Ian Swanson: Can Labour afford to attack Scotland’s ‘free for all’?

Johann Lamont has called for an end to the 'something for nothing' culture
Johann Lamont has called for an end to the 'something for nothing' culture
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NINE months into her leadership of Scottish Labour, Johann Lamont has signalled the party’s biggest policy shift since devolution.

Her decision to call into question all the “freebies” which Scots currently enjoy – free bus travel for the elderly, free personal care, free prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze – has been described variously as brave, bold and mad.

These are policies which have become iconic for Scotland’s new democracy and are eyed enviously by voters south of the Border.

Ms Lamont argues that tough economic times mean reassessing what Scotland can realistically afford, working out how to deliver social justice with scarce resources and having a debate about priorities.

But signalling a departure from the free provision of key benefits is not only creating a dividing line between her party and the SNP, it is rowing back on policies, some of which were introduced by Labour and all of which Labour has supported. Perhaps even more dangerously for Labour, criticism of a culture “where everything is free” sounds pretty close to Tory attacks.

So how will Ms Lamont’s dramatic change of direction go down with her party and, more importantly, with the voters?

She had no discussion with UK leader Ed Miliband about the speech before she delivered it, but aides say he sent her a “well done” message afterwards.

Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale was one of the first Holyrood politicians to speak up in favour of the new approach.

She says it’s controversial but “incredibly brave”. “It’s not what you would expect from the opposition, but it’s the honest and decent thing to do. It’s up to us to go out and make the argument: is the way we are spending money just now really creating the fair society we want to live in?”

Ms Dugdale accepts it could be a “huge” task to convince people that free provision has to be reconsidered. But she adds: “I think a lot of Labour people will do it with gusto because it’s honest and brave.” Edinburgh Northern & Leith MSP Malcolm Chisholm hails Ms Lamont’s announcement as “ground-breaking” and insists free universal benefits can be questioned from the left as well as the right.

He says free personal care, free tuition fees, free prescriptions and free bus passes are all “good things”. But he adds: “Hard financial times are going to get even harder and so the choices will become harder. If you want to create a more equal society you have to be able to target the money where it is most needed.

“I would not make a religion of universalism or targeting. The welfare state has always been a combination.

“All policies have to take account of the financial environment in which we live.” However, not everyone in the party is enthusiastic about Ms Lamont’s new stance. Vince Mills of the Campaign for Socialism says means-testing carries not only the risk of stigma but also involves big costs.

He says: “People say there is less money around, but the rich have never been richer. The priority should be getting these people to pay their fair share for maintaining a decent society.”

Elections guru Professor John Curtice, who monitors public opinion constantly, says ending free provision is not necessarily a vote-loser.

The last time pollsters asked about free personal care, support was 55 per cent. On free prescription charges, the public is split roughly 50-50.

“Not making anyone pay tuition fees was not all that popular even back in 1999-2000 and when we last asked about it, support had gone down to 20 per cent.”

But attitudes also depend on how big the proposed charge is. “YouGov polling at last year’s Scottish election found only 44 per cent in favour of £9000, which is the charge in England, but 65 per cent in favour of £4000.”

The next Scottish Parliament elections are four years away – but by then, Holyrood should have new powers so the parties will have to tell voters what they plan to do about taxes, including the basic rate of income tax, as well as spending.

And in terms of the constitutional debate, Labour has yet to say whether it supports further tax powers – including perhaps full control of income tax – which would give Holyrood more choices to make, hard or otherwise.

What labour gave us for nothing

Donald Dewar

Headed the first Labour-Lib Dem coalition, which abolished up-front tuition fees. Their graduate endowment - paid after graduation - was later scrapped by the SNP, ending fees altogether.

Jack McConnell

Introduced the concessionary fares scheme to give elderly and disabled people free bus travel for local journeys in 2002, then for journeys across Scotland from 2006.

Henry McLeish

Introduced free personal care in Scotland despite the then Labour government at Westminster ruling out the policy for the rest of the UK and despite some reluctance among colleagues.

Iain Gray

Announced shortly before last year’s Holyrood elections that Labour would back a continued council tax freeze and oppose tuition fees. The party also voted to scrap prescription charges.