“Damn it all, you can’t have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver” Bevan once remarked on the position of finding yourself leader of the Labour party (or not in his case). Quite. It’s a challenge to be a Labour leader in a time of recession and little money; “What good are Labour when the coffers are empty” screamed a piece last week in the Telegraph. We’ve learnt well the costs of economic incredibility and vaulting socialist ambition which o’er leaps itself and falls on the other. Gravitate towards the centre the political mathematics tell us – we must build a coalition of the interests of the middle class and the poor, is the theme of Ed Miliband’s leadership or to use the Blairism “stand with the many, not the few”. I don’t disagree, winning elections is important. Ifyou don’t win elections you win irrelevance, glamorous irrelevance to stand populist and indignant, and impotent. Less regulated markets, greater inequality, more poor people suffering – that is the result of Labour Opposition. All this is to say I understand the need for compromise and the electoral chalice of centrism.
It matters that we can have debates not just on policies but on principle – and it matters that a Leader of the Scottish Labour Party has ejected universalism in the first attempt in natural-allegorical history of a sheep to wear the wolf’s clothing. It is a disaster from every angle both in principle and electoral self interest. I have watched for the past week as the Leader of the Scottish Labour party has used arguments I’ve only heard from the likes of John Redwood MP. Now worry not, I don’t intend to smear Lamont by association – the electorate may though – so let’s look at precisely how “progressive” the scrapping of universal provision in public services actually is.
Lets start with the easy bit – Lamont’s headline is that she wants to end “something for nothing culture”. Now you might think it unfair of me to deride a sound bite as vacuous – that’s part of the point – but this, sadly for once, isn’t devoid of meaning. This branding simultaneously manages to evoke the idea that some entity is scrounging from the state and yet the policy targets those who contribute *most* to the state. Here she can only be doing one of two things; 1) saying that those who pay the most tax contribute “nothing” and yet take from the tax-pot illegitimately or 2) hoping that people will forget this fact and simply buy into a Daily Mail-esque narrative that someone somewhere is surely sponging and therefore general provision should be restricted. This kind of politics is not Labour politics.
Substantially, Lamont argued in her speech of September 25th that when the state pays the tuition fees of the son of a judge, it takes from the funds available for the daughter of a labourer. It is progressive to direct the money to those who need it most. Conversely, choosing to spend it subsidising those who can afford to pay for education is profligate, unnecessary and deprives the poor of tax revenue.
The problem with this argument is that it destroys the enduring long term political contract which ensures good welfare provision for the poor. First, the strength of the argument that the rich should pay for the poor is one residing on the basis of socio-political unity; that we share in the resources by virtue of being a member of society as a de facto right, making our entry into social life as equals.
We do not simply receive welfare, education or healthcare from the state because of our social failure. When we propagate the idea of social weakness as fomented by the view of welfare as charity (which is what Lamont seems to think it is) we cast the “rich” as the more powerful citizenry. In turn this provokes resentment; the” why should those that earn the most pay for those who do not work?” line plays with more resonance on voters who tend to be older, richer and more electorally powerful.
This begins to shift the debate in favour of policies which restrict govt pay in general – the argument “why should the poor pay for the education of the rich” is an argument which is easily transferable to “why should the poor pay for the health of the rich”; even the NHS rational begins to break down. To see this operate we only need to look at UK labour’s introduction of tuition fees capped at £3000. By the time the next govt takes office, fees are £9000 on the basis of the same argument; why should the rich pay for the few. This isn’t some slippery slope argument; this is a powerful political reality of the breakdown of universality.
Lamont has chosen to frame this argument in peculiarly Osbornian terms. Budgets are tight, cuts must be made, e.g. less available money for the quality of education at University, but particularly at the SNP’s savagely cut FE institutions. What a missed opportunity when we are facing a referendum on Independence and yet every party agrees that greater fiscal powers are needed for Holyrood. Time and again this is the proposal that gains overwhelming support in the polls. If we can’t afford to pay for colleges due to UK cuts and SNP council tax freezes, why not argue for more tax raising powers to reverse these FE cuts and in so doing allow Labour to attack Tory policy and seize the constitutional momentum from the SNP?
In choosing to fight the next Scottish election on means testing for care for the elderly, tuition fees, taking away the elderly’s free bus passes, less apprenticeships and abolishing the Labour policy of free prescriptions Lamont has disowned our record in devolution.
I lament less for Lamont, and more for Labour.