Hugh Reilly: Lamont diet too mean for school meals

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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BY VOTING against the SNP’s proposal on extending free school meals provision, Labour MSPs got themselves into another fine mess, once more turning the party of Kier Hardie into that of Laurel and Hardy.

When Johann Lamont stated that “(free) school meals would not be my priority in addressing child poverty”, I’m certain that her Thatcher-like words kicked-off a Mexican wave of collective toe-curling among her backbenchers.

Whatever they may have thought, however, this parcel of political careerist rogues kept schtum; bit-part actors auditioning for a silent movie would have been more vocal.

Her loyal followers obeyed and voted against a universal benefit. One has to admire Lamont for steadfastly sticking to her non-progressive values and standing up to that rabid ensemble of cheerleaders supporting Salmond’s populist policy: the Child Poverty Action Group, Save The Children, the STUC, the EIS, and Unison, the trade union that helped shoe-horn Lamont into her leadership position. The Unison executive must feel like turkeys that put their “x” in the wrong box in a Christmas Fare plebiscite.

Scottish Labour’s decision not to lend its weight to free school meals embarrasses its national leader, Ed Miliband. In 2010, he said there was “a strong case for universal free school meals. It makes a big difference in terms of nutrition. It makes a big difference in terms of concentration in classrooms.” Only in the crazy world of Labour Party politics can both leaders be right.

In my opinion, there is only one possible explanation for Lamont’s contrariness: she is adhering to the Bain Principle. Willie Bain, Labour MP for Glasgow North, infamously once tweeted that it “is a long-standing PLP convention that we do not support SNP motions”. Clearly, Lamont pines for the yaboo politics of Westminster.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to single out Lamont for public opprobrium. According to the objective judgment of Labour press handouts, Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s education spokesperson, is a bright light in the party – I must be alone in thinking she shows all the brilliance of a 20-watt bulb with the dimmer set at “low”. In a vainglorious attempt to justify denying every young school child at least one nutritious meal per day, she blamed the nationalists for her decision to nay say the proposal. A vote for free school meals would have been a vote for Scottish independence, she said.

Her argument was somewhat undercut by Better Together politicians in the Conservative and Lib Dem parties welcoming the initiative. Indeed, Willie Rennie was full of praise, pointing out that the policy “will actually help to change the life chances of young children, despite what the critics say”. Ouch!

Ms Dugdale first came to my attention when she was interviewed during the infamous “something for nothing” debate kicked off by her boss’s speech at the party conference. Dugdale enlightened dullard listeners that universal benefits help “the better off”. Yes, middle class pensioners thicken their wedges, thanks to the state pension. Yes, prosperous folk rejoice that Scottish universities don’t charge tuition fees.

And yes, the professional class no longer need to cough up prescription charges. It’s an outrage that highly paid workers who have paid into a welfare system receive something back! Allowing the children of high-earning taxpayers to eat at the nation’s expense is clearly a step too far for Dugdale. She should realise that without access to universal benefits, the middle class might question why it contributes so much to the government’s coffers.

Of course, there is another section of society that already receives a free meal – hospital patients. These freeloaders pig out on not one but three square meals every day. Thankfully, poverty-stricken patients in receipt of welfare payments have their largesse clawed back by the kindly Department for Work and Pensions but, amazingly, their rich bedfellows pay not a jot. Logically, Ms Dugdale, Johann Lamont and others in the party devoted to a means-testing dogma, must have plans to stop free meals for the well-heeled infirm.

Lamont’s mean-spiritedness towards free school meals makes Oliver’s workhouse boss resemble The Secret Millionaire. I, for one, don’t want any more of her pettiness.