Johann’s Toll Road to Damascus

26 09 2012

If nothing else, Johann Lamont’s speech on Tuesday at least lit up my Twitter feed.  No slow news day there.  At least a few reported resignations from the Labour party, including Owen Jones’ parents, and some supportive words from Murdo Fraser.  All in a day’s work for the woman we were told last year was the most left-wing candidate for Scottish Labour leader.  Seriously, it’s been a strange couple of years.  Boiling it down, Lamont was repudiating the legacy of Beveridge & Bevan, and embracing the metrics of Mandelson & Blair.

The original Beveridge, summed up his Report and its attitude to Social Security as follows:

19. The main provisions of the plan may be summarised as follows:

(i) The plan covers all citizens without upper income limit, but. has regard to their different ways of life; it is a plan all-embracing in scope of persons and of needs, but is classified in application.

Johann, when questioned by John MacKay on Scotland Tonight, used the other Beveridge Report as a foundation of her retorts.  Here’s his inspirational words:

5.9  Limiting or targeting free entitlement, tightening of eligibility criteria,
introducing or increasing charges (or reducing subsidies) and introducing means testing all appear to have the potential to reduce public costs.  The choice of these or any other similar options should be based on the relative importance of activities and robust evidence-based assessments of the effectiveness of services.

I shed a tear borne of sheer awe at the poetry inherent in that paragraph, really I did.

So the publicly-declared basis for the Lamont Smash & Grab is a reintroduction of the means-test.  Good luck with that.  You’ll still find plenty of folk alive who remember the indignity of having their homes invaded by an inspector looking for evidence of wealth before awarding assistance.  The procedures may not be as invasive today, but the stigma remains, thus the disgrace of £19 billion of benefits remaining unclaimed last year.

(Incidentally, I share Lamont’s implied professed belief in the idea of a more progressive taxation system being introduced in order to ensure a greater level of social provision across society.  But simplifying that to “Wur gonnae have tae stick taxes on the rich up or you’ll never see the inside of a bus again”§ is the stuff of conversations held under the influence of too many pints of Cart Noir (A steal at £1.99 or less in Wetherspoons the now).  Any argument about fairer taxation has to include VAT and thresholds, and that is simply not on the agenda in Scotland this side of a Yes vote in 2014.)

But all this is irrelevant as far as the underlying reason for Labour’s volte-face.  Coming out with such electorally suicidal statements makes absolutely no sense if you’re in opposition – in an ordinary election cycle anyway.  The referendum in 2014 means we will have the most extra-ordinary election cycle in modern times.  Lamont’s Toll Road to Damascus conversion only makes sense if seen in that context.

I scratched my head most of the day trying to get a handle on the longer-term strategy Labour hope to hang on this (thus I can also indirectly blame Lamont for my increasing bald patch).  I figure it goes something like this: Use the next 2 years to warn of the dire consequences of universality without a corresponding increase in taxation – mainly on the well-off.  Put off any questions on the detail until after the referendum, when the commission is due to report.  Try and put the fear of god into those disproportionately reliant on universal services – the sick, the poor, and the old (see footnote below for the recent espousing of this from Labour).  When the SNP respond by saying “That’s something we can only change properly with independence/full fiscal autonomy/DevoMax, and anyway it’ll be up to whatever mandate an independent government receives in 2016”, Lamont and gang swing back with an attack on Salmond for being pals with billionaire galactic warlords or some such.  You know the drill.  Vote No and we’ll definitely give you something more progressive, cause Ed told us he absolutely would.

I don’t know if that’s right.  The advanced Kremlinology needed to look inside the Scottish Labour strategy mindset is beyond simple-minded dafties like me.  But if it’s true, it’s evidence of Labour being prepared to shove themselves under a bus for Union.  Because the risk of it backfiring quite spectacularly in the event of a Yes vote is substantial in the extreme.  Suppose the above tactics fail to inspire the fear and loathing of the SNP (and thus the Yes campaign) as desired.  Suppose the Yes camp gain a majority vote, and Scotland begins negotiations for full self-government.  Labour and Lamont will just have spent the last 2 years campaigning on a platform of cuts to universality, as an integral part of a campaign to stop the constitutional changes that would ultimately address the things they’ve been banging on about.

It’s a high-risk game for Labour.  If a Yes vote comes about, their options seem to be (a) repudiate the previous 2 years’ policies and revert to universalism under the guise of their commission finally reporting and coming up with the answers they need, or (b) carry on proposing the mass extension of means-testing with all the implications for public popularity implied.  In a dynamic, party realigning, post-independence world, the scope for a Left party to develop and knock a demoralised Labour machine into the middy could be sizable.  But such is the worry of the anti-self-government camp of a Yes vote, even at this early stage in the referendum campaign, that they’re prepared to take that risk to save Scotland from ourselves.

§ Incidentally, as someone who over recent years has chapped numerous doors behind which lived someone who had recently been told by Labour activists that the SNP were threatening to scrap the over-60s bus pass, and the “SNP Bus Cuts” guff at the council elections, and had to spend time reassuring them this wasn’t the case, you’ll forgive me for indulging in some schadenfreude at the expense of Lamont et al as they very publicly proposed to scrap not just the bus pass, but a whole range of services vital to pensioners.

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