If you tasked me with finding fiscal realism amongst Europe’s centre-left parties, the last place I would have begun my search was in Scottish Labour. I may not even have bothered to take a look. And how wrong I would have been. This week, Johann Lamont, Labour’s leader north of the border gave a mature, strategic, and game-changing speech in which she called for a new fiscal realism. All credit to her: bold and right.
Up until now it is the SNP who have looked more willing to engage with Scotland’s strategic challenges. In one simple move, Lamont has shown herself able to grasp hold of the big issues we all face and come up with some very sensible challenges to the reality-shy status quo. The key moment of the speech was when she stepped away from a damaging political consensus that pretends there is no cost to free services that we pay for elsewhere in the UK:
“What I am calling time on today is the dishonest auction on what we can do. I am withdrawing from the game, where politicians look not at needs but at slogans and ask not how to improve the lot of the Scottish people but what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free.”
“But I ask them to look at how they are paying for those free things. What price your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E, or the life-saving drug they need isn’t available at all?
What price free tuition fees when your neighbour can’t get a place at college, or when university standards are now lower than when they went to uni?
What price the council tax freeze, when your parents care is cut, and your child’s teachers cannot give them the materials they need because there is a ban on something as simple as photocopying.”
She laid out the context – fiscal challenge, demographic change and economic uncertainty. Lamont is a leader worth listening to. It appears that ‘In the black Labour’ may be read north of the border as a number of tweeters commented in the immediate aftermath of the speech (including an RTed tweet by Paul Martin MSP).
‘In the Black Labour’ is not going away. That’s not because its authors are influential or because it’s particularly widely read (in fact, most of the comments on it demonstrate that reading a report does not precede critique). It’s because it adopts the same approach as Lamont. Reality is reality after all now lets deal with it. Lamont even echoes that paper’s argument for an ‘enterprise rather than a welfare state’ here:
“Spending on concessionary fares increased by 19% over the last four years, while spending on enterprise and tourism has fallen dramatically by 33%.”
Today’s Guardian interview with Ed Balls MP commits the party – rightly – to the ‘zero-based’ budget idea given legs by Stella Creasy MP over the Summer. That idea was in the In the Black Labour paper. Guido Fawkes claims it as an Adam Smith Institute idea but that’s just rubbish, The first time I came across the idea, personally, was in Barack Obama’s platform in 2008. It is a sensible spring-cleaning exercise that all Governments should do every few years.
The one weakness of the Lamont speech is that it still presents the choices as spending on one thing versus spending on another. It’s more challenging than that unfortunately. George Osborne’s disastrous stewardship of the economy means that the choices will still be, in many cases, between spending, increasing tax and reducing the deficit. At some point, this deficit reduction imperative will be the next big political reality Labour has to face beyond lip-service – and yes, how to best generate growth is absolutely part of that discussion. It will not be able to get through an election north of border or across the nation without a seriously credible answer to that challenge. And this will be with us for the rest of this decade.
Slowly but surely the real choices that we will face as a movement and as a nation are coming into view. It was inevitable. Balls also emphasises ‘long-term plan on banking, vocational education and industrial strategy’ today. This may be where Labour is able to make the biggest interventions early on without jeopardising a deficit reduction strategy in the medium-term. In fact, such investments are intrinsic to elimination of the structural current deficit. All debt is not the same: money I borrow to fuel a shopping spree is not the same as money I borrow to raise my levels of skills and education.
For now though, congratulations to Johann Lamont for grappling with these issues. Showing Scottish Labour to be grown-up and long-term in its view is ultimately a better argument against independence than bickering with the SNP in every waking hour. I’ll keep a keener eye on Labour politics north of the border from now on – I hope you will too.
Anthony Painter was one of the authors of ‘In the Black Labour’. He speaks for himself alone here – Graeme Cooke, Hopi Sen and Adam Lent are not implicated in any way!