for nothing” culture.
Mr Findlay said: “I agree with the principle of universalism but Johann Lamont was absolutely right to raise the issues that she did because it was about saying as a society what decisions do we want to make?
“Do we take a decision where we finance public services and provide universal services without doing anything about the tax base, or do we not? And I think she was right to raise that.
“My support is for the principle of universalism and we have a tax system that we can use to finance that potentially, and that’s what we should be examining.”
On the further devolution of tax powers to Holyrood, he said: “We need to see what those powers are and then make that decision.
“I think there is a big choice to be made in politics at the moment in terms of our priorities.
“Are our priorities to have good public services and if they are do we need as a society to make a decision as to how we finance those public services?”
Mr Findlay said he supported the general principle of the council tax but not the freeze currently imposed on local authorities.
He said: “I have a problem with the freeze not because I would just say increase council tax.
“I have a problem with the council tax freeze because it is undemocratic, councillors should be able to set their own taxes and if the people don’t like it they should take the consequences at the ballot box. That’s the democratic principle. I think it’s simply undemocratic that central government imposes the council tax freeze on local authorities.”
Mr Findlay faces competition from MP Jim Murphy and MSP Sarah Boyack for the leadership role.
The MSP, who already has the support of several trade unions including Unison and Unite, said he was “delighted” to secure backing from the GMB, the union that Mr Murphy is a member of.
In a speech to supporters, he pledged to end poverty in Scotland and urged a return to the “timeless Labour values of community, solidarity, fairness and justice”.
He highlighted his background as a construction worker, student, housing worker and teacher to argue that he was not a “machine politician”.
A 2016 election manifesto under his leadership will vow to cut youth unemployment, replace the national minimum wage with a living wage, tackle the “scandal” of social care and deliver an NHS “fit to meet the demands of the 21st century”, he promised.
He also pledged that if elected leader and then first minister he would bring forward a national house building programme to construct 50,000 new homes for rent over the term of that Labour government.
He was preceded to the stage by a series of supporters including Elaine Holmes, a campaigner for Scottish Mesh Survivors.
She said: “I’ve never really been particularly interested in politics but then again I have never had someone to believe in as I do today.
“I believe he has what is needed to lead the Scottish Labour Party out of the doldrums.
“If the Scottish Labour Party was to be led by Neil Findlay, that would be a political party I would be proud to be part of.”
Local man Jimmy Gordon said: “When it came to the referendum last month, after a lot of thought I decided I was going to vote yes, not for nationalist reasons but because I couldn’t see in the United Kingdom that I was ever again going to get the government that was going to represent my people.
“Then, like a light at the end of the tunnel, I heard that Neil Findlay was standing for this post.
“I don’t want any more to have my life determined by the toffs of the south-east of England. I want good Scottish working class values delivered with integrity, with honesty and with purpose.”
Mr Findlay was introduced by his niece Elena Doolan, 21, a student and Labour member, who said her uncle could “help change the Labour party for the better”.
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