Simon Pia: Middle class will have to live without freebies

JOHANN Lamont has brought the issue of class back into politics as she calls for a fairer society, writes Simon Pia

In his speech entitled “In Defence of Politics” in Edinburgh last month, Chris Mullin said we could no longer afford to live in an age when politicians are afraid to ask tough questions and deliver a few home truths.

A key area was the public demand for north European levels of public services yet with US levels of tax. It just didn’t add up, he said, especially as the UK had lower levels of tax than our Scandinavian neighbours and countries such as France, Germany and Holland.

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Choices had to be made and politicians had to put them clearly to the public.

But fear of the media and negative news coverage, Mr Mullin added, prevented them from facing up to a crucial issue of the age, while only increasing disillusion and cynicism with politics.

The former Labour MP and best-selling author was widely applauded by an audience of mainly middle-class taxpayers. Indeed, Mr Mullin is that rare species: a politician whose integrity is respected across parties, in the media and with the public. But as one wizened old hack said: “Aye, easy for him. He’s no longer running for office.”

One who is in office is Johann Lamont, who took a bold step forward yesterday, laying out the clearest political and ideological divide between Labour and the SNP in more than a decade.

The Scottish Labour leader drove her tank right on to the lawn in Charlotte Square in front of Bute House and pointed her guns straight at the First Minister’s office.

After last week’s limp budget, there was widespread comment in previously favourable media that John Swinney was “not facing up to harsh realities”, it was “designed to make as few waves as possible” and was “shortsighted”.

And in a well-crafted speech yesterday, Mrs Lamont did not spare him. “Fundamental questions go unanswered,” she railed; “No tough decisions made,” she chided; and “You can’t put problems off,” she warned. But most damning of all was: “The idea that everything is free is a lie.”

She then proceeded to sweep through the Nationalist programme of the last five years, saying it was being driven by electoral strategy rather than what was good for the country.

Mrs Lamont ticked off the freebies the SNP had dished out to the electorate: free prescriptions, council tax freeze, no university tuition fees and, of course, one of the most difficult of all introduced by a previous Labour executive: free personal care for the elderly. This free-for-all could not continue, she warned, especially when those on the hard edge of the economy were getting hammered.

That it was a brave move by Mrs Lamont and spooked the Nationalists was clear from their response that it was “electoral suicide”. This is indeed new terrain in Scottish politics that she is marching into, albeit Labour tentatively dipped its toe in these waters before the 2011 election.

Labour had proposed allowing local authorities to lift the council tax freeze by 1 to 2 per cent in autumn 2010 and confronting the crisis in higher education funding with an end to free tuition fees for all Scots.

But in the run-up to the Scottish election campaign in February 2011, with Labour still ahead in the polls, the party backed off due to internal pressure from MPs with middle-class constituencies and even supposed “left-wing” MSPs.

It was a failure of nerve across the party, and the media seized on it as a U-turn. The result was the policy differences between the parties were unclear, which played into the hands of the party in government.

But Mrs Lamont is now challenging the “all things to all people approach” of the SNP and saying it needs to make choices and say how it will pay for things. She has gone further than Labour at UK level and her speech was resonant at times of some of the language at the recent Democrat convention when President Obama and Bill Clinton referred to the spirit of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

What Labour clearly stated yesterday was an end to universality. Mrs Lamont was saying subsidies for the middle class, whether free prescriptions or free bus passes, are not just unfair but unrealistic.

Again echoing more Mr Obama’s Democrats than necessarily UK Labour, she asked what is progressive about bankers, chief executives, lawyers and other highly paid sectors of the workforce benefiting from the council tax freeze and free tuition fees when pensioners have their care help cut, average wage earners struggle with mortgages and one in four unemployed young people cannot get a job or place at college.

This is class politics – something we have not seen in not just Scottish but British politics for more than two decades.

A key area, though, for the Labour leader is to redefine what class is in this country, and again she can look across the Atlantic to the Democrats’ appeal to their wide-ranging ordinary “middle class”, as Scottish notions of class and how it is structured are very dated. A crude analysis would classify about 20 per cent as really struggling, for the other 60 per cent it is tough and the top 20 per cent have been getting a free ride since the 1980s.

Mrs Lamont forewarned: “What I will say will not always please you.” But, as Mr Mullin also said, with political maturity comes the recognition that compromises have to be made. Some on the Left may cavil at abandoning universality, while others on the Right will recoil at the thought of higher taxes for those who can afford it. But as Mrs Lamont and Labour recognised yesterday, you can’t have both in a fair society.

• Simon Pia is a former Labour media adviser and now a freelance commentator.