JOHANN Lamont seemed almost indecently buoyant. Moments before in Holyrood’s debating chamber, she had been subjected to possibly the most serious accusation that could be aimed at a Scottish Labour leader. “A poster girl for the Tories,” mocked Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon from the Holyrood despatch box, standing in at First Minister’s Questions for the absent Alex Salmond.
It all stemmed from what was being billed as one of her party’s biggest changes in policy since the devolved Scottish Parliament was created: a political consensus-busting strategy of moving her party away from its traditional backing for the free public services that have brought her arch-SNP opponents votes in spades.
The initiative outlined in a keynote speech last Tuesday had MSPs sitting upright by Thursday morning, with journalists joking beforehand that the encounter between Lamont and Sturgeon that afternoon would be “directed by Quentin Tarantino”. Lamont was a “new Blair”, declared Sturgeon, to guffaws from the SNP side.
But out of the heat of the chamber and back in her Holyrood office later that day, Lamont appeared to be almost enjoying the jibe. Ten months into her role as the overall party leader in Scotland, what was she supposed to do, she asked? “We could have just sat back in opposition and picked off different issues, but we can’t allow this kind of nonsensical non-debating.”
On the contrary, she said she was determined to stand her ground on questioning the delivery of free university tuition fees, free NHS prescriptions and a council tax freeze to all Scots, dismissing Sturgeon’s comments – which were amplified many times as the week progressed – as “ludicrous”. “The SNP’s definition of progressive politics is support for all these free universal services,” Lamont said. “They say that they are progressive because they give these things away. This is the lie that Alex Salmond has created, that we can have all these things for free without having to pay for them.”
It is firm stuff, giving the little-known Labour leader some clear definition. But, as Labour MSPs last week reflected on the speech, blowing out their cheeks at the boldness of the move, there is no doubt, too, that this former school teacher has taken a massive gamble. The principle of universality – that all should be treated equally by the state when it comes to benefits, with the rich paying back more in tax – goes deep into the Labour movement’s sense of justice. As left-winger Labour figure Willie Sullivan noted after her speech: “I don’t really care if Rod Stewart gets a free bus pass as long as he is more than paying for it in his tax. Give up on one side of those scales of social justice and you give up on both.”
On Labour websites last week, plenty of supporters were bemoaning why Lamont appeared to be thinking of restricting access to services, rather than examining the case for higher taxes. “Why is the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland playing in to this myth that there’s ‘no money’, that we can’t grow the size of the pot?” asked one.
To be fair to Lamont, she has not ruled this out. The core message of her speech was simply that the debate of how all this is to be afforded must now be held. “For the past decade, Scotland’s budgets have grown rapidly, but we are in a new age with less money and more demands. We need to say what we want Scotland to be, what we can realistically afford, and how can we, in reality, make Scotland better,” she noted. The choice, she said, was either “increase taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere”.
Given the open-ended nature of her speech, it is not surprising that the response has been so varied. SNP MSP Christina McKelvie reflected Sturgeon’s opinion in claiming “Labour are so far to the Right, no principles”.
Political commentator Ruth Wishart said Lamont “was gift-wrapping pre-Christmas pressies for Alex Salmond. Who knew they were that close?” Conservative MSP and former leadership contender Murdo Fraser added to the discomfort by heaping unhelpful praise on her words. “Good to see Johann warming to Tory ideas on the unfairness of giveaways,” he wrote. “Help should be targeted at those most in need.”
But others, like Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, believe Labour’s speech actually marks a shift to the Left – signalling that the rich and middle classes may soon lose out to the poor, as Labour (as in the past) opts to react to tough times by prioritising the needy over universal provision.
As for what the public thinks, there can be little doubting that the prospect of removing “free” entitlements is not popular. An SNP source said yesterday that canvassing by the party had shown “overwhelming support” for the universal freebies and the council tax freeze. The source claimed a survey of 1,000 voters had found support for free personal care at 86 per cent, for free university tuition at 81 per cent, the council tax freeze at 76 per cent, free prescriptions at 74 per cent and free bus travel for everyone aged over 60 at 71 per cent.
