Johann Lamont certainly caused a major Twitterstorm in the Labour Twitterverse last night. Her speech, calling for an end to a “something for nothing” culture provoked predictable hostility and equally as passionate support. Let’s start with what Lamont wasn’t doing. She wasn’t starting an open-ended debate. She certainly wants to see both free university tuition fees and free prescriptions ended, at the least. Witness this statement:
I know that there are families, working hard, on average or above-average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies like free 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?
The questions are emotionally loaded, rhetorical, and designed to lead the listener one way and they are prefaced by an appeal, an appeal to what she regards as her target audience to listen and consider the following questions. Anyone who cannot see that this is what Lamont wants is being willfully naive. The most objectionable aspect of her entire speech is actually the emotional blackmail and the browbeating. Who could possibly want an elderly relative to spend five hours in A & E on a trolley? Sadly, this morally repugnant approach has been on show before. Ed Balls pioneered it with his ‘pay-freeze for jobs’ line which he has plied us with so many times it is becoming distinctly out of fashion. It is the shape of things to come, we can expect alot more of this from a Labour leadership still wedded to austerity.
It is however, deeply blinkered and counterproductive. Lamont wants to end free fees, oblivious to the huge economic benefit it is to Scotland’s economy. Oblivious to how much it means to families of all shades that their aspirations are not taxed through the nose. Equally, she is oblivious to the benefits to the health of a nation (and therefore the benefits to the economic health) of free prescription charges. She is equally politically oblivious and has gifted both the SNP and Independence Yes campaign a massive shot in the arm so her opportunism will turn out to be as fruitless as it is souless.
The self-defeating logic of the capitulation to austerity all in one glorious display of economic ignorance. It gets worse for Labour. If it persists in pursuing the austerity agenda, even mildly, even in prettier language it’s reforms will be rendered pretty pointless and totally impotent. Furthermore, it makes an absolute mockery of our narrative criticising the governments economic program. ‘Predistribution’, even much-hyped, ‘soak-the-rich’ tax rises wont make any impression on the deficit while the state continues to bleed demand out of the economy by pursuing austerity. A clear, unequivocal, statement of the opposition to austerity is not just a matter of principle, it is a lynchpin of Labour making a success of Britain’s economy. This is the reality that Labourite ‘wets’ on the austerity issue dont want to address. It’s an issue the left now needs to address by constructing a blueprint an entire alternative economic strategy and fighting for that programme within Labour’s ranks. This is a matter of urgency both from the perspective of the Party and the country, it is a challenge opponents of austerity can no longer, we certainly cannot rely on our current leadership to free Britain from the shackles of austerity.