Euan McColm: Shaky Labour needs radical overhaul

The free prescriptions for all policy was sold by the Scottish Government as a strike against inequality. Picture: Julie Howden
The free prescriptions for all policy was sold by the Scottish Government as a strike against inequality. Picture: Julie Howden
Have your say

PERHAPS the greatest trick the SNP ever pulled off was to convince a great many voters that policies which predominantly benefited the better-off were somehow progressive.

Take free prescriptions for all, sold by the Scottish Government as a strike against inequality. Before none of us had to pay for prescriptions, the poorest were already exempt from charges. Those who benefited most from the policy were the middle class.

Or what about the seven-year-long council tax freeze? Again, this was pitched as being about a fairer society when the reality was that it was fairer to those who could afford bigger houses in more affluent areas.

Though close analysis of how progressive these policies actually are soon reveals their flaws, there is no question that both were politically clever. The SNP won the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections by assiduously wooing Scotland’s middle-class ­voters. These giveaways were aimed at those voters, who said “gimme it” in huge numbers.

Finance Secretary John Swinney’s draft budget for 2015-16, which he ­unveiled on Thursday, suggests a change of plan. Or, at the very least, a widening of the Nationalists’ message.

The headline news from Swinney’s statement to parliament was his plan to replace the stamp duty payable on house purchases with a Land and Buildings Transactions Tax (LBTT)which will cut costs for the vast majority of buyers. It will mean higher costs, however, for those buying at the higher end of the market. Once a house costs £325,000 or more, the buyer will face a larger tax bill.

A tax that hits the richest hardest while making life easier for those with least sounds dangerously like a properly progressive one. How the hearts of Labour MSPs must have sunk as Swinney spoke… What’s that you say about a “mansion tax”? Here’s one, right here.

Swinney’s draft budget doesn’t simply tell us of the Scottish Government’s spending plans for the ­financial year, it also helps us better understand the massive political problem facing the Labour Party, despite victory for the No campaign in last month’s independence ­referendum.

With LBTT, the Finance Secretary moved on to Labour’s centre-left ­territory. The new tax might well have that important saving for those with least but it also manages to make life easier for those voters who we are obliged to call “aspirational Scots”. For anyone taking a second or even third step up the property ­ladder, the likelihood is that ­Swinney’s plan will mean savings.

Given the power for the first time to take control over this area of ­taxation, Swinney came up with something that manages to mix the radical with an appeal to self-interest. That’s impressive.

Elsewhere in Swinney’s statement was almost £17 million to support new apprenticeships, a move that will be welcomed by small businesses, and an extra £86m for the National Health Service.

The truth is that the new powers made available to the finance secretary by the Scotland Act 2012 – limited freedom to borrow more, authority over stamp duty and ­landfill tax – didn’t give him much to play with but what he had, he played with cleverly.

The SNP has planted itself in the centre ground of Scottish politics but it’s willing to paddle in the waters of both the centre-left and the centre-right. Forget the more enthusiastic moments of the referendum campaign, the SNP is building a fortress on the political ground it claimed in those successful Holyrood elections.

A significant number of what we might consider traditional Labour voters were in favour of Scottish independence. Victories for Yes in both Glasgow and Dundee are more than ample proof of that. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it was clear that there lay an opportunity for the SNP to convert Yes supporters into loyal voters.

Swinney’s property tax will have done his party’s reputation no harm with those people.

Scottish Labour is in poor health right now. Leader Johann Lamont was conspicuous by her absence for much of the referendum campaign and she has failed to make any capital from the Better Together victory.

A speech on Wednesday during which she promised increased childcare had the whiff of desperation about it. Two years ago, Lamont was demanding a debate on how public services were funded and which were prioritised. It was a sensible call, though Lamont lacked the political strength to make it and she was easily caricatured by her opponents as someone ready to snatch away all that was dear – and free – to them.

Now, Lamont appears to have ­decided a more binary “here’s a shiny thing” approach might do something about her party’s bleak Holyrood ­election prospects.

While Scottish Labour remains shaky on its feet, there’s much gain for the SNP.

First Minister-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon’s political values are remarkably close to those of many of her Labour opponents. If we strip the independence question out of the Sturgeon equation, we’re left with a modern social democrat who has a story to tell those who voted Labour at previous elections.

During the referendum there was a lot of nonsense spoken about “momentum”. The worst offender was Yes Scotland’s Blair Jenkins who, when confronted with yet another disappointing poll, would grin and point out that while Yes might be losing, it had momentum. Yes never really did. But the SNP, on the other hand...

The Nationalists at Holyrood – the occasional interesting diversion by Alex Salmond aside – have recovered from defeat in the referendum surprisingly quickly. Rather than being cowed by Labour, the SNP is going after its opponents’ voters.

Scottish Labour most assuredly does not have momentum. Lamont has reached the point in her leadership where a leader asserts the desire to retain the leadership. This is, of course, the point at which everyone knows the game’s up.

If Labour doesn’t come up with something radical – in terms of leadership and policy – soon, then Sturgeon is going to be no easier­ to ­defeat than Alex Salmond was.