Interview:Johann Lamont on why politics is no game

Johann Lamont still trails behind Alex Salmond in personal popularity, and her party is behind the SNP in the polls. Picture: Simon Murphy
Johann Lamont still trails behind Alex Salmond in personal popularity, and her party is behind the SNP in the polls. Picture: Simon Murphy
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Whether it’s ‘bribes’ from the SNP, or the soap opera of Labour spin, Johann Lamont says the political circus is getting in the way of tackling Scotland’s real problems

JOHANN Lamont doesn’t really think much about Damian McBride. The ex-Labour spin doctor’s memoirs detailing the brutal attack-dog techniques used during the Blair-Brown wars has ensured that this week’s party conference has become a re-run of an old and nasty soap ­opera. For the Scottish party leader, it commits the ultimate offence. “It feels to me that the real danger is we end up thinking politics is a game. He [McBride] thinks it is a game. All I can say is that it bears no resemblance to my office and I think it would be really unfortunate if this were to undermine the achievements of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,” she says.

For Lamont, who addresses party members in Brighton today, the criticism of politics played out as a sport has become a regular theme. “There is a circus around politics,” she said ­dismissively. “But if you think it is a game, then you forget what the purpose of politics actually is”.

Today, it is McBride who is in Lamont’s firing line. Usually, of course, she is aiming at Alex Salmond. And, last week, after Salmond marked one year to go until the referendum with a speech to MSPs on Scotland’s future, Lamont let rip. There wasn’t much of a script, say her advisers. But, by common consent, she made her most powerful speech since taking over the leadership, savaging the SNP government for “infantilising” the electorate with “bribes”, and neglecting the growing problems of public hardship and an ageing population in favour of constitutional fisticuffs. It was passionate stuff, but in demanding honesty in confronting these monumental challenges for public figures, she has set herself a high bar. What will Labour do?

Two days on from her performance, she comes to praise the First Minister, or at least one of his advisers. Last week, Alex Bell, the First Minister’s former policy chief, wrote a significant article in the Guardian bemoaning the Scottish Government’s lack of the “confidence” needed to confront the key challenges faced not just by Scotland, but by other developed nations. “How do we rebuild society in the light of the financial crash, a crisis in democracy and an onslaught on the welfare state – and do so in a sustainable fashion?” he asked.

It was music to Lamont’s ears. “Alex Bell’s piece was a breath of fresh air,” she says. “To know that, also in the Scottish Government, people are thinking of these things too.” Bell, however, has quit the government (speaking on Newsnight Scotland last week, he declared that, instead of his chosen path, the way the SNP Government has “chosen to go is slightly more in tune with modern campaigning, which is simple messages, something straightforward to remember and something you’ll recall at the ballot box.”). And so – a year on from a speech in which Lamont called time on a painless era of free spending in Scotland – the frustration with The Game goes on.

“His [Bell’s] solution was that the issues we face could be addressed best in a smaller state,” she says. “I don’t agree with that. But the acknowledgement that there is a problem in the first place is where I want to get to.” Her beef is with an SNP Government which, she says, claims Scotland can afford a wrap-around system of “freebies” with little in the way of downside, and now promises more and better if people vote Yes next year. Local authorities and others are now at “breaking point”, she says – the free bus passes may be there, but funding cuts mean the buses aren’t running in the evenings, she notes.

“It is not possible to spend on one thing and then not have consequences on something else. You can’t get something for nothing. The question is who pays and how do we share that?” She says she finds it “unbelievably dispiriting” that, after arguing for a debate on what priorities to take, she was accused of a “lurch to the right”. “I can argue with the Tories, but to say that we are not even going to have a debate at all, and by the way, you are a Tory for saying that, it’s just dispiriting.” The SNP, she says, are “pushing this idea of retail politics, as if people can’t figure these things out”. She adds: “They deliberately misrepresented what we want to do. If you don’t accept there is a problem then it is hard to debate things.”

As for Holyrood, she declares: “I think the atmosphere is horrible.” It is “not what we imagined the Scottish Parliament was created for”.

“Nobody in there is stupid. Everybody knows there is a problem about [funding of services] in a context where people don’t want taxes raised. But we can’t deal with it because we have to get past the referendum next year.”

The Labour solution, however, is still far from clear. Isn’t the implication of her call to confront the funding problem, as a Labour party socialist, a plea to raise taxes, rather that cut? (And Holyrood will soon, Yes or No, get power over plenty more tax powers.) “I guess it feels to me that the political argument that has been lost in my lifetime is taxation. How do you engage in that debate when people don’t trust politicians at all? It is almost impossible to start a conversation about taxation,” she says.

Lamont thinks the cross-party parliamentary committees at Holyrood could be the catalyst for some solution that crosses political divides. And she hints that she could back new forms of taxation for local government. “There is some interesting work being done on land value taxation. How can you get buy-in for that? People need to know it is fair and that money will get spent on the things they care about. For example, when Glasgow invested in its primary school estate, it transformed the school estate. I think that is what people are looking for.”

Lamont also has to sign off a report prior to the referendum on the party’s next plans for devolution. An interim report earlier this year went further than many thought, proposing that MSPs take complete control of income tax from MPs. She must now try to deal with devo-sceptics in the party who see such efforts as “appeasement” to the SNP.

In the meantime, the focus has to stay on winning the referendum. She will tell Labour’s UK conference today that “the referendum is not won” and that the UK “will change as a whole” if Scotland decides to leave it. Beyond the referendum, however, is the challenge she faces to somehow beat the SNP. Mid-term, the SNP is still in the lead, by 41 per cent to Labour’s 37 per cent. And while a poll on Thursday found that Lamont had a positive rating of +6 per cent, she remains behind Salmond (+8 per cent) and Holyrood’s most popular politician, Nicola Sturgeon (+21 per cent) when it comes to personal rankings. However, she believes that the referendum campaign will damage the SNP’s electoral credibility. “I do think their commitment to independence is putting their own interests ahead of Scotland,” she says.

Even if they lose the referendum next year, however, SNP figures remain supremely confident of winning another term come what may. But last week showed clearly that Labour has the bit firmly between its teeth.