Robin McAlpine: Scottish Labour running scared

Labour's Johann Lamont: Hailed appointment.  Picture: Ian Rutherford
Labour's Johann Lamont: Hailed appointment. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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When Labour blocked the chance to discuss public services at Holyrood, they sold voters short, writes Robin McAlpine

IF THE warning lights on the dashboard of your car start flashing, the sensible response is to find out what’s wrong. The analogous standard political response is to cover them all up with tape so no-one can see them flashing.

No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the received wisdom; if I don’t look bad then that must mean I’m good. The perpetual hunt for “bear traps” into which the unwitting politician might step is a curse on modern policy.

Why? Because warning lights are there for a reason. Sometimes politicians get a hard time unfairly. But sometimes they are just wrong. If they expend their effort on covering up signs of error rather than fixing their errors, it is they who suffer. For example, had the SNP not been forced to face up to big flaws in its EU membership claims it would still be defending a clearly flawed stance.

The turn to avoid the warning signs has now passed to Scottish Labour. Last Thursday there would have been a Scottish Parliament debate on the Reid Foundation’s report The Case For Universalism, in which we set out the very good reasons why universal public services are an enormously effective way to manage society.

But when Labour, correctly, spotted a procedural error, it chose not to allow the debate to take place.

I can understand why. Warning lights have been going off all over the place since Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont made her two speeches on universal public services. It will be difficult for the party to go into the next election opposing policies that have enormous public support. More worryingly, the signs of deep unease within the grassroots of the party and the wider trade union movement are not hard to find. Many are in the Labour movement precisely because it is defined by its support for a universal welfare state. Concern and indeed some outright hostility are widespread.

But one of the biggest problems is that the policy line Labour has floated is untested – and has serious flaws. For example, it is all very well to say that a “modest contribution” to the cost of a university education is needed “to reinvest in excellence”. What is more of a problem is the numbers. The kind of small contribution suggested would generate no more than perhaps 1 or 2 per cent of the university sector’s turnover – in 15 years’ time.

Or what about bus passes for the elderly? “Millionaires shouldn’t get free bus passes” may be fine as a soundbite, but how much does anyone think will be saved by removing bus passes from millionaires? In reality, even to recover the cost of administering a means-tested bus pass, most people will have to start paying, not just the rich.

Or reintroducing prescription charges. Very roughly it costs society £45 million to provide everyone with free medicine. The cost to society of charging for medicine is more like £60m – the £45m the medicine costs and then the something like £15m it costs for someone to decide who gets it for free and who has to pay for it themselves.

So where does that £15m end up? Very possibly in the pocket of a “service company” like Secro or Atos Healthcare, which charge generously for carrying out the means test on our behalf. So those of you who grudge wealthy people getting free medicine, how do you feel about paying for the medicine yourself and then giving a multi-million pound bung to a rich multinational corporation for the pleasure? Thought not.

The big argument is that refocusing money to target the poor is needed to tackle poverty. The problem with this argument is that it has been tested repeatedly over the last 40 years and it doesn’t stand up. By far the best way to benefit the poor is not to target them but to draw them into services that target everybody but from which they benefit by far the most.

And who is going to justify the endless problems of means testing? As an example, there are currently two state pensions, one means-tested and one not. The level of fraud and error alone in the means-tested one is more than 40 times higher than in the universal one.

The reason bloggers and commentators sound so convincing when they conclude that rolling back universal public services is a “no-brainer” is because they don’t have to answer questions.

That’s why parliamentary debate should be so important. The universalism stance taken by Labour was not properly discussed within the parliamentary party, never mind at grassroots level. Putting forward your ideas for debate forces you, first, to have better arguments and secondly to revise them when you discover they’re not as watertight as you thought.

It’s a healthy process. Fighting only on ground you consider to be safe is not.

So Labour should welcome the debate, even if it proves uncomfortable. And of course Labour isn’t alone. Would Tory leader Ruth Davidson have said some of the things she said about Scotland being a “gangmaster state” of benefit spongers if she had to debate her flaky calculations, not just say it out loud and then go home for a cup of tea?

And how much stronger might the SNP be if it had to properly test its past-its-sell-by-date policy of a blanket corporation tax cut? Everyone – neoclassical economists included – knows this is a policy that looked sensible only at a time when letting banks go mad was also seen as sensible.

Ideas are like bricks fresh from the kiln; you don’t know how solid they are until you give them a decent whack. It’s time politicians gained the courage to debate arguments they fear they might lose. They will be the winners in the long term if they do.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation