Lesley Riddoch: Resist shooting the messenger

Labour is losing momentum, but now is the time to address vital issues raised by Johann Lamont, writes Lesley Riddoch

Johann Lamont raised some uncomfortable issues at the conference in Perth. Picture: PA

This was a pivotal weekend for Scottish independence – the weekend that a lost cause started to look like a real possibility. An ICM poll narrowed the gap to a bridgeable 5 per cent and found most Scots don’t believe more powers will follow a No vote. One of the world’s leading economists rubbished George Osborne’s case for rejection of currency union and the Scottish Labour conference in Perth failed to create new momentum for Better Together. Indeed Johann Lamont’s speech was suffused with a barely contained loathing of the SNP whom she characterised as usurpers and dishonest political upstarts. This theme of thwarted entitlement delighted some insiders but dismayed veterans like former first minister Henry McLeish. The speech also contained bum notes aplenty. It was a mistake to portray the gentlemanly John Swinney as a calculating political opportunist. So too to claim the real alternative to the SNP’s White Paper is “the truth” – most voters view all political claims as suspect and subjective. And the notion that Labour is “the crusading force in Scottish politics” – with a few honourable exceptions that’s simply untrue. Most crusading takes place outside all political parties.

So, it would be easy to point to a half-empty auditorium (full to the gunnels for the SNP) and ignore Ms Lamont’s speech. But the Scottish Government shouldn’t scoff contemptuously, rest on its newly found laurels and ignore Labour attacks. Not just because mud sticks but because – hard as it is to hear – some of Johann Lamont’s criticism is justified.

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Massive progress has been made by the Yes Campaign to come from well behind in the polls but – like a successful slimmer – they might not shed those last crucial pounds to reach their target by slavishly following the existing regime.

Far better to view these last six months afresh and engage with the valid themes in Johann Lamont’s speech while adjustment is possible. Far better to play the message, not the woman.

Now, granted, it would be very easy to dismiss the whole Scottish Labour conference. Ed Miliband’s speech was dreadful. Full of wooden rhetoric, lines memorised for an English audience (speaking without notes makes that default almost impossible to correct) and the lame evidence-free assertion that Alex Salmond (who scrapped tuition fees and prescription charges) can be compared with George Osborne (who scrapped dignity on the dole). Miliband’s assertion that no narrow nationalist cares about social justice simply dismissed thousands of social democrats and non-nationalists planning to vote Yes – including brave souls in the audience sporting “Labour for Independence” badges who apparently represent a third of Labour voters, according to ICM. But worse than all that, UK polls suggest the Labour leader could yet lose the next General Election – and that’s serious.

For most Scots, Miliband doesn’t need to make great speeches. He doesn’t even need to look at home in Scotland. He just needs to become the next UK Prime Minister. If that doesn’t look like happening, another tranche of Scots may decide to cut their losses, give up on a Tory-leaning rUK and vote Yes. Indeed, if the most fiercely polarising government since Margaret Thatcher can sit a few percentage points from victory south of the Border, all the “out-lefting” promises by Labour ring very hollow. Not just because the party might lose, but because winning might demand policy compromises Scots reject.

Nonetheless, even if Labour’s devo-nano proposals are piecemeal and incoherent and even if the Scottish public has proved surprisingly resistant to threats and love bombs, the SNP case which it can completely control – as distinct from EU membership and currency union -- must be bullet-proof to win over waverers. And it isn’t.

Why has the SNP not backed a 50 pence top rate of income tax? Presumably it’s part of “not scaring the horses” by offering unnecessary ammunition to those predicting a mass post-independence exodus. The SNP did vote against lowering the rate at Westminster while Labour actually abstained. But voters may wonder how the SNP can commit to a 3 pence cut in corporation tax but not a tax hike for the super-wealthy. According to Johann Lamont, that proposed three pence cut runs counter to advice from Salmond’s economic adviser Joseph Stiglitz. The Nobel prize-winning professor warns it’s “a gift to the corporations, increasing inequality in our society”. The SNP says urgent action will be needed post-independence to counter the centrifugal force of London which has sucked in 80 per cent of all new private sector jobs and investment over the last decade. And action is indeed vital. But which action? Is undercutting our largest neighbour the best strategy? Wouldn’t that effectively hand corporation tax rate-setting back to London and leave iScotland resembling Jersey or Ireland, not Denmark or Norway? Wouldn’t loss of revenue make high quality welfare services impossible to deliver? Some argue privately that a lower corporation tax rate doesn’t mean a lower tax take since dodging falls and compliance rises. But that’s a debate the public needs to hear, otherwise many will back Johann Lamont’s assertion that investment follows the best educated workforce, not the lowest corporation tax rate.

Meanwhile the SNP has singly failed to deliver on land reform – indeed campaigners are currently working with Labour MP Ian Davidson in Westminster to devise tax changes aimed at breaking up massive sporting estates. Childcare provision in Scotland lags behind England, and English parish councils exercise more clout than Scotland’s toothless community councils. It’s fair to say there is general public anxiety about the SNP’s centralising tendencies and the danger Scots will have a “new boss same as the old boss” after a Yes vote.

The promise of transformational, structural change in iScotland is appealing – but it’s only convincing if incremental change is happening today. Is it? A new constitutional start does offer an excellent opportunity for a democratic “reboot” and it’s true that Labour has failed to act on these big issues in office, has merely tinkered with further devolution, has wrongly accused the Scottish Government of deploying zero hours contracts (they don’t) and failing to pay the living wage (they do) and has failed to publish its own “Cuts Commission” findings.

And yet – in these last crucial six months – the Scottish Government would still be wrong to shoot the messenger. Even if it is their greatest critic, Johann Lamont.