Lamont shrugs. Her argument is that services for the elderly and sick are being starved of cash and “straining at the seams” to help pay for benefits for those who could afford to pay for some services.
“We’ve got a reduced budget and the choices being made by the SNP are not sustainable,” Lamont said. “People are frightened about their jobs and care for their elderly parents.”
She appears to be preparing for what is already shaping up to be a lengthy and bruising battle with the SNP over free services, one the SNP is delighted to have. But she claims to relish the battle ahead and called on voters to accept the new political realities at a time of savage financial cutbacks in local councils. “It’s reasonable to say that we have a certain-sized pot and then ask what we should provide,” she argued.
There is no doubting her credentials as a political street-fighter; on her home turf in Glasgow Pollok, she defeated a tough challenge from former Scottish Socialist leader Tommy Sheridan in both 2003 and 2007. Salmond is a different proposition, however. “I knew the scale of the challenge when I came in and part of the challenge was holding the First Minister to account,” she said, dismissing suggestions that she was ever daunted by the prospect.
“A lot of the key problems facing Scotland are exposed at First Minister’s questions, where Alex Salmond is not even talking honestly about these issues.”
Despite the doubts over her chances, she has the advantage of being in a far stronger position than her predecessor Iain Gray as the party’s first genuine Scottish leader. Two recent senior personnel departures from the party’s Glasgow HQ show a change of direction, and having now set a course on policy, the new challenge is to set out a coherent narrative on the constitutional future of Scotland.
This week, she will unveil the make-up of her party’s devolution commission, which is being tasked with examining what further powers Labour will demand for Holyrood in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014.
The co-chair is MSP Ken Macintosh, whom she narrowly beat in the leadership contest, and there are places, too, for her deputy, Anas Sarwar, shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran and senior Labour MSP Duncan McNeil – a high-profile supporter of the “devo-plus” option, which involves devolving the bulk of tax powers to Holyrood.
She insists that the 11-member committee, whose members include both radicals and conservatives on the devolution issue, “won’t be afraid to focus on the questions” surrounding an extension of Holyrood’s powers. It will have a wide membership that “draws on people across the Labour movement”, including from the trade unions, the councils and the party rank and file, as well as Holyrood and Westminster.
A key appointment, she says, is Labour’s shadow work and pensions minister, Gregg McClymont, a former Oxford history Don who is widely regarded as one of the party’s intellectual heavyweights and rising stars at Westminster.
But other members include Jackson Cullinane, the political officer for the Unite union in Scotland, Scottish Labour chair Vicky Jamieson, Aberdeen councillor Willie Young and two of Scotland’s leading academics, Professor Arthur Midwinter and Professor Jim Gallagher, in an advisory capacity.
Lamont says that the group will meet regularly – the first meeting is next week – and be tasked with come up with an interim report on what enhanced powers Labour will back next spring, before making final recommendations in early 2014, ahead of the referendum.
“It’s not a commission where the members will just talk to each other. I’m keen for it to be outward looking and that the commission gets out there to get evidence from people,” she insisted.
“The argument should be about more than just what powers and where power lies and more about how these powers can best serve the needs of the Scottish economy.”
This is another minefield for the party. But where the situation has improved, say insiders, is the relationship with London, and with UK leader Ed Miliband. Both he and Lamont appear to be on similar ground on the constitution. The Labour leader is also known to have been asking Scottish colleagues about whether there is a more federal solution to solve the UK’s constitutional puzzle.
However, opponents still claim that Lamont remains a passenger in the London Labour bus. A SNP source claimed yesterday that her speech last week was “an attempt to pretend that the Holyrood leadership is driving Labour’s approach to spending in Scotland, when the reality is that she was merely pre-empting the line laid down by Ed Balls [the shadow chancellor].” Some will give Lamont credit for connecting with reality. Others in the Labour movement believe she is selling out to the “austerity” orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the well-oiled SNP machine – which remains far slicker than Labour’s – is rubbing its hands, in the belief that public opinion is overwhelmingly on its side. But, for the first time in a while, a Scottish Labour leader has grabbed the agenda. «