Euan McColm: Johann Lamont has rescued the benefits argument from mediocrity

REMEMBER the good old days when Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was an idiot who had consigned her party to eternal oblivion with a lurch to the right? Remember when she was ­nothing more than a traitor dressed in Tory clothes? Things were so simple back then, weren’t they? You could get a Coke out of a machine for a quid. You knew where you stood.

But all that was in the foreign country of Thursday just passed, before former auditor general Bob Black intervened on the issue of how Scotland funds her rich and fattening menu of universal benefits.

Lamont’s recent attempt to place this issue at the centre of the Scottish political debate did not begin well. A keynote speech, in which she announced everything from pensioner bus passes to free prescriptions was fair game, lacked a ­single example of how Labour might rebalance spending to create a voter-seducing, fairer society. That failure by Lamont to provide any detail allowed the SNP to
attack. And, boy, did they attack.

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Lamont was speedily – and remarkably effectively, it would seem, given the number of commentators who parroted the nationalist line – denounced as a right-winger, bent on destroying those ever-prized “vital services” that help that compassion-triggering demographic, “the most vulnerable”.

Enter Black, who spent 12 years as the head of public spending watchdog Audit Scotland, with some uncomfortable truths that not only save Lamont’s skin but mean we can now have a real debate about how we fund the fairest society with ever
emptier coffers.

You would struggle to find a politician who would disagree with Black’s premise that we are “now into the most ­challenging period in living memory”. Be certain that elected members of all parties – perhaps particularly the SNP – are considering very carefully his predictions about rising costs versus falling budgets.

Against the backdrop of spending reductions of more than 12 per cent by 2012-15, Black reminded us of a £4 billion backlog in the maintenance of physical estate (roads, buildings, infrastructure), a thriving elderly care business that will cost an extra £3.6bn by 2030, and a budget shortfall of £490 million caused by that SNP manifesto-topping council tax freeze.

Black’s words carry authority. Politicians cannot easily dismiss him. So – and this is accepted by the wisest in Labour and the SNP – his contribution means Lamont’s debate is back on. Now, all she needs is an absolutely gripping message that outdoes the Nationalists’ tale of Scottish compassion and munificence. Ah, you’re way ahead of me...

Lamont may have got the debate she wanted but she will not make a step of progress without detail, quickly. Being a Labour politician, Lamont raised this issue by announcing the formation of a commission. Labour has no time to wait for a commission.

Now, today, when you turn on the wireless, Labour needs to be there, giving answers. Why must this happen? How does it help? Who does it help? The SNP’s already staking out the studios with ­answers for why they’ve got it right. These answers might not add up but they are answers and the Nationalists are delivering them, confidently.

Can Labour create an appealing narrative that taps into (what we want to believe is) our sense of social justice while satisfying our basest concern that we’re all getting what’s due to us? Politically, the opportunity here is for Scottish Labour to clearly define itself for the first time since Jack McConnell stepped down as general secretary in 1998.

Let’s get personal and confront the silliest assertion to have emerged in the aftermath of her speech. Lamont is not a right-winger, no matter what some analysts of recent events would have you believe. She’s on the centre-left, kept there by colleagues who sometimes fear she’ll go further out to the left than they’d like.

Lamont’s proclamations of a belief in social justice are as compelling to me as those made by Nicola Sturgeon. In fact, if you were to ask the Deputy First Minister and the Scottish Labour leader what drives them – independence aside – it might be difficult to spot the differences.

Lamont has been caricatured in the past (by the likes of me, by and large) as the sort of Labour politician who might secretly be more comfortable lounging on opposition bean bags, demanding the earth and tickling her party on the tummy, than confronting the issues that should matter to an aspiring government. It turns out she isn’t. In fact, it looks like she’s got more focus than her two predecessors, squared. I’d like to hear what she has to say.

If you’ll indulge my reassurance that Lamont is among the more decent and principled members of the Scottish Parliament, perhaps you’ll accept my sense of a renewed confidence coming from Labour. Even before Black rescued the leader, party members were behind her on this issue. There may have been mumbling about presentation, but the steel to confront how government funds services fairly was already forged.

So, big challenges for Labour now, as they and the SNP compete to tell us what kind of nation we are. Part of Alex Salmond’s great political genius has been to describe to us a Scotland of decency, fairness, and endless humanity. As flattery goes, it’s quite delicious. But are we those people?

How fascinating to take this debate on and really look at how we make Scotland live and breathe and how much we’re ­willing to contribute.

If this political battle breaks down big issues of how we care for the old, the poor and the vulnerable, while maintaining the basics that keep a country running, and the investment that lets it grow, then at its conclusion we may just end up with a true picture of who we are.

I wonder what we’re like, don’t you? «