THE shadow chancellor has accused Nicola Sturgeon of taking Scotland “back to the 1980s” as he said the SNP’s cuts to public services were “reminiscent” of those made by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the 1980s.
In an outspoken attack on the SNP, John McDonnell said Sturgeon was “bullying” and “threatening” local councils with cuts to their funding unless they sign up to flagship SNP policies such as the council tax freeze.
McDonnell’s provocative outburst is an attempt to get the “Tartan Tory” label to stick to the SNP in the run-up to the 5 May Scottish election by comparing council funding cuts with Thatcherism.
With Labour struggling in the polls, his remarks are designed to turn the heat on the SNP, questioning the nationalists’ left-wing credentials by emphasising the divide that has opened up between Labour and the SNP on economic policy.
The shadow chancellor gave enthusiastic support to the plans outlined by the party’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, to raise income tax – a policy Labour strategists hope can win back left-leaning voters who have deserted the party for the SNP.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, McDonnell said: “I went through the 1980s and the way that Thatcher decimated public services.
“Now people are losing their jobs and public services are being cut again and the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are launching the same assaults on public services that Thatcher did.
“The severe cuts in Scotland are reminiscent of the 1980s and the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are targeting education in the same way Thatcher did. The SNP are taking us back to the 1980s with this level of cuts.”
Stage one of the Scottish Government’s budget, which will see around £350 million of cuts to local authorities costing an estimated 15,000 jobs, was passed by SNP and Conservative MSPs as Holyrood last week.
Finance Secretary John Swinney has also announced that councils will be denied their share of a £408 million pot if they fail to sign up to SNP demands to freeze the council tax, maintain the teacher/pupil ratio and integrate health and social care.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) has spoken out against the package, which would see Glasgow City Council lose out on £45 million if it failed to meet any of Swinney’s requirements.
McDonnell said the SNP was now acting in the same way as Thatcher by forcing Scottish councils to accept cuts against their will and preventing some authorities from abandoning the council tax freeze amid concerns it is starving public services of cash.
Before being elected as an MP, McDonnell served as deputy leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s, when the Labour-run authority led by Ken Livingstone was controversially abolished by Thatcher’s government following a series of bitter battles over funding for public services.
The shadow chancellor said: “Nicola Sturgeon is treating local authorities in the same way Thatcher treated the GLC by bullying and threatening them with cuts to their funding. I served on the GLC and we were abolished because we fought to protect public services. Now local authorities in Scotland are being bullied in the same way with a central diktat from the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.”
On a flying visit to Scotland for a Burns Supper with Labour supporters in Edinburgh, McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn’s key ally at Westminster, threw his weight behind Dugdale’s plan to put a penny on the basic rate of income tax in Scotland.
“Scottish Labour is putting forward an honest policy to protect public services and I support it completely,” he said.
Scottish Labour is facing its worst ever election at Holyrood with a YouGov poll last week suggesting that the fortunes of the party that once dominated Scottish politics have sunk so low that they are now neck-and-neck with the Conservatives.
Yesterday Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Alex Rowley, was given the daunting task of turning things around when he was announced as the election campaign manager.
Last night a spokesman for John Swinney responded to the shadow chancellor’s comments saying: “While the SNP has campaigned against Tory cuts at every turn, John McDonnell couldn’t seem to make his mind up whether or not he supported George Osborne’s austerity charter – a situation which even he described as ‘embarrassing’. And now, with their proposed basic-rate income tax hike, Labour want to shift the burden of Tory austerity on to working people across the country.”