JOHANN Lamont’s speech yesterday on the future of Scottish Labour was billed as a landmark event for a party that has recently struggled to present itself in a coherent and compelling way to the electorate.
Much of the party’s energy of late seems to have been expended on internal turf wars between MPs and MSPs. With recent personnel changes indicating this tussle had been won – for now – by the MSPs, all eyes were on Ms Lamont to see if she could inject some purpose into her party.
What she demonstrated yesterday is that she is a serious politician who is not afraid to tackle the big issues with bold ideas. There is no bigger issue facing Scotland than how to deliver quality public services with a flat-lining budget. Ms Lamont’s response to that dilemma is to say, plainly, that tough decisions must be taken if the distribution of public finances is to be fair and equitable to the public as a whole.
She is correct in her analysis that for the SNP to deliver its promises of what she calls “freebies” on university tuition, personal care for the elderly and free prescriptions, other sectors have suffered – notably further education and local government services. She is also correct in her analysis that the council tax freeze, while offering a welcome respite for those on low or middle incomes, has also provided a tax break for the rich, depriving the public finances of a useful source of income from those who can readily afford it.
The work she has commissioned on these are other areas of public finance will be a laudable and constructive contribution to the political debate.
It is at this point, however, that one wonders if anyone in Ms Lamont’s office is taking on the role of the civil servant in Yes Minister, who would describe his boss’s initiative as “very brave”.
Because Ms Lamont is talking like a government minister who is looking for political cover for unpopular but unavoidable political decisions. She is not talking like a leader of the opposition who could – some of her colleagues would say should – be concentrating on the politics of opposition, free of the responsibilities of power.
Instead of picking holes in the SNP administration’s weaknesses, she chooses to attack the administration’s most popular policies. It may be laudable, even necessary in the long term, but is this politically wise? Will it have the voters flocking back?
On the constitution, too, Ms Lamont seems determined to take the difficult path. With the SNP committed to independence, it would be easy for Scottish Labour to ally itself with a large part of the electorate and argue for a much stronger form of devolution. It is what many want, and no party is prepared to offer. She is dragging her feet in setting up the commission she promised would examine this issue.
One wonders why Ms Lamont seems intent on making life difficult for herself.
Action needed over Sweeney saga
ANYONE who cares how their taxes are spent will have read the latest development in the saga of fire chief Brian Sweeney with mounting exasperation.
The former head of the Strathclyde brigade retired from the service and pocketed a handsome financial package of £500,000. In a decision that stretched credulity, he was then reappointed to the same job.
Yesterday, the Accounts Commission published a withering report on the affair, accusing Strathclyde’s fire service board of “systemic failures”.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Sweeney’s case has already attracted the
interest of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. His employer’s
reaction was to seek to indemnify the fire chief from any financial losses the taxman imposed.
The Accounts Commission report is a hard-hitting indictment of the way some public-sector organisations feel able to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money. One would hope it gave other, similar organisations pause before entering into similar deals.
But from the point of view of the ordinary taxpayers whose money is being used in such a cavalier fashion, the outcome
of this saga is by no means satisfactory. They may be forgiven for asking: “Where is the remedy?”
It is all very well for the
Accounts Commission to spell out its verdict, but if nothing happens as a consequence, what practical purpose has the investigation served? Will taxpayers’ money be used to pay off the taxman, regardless of the commission’s verdict? With Scotland moving to a single police force and centralised fire service, with the early retirements this may entail, learning lessons is important, but not sufficient.