Brian Monteith: Labour between rock and hard place

Johann Lamont’s best chance of stopping the SNP in its tracks first of all requires wresting power from Ed Miliband, writes Brian Monteith
Johann Lamont must expose the SNPs blue-blooded policies. Picture: Jane BarlowJohann Lamont must expose the SNPs blue-blooded policies. Picture: Jane Barlow
Johann Lamont must expose the SNPs blue-blooded policies. Picture: Jane Barlow

The monkey’s not the problem – it’s the organ grinder. A week ago John Swinney’s tax grab punishing aspirational house owners opened up an opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives to rediscover their credentials as a party that represents hard-working families trying to improve their lot. Now the coronation of Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and ex officio First Minister presents the Labour Party in Scotland with its own opportunity – to rediscover its soul, reconnect with the Scottish electorate and help achieve victory for Ed Miliband in next May’s general election.

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Unfortunately the opportunity for Labour presents a serious problem. If the general consensus taking shape is correct – that the SNP’s appeal to Labour voters has been its ability to articulate a desire for a more just society where the welfare state is stoutly defended, if not advanced – then Labour must adopt a strategy that party advisors surrounding Ed Miliband will baulk at: greater freedom in Scottish party policy development.

What, after all, is the point of Scottish Labour advocating greater powers for Holyrood over taxation and welfare if it is not prepared to say how it will use them once they are made available? This is, after all, the party that delivered devolution and then quietly did away with the income tax variation hoping no-one was looking.

If the Labour party is to emulate its 2010 performance in Scotland – where, against the UK trend, it increased its vote share – it must become more attractive to its core vote than a Scottish Nationalist Party that is now destined to become more left-of-centre, as Sturgeon seeks to capitalise on the success of the SNP’s referendum campaign in many Labour heartlands. Outbidding the SNP is not as easy as it might at first seem, for simply being more socialist than its opponents creates problems, for such an approach does not fit easily with the views of strategists surrounding Labour’s Westminster leader who want to maintain control of their campaign – and it also requires Scottish Labour to convince voters that the SNP’s credentials are false by exposing the SNP as the party of bribes for the relatively better-off.

Labour politicians have sought to avoid policies that could be shown to directly result in higher tax rates for the middle classes. Instead the party adopted stealth taxes using incremental increases on consumption, new or marginally higher duties, inflation-plus escalators and the freezing of tax allowances or thresholds.

In this way Labour was able to court mass appeal by retaining and building its own core support with its commitments to health, education and justice whilst attracting enough soft-conservative voters who were not worried about the direct costs of Labour in power. When the tax increases ended up reducing revenues Labour took to relying on debt finance that would be funded by future generations, without ever admitting its sleight of hand or dishonesty. This political deceit is something it now has to deal with by recognising that its policies for what it calls social justice are dishonest so long as they are not more explicit about how they are paid for by today’s society – not tomorrow’s.

Following Labour’s faux-appeal for prudence that morphed into the need for austerity it has now become fashionable to demonstrate one’s left-of-centre credentials by employing the rhetoric of taxing the rich. This appeals to the vast majority of voters that are not anywhere near the top 10 per cent of earners or might otherwise consider themselves wealthy.

Unfortunately for Labour the SNP has learnt from the party’s great dishonesty about public finances, but having more talented people in and around Holyrood it has been more successful in selling its own brand of snake oil. The recipe was to freeze the council tax and provide more universal benefits – both of which are of great benefit to middle income households and which work against a more mobile meritocratic society by giving advantage to the current haves at the expense of the have nots.

Can Scottish Labour make an honest case for a greater financial contribution to the defence of the welfare state? Can it demonstrate that Sturgeon’s party is in fact the enemy of the poor, the excluded and the disadvantaged?

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Many in the media are fixated by personalities and look to the revival of past figures like Gordon Brown as a solution to Labour’s woes – but without honest socialist policies Sturgeon could take his scalp. Others, such as previous Labour first ministers Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish bemoan the current party without accepting that it was their managerial collectivism without genuine tax policies that has been responsible for Labour becoming the party that it now is. The irony is that Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader always was, and remains, to the left of McLeish and McConnell.

If Labour has to be more strident in its socialism then Johann Lamont should be able to make a better fist of it than Scotland’s male metropolitan elite. By discrediting the SNP’s policies as middle-class socialism and recommending that taxes may well have to rise to pay for the benefits that people say they want to see continue, Lamont could take the moral high ground.

But will Ed Miliband like that? Will Ed Miliband countenance it? The truth that the architects of devolution have never fully understood (and ironically the Conservatives have recognised before them) is that constitutional devolution requires party political devolution. The Scottish Labour Party must truly become independent of Miliband’s coterie, not just so it can fight its nationalist enemy from a position of Scottish credibility – but also so that Milband is able to dismiss any hostages to fortune as purely Scottish policies that need not be replicated in the rest of England. Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership should be seen as a rallying point for Labour, if it can turn her red-blooded politics on its head by exposing her blue-blooded policies then they can get off to a good start.