“Scotland cannot be the only ‘something for nothing’ country in the world.”
– Johann  Lamont

The likelihood is that tomorrow or the next day a major announcement will be made about the referendum. It’s going to green-light votes for 16 year olds – a watershed in democracy strangely ignored or belittled by many – and a single question (‘the SNP has agreed to drop its call for an additional question on the ballot paper’ – stop sniggering at the back).

It’s in this context that the speech on universal targets from Labour’s luckless leader has arrived. It’s a game changer and promises to re-configure the referendum debate. The moment is replete with irony and pathos – Labour’s left delivering the final blow to their credibility on the left, and a female leader making the move. Just yesterday Elaine C Smith said: ‘In any country in the world, the key to real change always lies with the women of that country.’ Oh Johann. What have you done?

Scottish Labour’s policy departure announced this week has thrown up a unique consensus of condemnation across the media and the political landscape. Richard Seymour, who blogs at Lenin’s Tomb, wrote simply on the Guardian (‘Scottish Labour is blinded by hostility to the SNP‘) “Why is the Scottish Labour leadership so abysmal?” and received over 1000 comments.

Right across the media voices sprang up, angry, incredulous, dumbfounded, confused. Joyce McMillan wrote:

“It’s profoundly sad to note, this week, the Scottish Labour leader’s monumentally ill-judged decision to join in this oppressive chorus of boss-class miserabilism, orchestrated by people who care nothing for the lives of ordinary citizens, in Scotland or elsewhere.”

Only Gerry Hassan, Alex Massie and Margaret Curran disagreed that this was a train-wreck. Even Kevin McKenna the executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail wrote a devastating piece accusing them of cowardice arguing: “The most disturbing aspect of this shift in Scottish Labour thinking is that it acquiesces lazily to the notion that only cuts to public services can help us navigate our way through a double-dip recession. This simply highlights the utter poverty of imagination and intellect that characterises Labour’s approach to curing the ills of Scottish society since the war.”

The Lion Rampant Is No Substitute for Having a  Job

Where does this leave Scottish Labour and their leader? Iain Bell was damning: “Historians can check the dates. For now, I’ll give you this: Scottish Labour died yesterday.” Iain Macwhirter shared the worry, writing: “There has been a whiff of decay around Scottish Labour for some years, but I’m beginning to think it has finally popped its clogs.” Will there be, as many are now predicting, mass defections or a split? I doubt it.

There’s not a coherent left party to go to. Tribalism will prevent defections straight to the SNP. What we will see is a significant desertion and undermining of Labour, who, we’re constantly being told are leading the NO campaign. Good people in Scottish Labour won’t stomach this.

This week should have been a great fillip for Labour. Media focus is just about the only tangible that comes out of party conferences now. But with their adenoidal leader running into cognitive dissonance about how a party of business can continue to be supported by unions – they continue to falter.

There’s a leadership problem. Labour are hampered by more than policies that make no sense. Ed Miliband is odd. He sounds like he’s ill. A cheeky poll this week showed people – Labour people – believe him to be weak and indecisive and would prefer his brother.

£40 billion is due to be stripped from the Scottish budget by 2025. That’s a reality. As protest at austerity measures sweeps through Europe with massive demos (largely unreported) in Lisbon, Paris, Madrid we need to have serious and deep conversations about how to deal with our severely destablised economy. Scotland is not immune to this. We need to think about how we challenge the politics that have created a society disfigured by inequality.

Lamont’s direction does none of this. All it does is undermine some of the key achievements of devolution. None of this is popular, and given that politicians are routinely portayed  as vote-chasing opportunists you’re left asking, why? This is fag-end Blairism. Richard Seymour explains:

“When in office, it (Labour) consistently attacked and undercut its voting base. Recall that Blair insisted on standing in 2001 on the most unpopular of Labour policies, the PFI. This was a huge middle finger to the core vote. Turnout was vastly down, three million Labour voters were lost. The only thing that stopped it being a crushing defeat rather than a ‘landslide’ victory was the utter pathetic weakness of the Tories. Or look at what they did to themselves in London, with Ken Livingstone, or again in the East End with Lutfur Rahman. Look at the 10p tax debacle, implemented right on the cusp of a global meltdown. There are numerous examples. Since the election they just keep doing it. Recall Ed Balls’ statement that he wouldn’t reverse Tory spending cuts. The thing is, this isn’t simply bad leadership or stupidity. It is structural; it is how the Labour leadership thinks you have to do politics since the Thatcher era.”

Being brave is the motif carried over from New Labour. It comes from hating the party you are part of and having inculcated wholesale the Thatcher vision of the world in which collectivism is a bad and ‘tough decisions’ equal good politics. It’s a form of madness but it does mean that Lamont – or whoever designed this – has successfully re-framed the referendum debate.