Scottish Labour's support for cuts plays into the SNP's hands

Johann Lamont's echo of Conservative rhetoric - "something for nothing" - was a disastrous way to begin the debate.

At the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011, Labour pledged not to reverse popular SNP policies such as free university education, free NHS prescriptions and the council tax freeze. But in a speech in Edinburgh yesterday, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont signalled a change of direction, declaring that Scotland could not be "the only something for nothing country in the world" and calling into question the future of those benefits. She said:

I know that there are families, working hard, on above average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies likefree prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze.

I know where they are coming from.

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.

With growth likely to remain anaemic or non-existent, few will dispute that there is a reasonable debate to be had about the services the state should provide and how they should be paid for. But with her provocative support for cuts, Lamont has fallen into a giant SNP elephant trap.

The speech itself was considerably more nuanced than most of the headlines suggest, but her echo of Conservative rhetoric - "something for nothing" - has allowed Alex Salmond's party to present itself as the defender of the poor against a Labour Party dedicated to savage cuts. Rather than implying that cuts were inevitable, Lamont should have presented voters with a choice: higher taxes or lower spending? In fact, she did just that, stating "if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options." But the provocative language elsewhere in the speech meant any nuance was lost.

In challenging the concept of universal benefits, Lamont has underestimated the strong body of popular support that exists for them. "What is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefitting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze?,"  she declared. But universal public services, to which all contribute and from which all benefit, are the essence of social democracy. Once this principle is abandoned, greater cuts will inevitably follow as the rich, no longer receiving, have less incentive to give (you could call it "nothing for something"). For this reason, as Richard Titmuss sagely observed, "services for the poor will always be poor services". If Lamont is not to alienate many of her party's natural supporters, she should reassure them that she still recognises as much.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said that Scotland could not be "the only something for nothing country in the world". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage