The Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont last night delivered a speech that has put her on the front pages of every newspaper and set the Twitterati alight, itself an achievement for a leader who, one year in, has no discernible policies. She started by saying we ‘it was time to end a “something for nothing” culture.’ Everyone assumed she would be talking about the culture of corporate greed, fat cats and tax evasion that’s surrounds us. Lamont has after all built her reputation as the no-nonsense Old Labour straight-talker protecting the core vote. She has set herself as the Honest Jo against Sly Salmond. But it wasn’t the wealthy she had in mind but the concept of universal benefits which sees people receiving tuition fees and prescriptions for free.
It’s a massive shift for Scottish Labour. A huge gamble. Possibly a death-spasm for the party. The likelihood of quite a few major, and thousands of minor defections over this is high indeed. The message to the residual core voter seems to be: “Vote Labour and lose your bus pass. Vote Labour and lose your education. Vote Labour to raise council tax.”
You are left scratching your head and wondering who sanctioned this speech? Lamont’s sad disaffected utterances represent a tragic lowering of the bar for the once proud Labour tradition. Is it really too much to ask to live in a society where we have free prescriptions and our elderly relatives don’t spend five hours on a hospital trolly? Do we really consider it impossible for us to have free university education and have high educational standards and access to further learning? Is this ‘old’ Labour clientelism gone mad? Has some focus-group spat out this policy detritus?
It’s the end of a bad week for Labour’s No campaign. Ian Duncan Smith came North to preach that the unemployed should work for nothing, and what Martin Sime of SCVO called ‘the biggest assault on the poorest people in living memory ‘ and was utterly demolished. Then Labour lost their general secretary Colin Smyth in an internal feud described by Labour loyalist Michael Kelly described as ‘savage’. The same writer informed us with some glee (and sense of imminent revival) that “Constituency Labour parties are being rejigged to reflect Holyrood, rather than Westminster.” 13 years in to devolution you might have not thought that would be a breakthrough strategy.
By mid-week a former friend of Donald Dewar, the veteran commentator Ruth Wishart came out in support of the Yes campaign on the eve of a huge independence rally in the capital. Wishart explained: “The over-riding reason why I will come out loud and proud today is because I truly believe this to be a historic opportunity to shape the kind of nation we want our children and grandchildren to inherit and grow up in. The de facto privatisation of the English health system, the willful fragmentation of their education sector, and, most damaging of all, the imposition of appalling tax and benefit “reforms” which will hit the most vulnerable while protecting the wealthy are all anathema to a large majority of Scots of all political persuasions.” Her speech at the rally was widely thought to be the best. Senior Labour figures are said to be appalled.
Sadly at the end of the week, the question: “What are Scottish Labour for?” remains unanswered. Trident and the Union is about the closest you could get. They’re certainly against Alex Salmond and universal benefits but have no clear alternative policies to speak of.
Commenting on Johann Lamont’s volte face The Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie said: “If policy reform means ending the free education Johann Lamont’s generation enjoyed, or charging patients for NHS services, or continuing to court the support of big business donors for middle-of-the-road policies, Labour are free to continue their decline.” He continued: “They will leave the debate about Scotland’s future to those who already have a sense of direction, and who see 2014 as a positive opportunity to take Scotland forward.”
This isn’t off the rails rambling like Wendy’s ‘bring it on’ though. This is a carefully scripted note left on the table. This is an effort to demonstrate ‘maturity’ and ‘credibility’ through loud expressions of pragmatism, but it’s vastly undermined by her inability to say anything – at all – in its place. This might actually work if you were a consummate communicator or a charismatic leader. It might work if Scottish Labour were a hive of inspiring policy creativity. Lamont and Labour are none of these things. Yes Pat Kane said: “I think indicative of something dying off, and something new being born, in terms of the political gravity in Scotland.”
You are left with the realisation that Lamont and her advisors really think people will be motivated to vote to remove free bus travel for OAP’s. In Cameron’s austerity Britain that appears to be the most pressing issue for the Labour Party in Scotland. As Robin McAlpine sugests: “This is a sharp turn to the right, an outright rejection of the universal welfare state and a relaunch of the doctrines of Blairism.”