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Now Scottish Labour has to decide if it has changed

Nostalgic for the tuition fees debate? Thought not. So why is Labour straying back into its old hunting ground of bashing universal provision? The Party really needs to think about whether it has changed.

What will guide Scottish Labour’s rediscovery of itself under Johann Lamont? This is the subject of some commentator speculation in the media today, and the issue which seems to be at the heart of the issue is (yet again) university tuition fees. This stems from the weekend comments from Lamont that it might be time to ‘look again’ at the cost of providing free university education in Scotland. It also resonates with an Ed Milliband compromise move which would limit the size of the fee in England but (as far as I can see) would maintain the competitive market-priced element of the system. There are three possibilities this suggests and a fourth it doesn’t. Suffice to say that it is the fourth which might offer Scottish Labour some salvation.

The first interpretation of Lamont’s position is the least promising. It has been the defining ‘get out of jail’ mantra of New Labour that shared social provision is somehow ‘rightwing’ but means testing and targeting is somehow ‘left-wing’. That the Labour movement was founded on the opposite assumption was the real manner in which Blair corrupted the purpose of the Labour movement. This movement saw the picking of ‘a few good causes’ among the poor and dispossessed and giving the sheen of social justice through selective application of charity (state or private philanthropic) as wrong in principle. From the cradle to the grave we all deserve the life chances. Not a subset however defined, not no ‘ghetto community’ for whom the rules and norms of society are different. Rather a universal, shared social contract. But through sophistry and distortion, Blair reversed this. He created an imaginary world in which every policy connection between the poor and the middle classes was a betrayal of the poor. How dare wealthy families get the same free healthcare as the poor! How ridiculous that we waste free education on those of average income! The post-war welfare contract was broken. Different parts of society were set against each other to the purpose of breaking apart the system of universal provision. And then, once society was divided, most of the real policy gains went to anyone apart from the poor. If Lamont is to slip this cloak on as if Blair was never found out, Labour has learned nothing from the SNP’s victories built on the promise of universal social contracts.

The second interpretation is not better. This one suggests that Lamont is looking out to a post-referendum world in which she hopes once more Labour will be restored to power in London and Edinburgh in a United Kingdom. This will be smoother for all concerned if Labour can harmonise its policies on either side of the border. This interpretation suggests that some ‘undifferentiating’ of UK and Scottish Labour will help to create National Hegemony once again. But for Scotland is rests on an assumption of a genuine shift to the left in London Labour. Certainly the Labour Left wants to see evidence of this shift but so far it is much more rhetoric than reality. A unification strategy would work only as much as London is willing to move towards a more socially-progressive Scottish model. And that is in the hands of Milliband and Balls.

The third interpretation is not really particularly encouraging either. There is no doubt that Lamont has already proved to be a more effective opponent of Salmond than any he has faced since entering government. But (and there is a slight irony in this) the manner in which she has put pressure on Salmond is precisely the aspect of Salmond’s own performance that Labour has most criticised – personality-based grandstanding. Nothing wrong with this – Salmond has auditioned for the role of patriarchal father of the nation on the basis of a calm and steady certainty of himself as a not-too-specific interpreter of ‘everyone’ while Lamont is rehearsing for the firm, not easily duped and generally sceptical matriarchal role, quick to point out the pomposity of her opponent. Looking for much real substantive difference is much harder. In fact, it is Lamont’s performance and not her position which is working for her. It would be easy for her to adopt this persona and add to it the ‘he’s giving rich people cheap education while the poor are starving’ line. But if that’s all it is, cheap rhetorical tricks, where does it take anyone?

So if New Labour, political union in the UK and grandstanding are unpromising starting points, a real visionary shift in what Labour is really trying to do in Scotland could work. If someone could explain clearly what Labour would do which was different from the SNP, it might well start to win back some of the sceptical voters it has lost. But what is that so far? All that seems to come across is that Labour wouldn’t ‘waste time’ on the constitution but would instead ‘jobs’. And yes, the verb was intentionally missing from that last sentence because, for all its improved performance, Labour still seems to be intent on following the Iain Gray strategy of simply saying the word ‘jobs’ many times over in the hope that we will read into this whatever we want. And yet for the life of me I can’t see any difference between the SNP and the Labour strategy on jobs – or for that matter the CBI strategy. Make life easier for business, let people be grateful for any job they get however poorly paid or insecure, and then cheer at the next round of unemployment statistics. The SNP is weak here, weak on what is its vision for a post-financial crisis economy. But at least it has ‘independence’ as something realistic it can say (realistic in the sense that it at least might work). What has Labour to say? How many times can one throw about the word ‘apprenticeships’ and expect to be taken seriously?

It all comes back to the same problem as every political problem in Scotland – we have two political parties in the space where we should have three and they are all mixed up on completely the wrong basis. From the SNP and the Labour Party there is the realistic basis of three political parties – a centrist social democratic party, a left-of-centre labour party and a left wing socialist party. As in most of the rest of Europe. Instead the parties contain right-wingers sitting next to socialists with only the gravity of the constitutional question (and mutual hatred) holding them together. It just won’t do in the long term.

But right now, it just means that Labour has to decide whether it is still Mandleson at heart or whether it is a workers’ party. A charge back to the old safety ground of bashing universal provision for cheap points doesn’t seem to be the sensible direction.

Robin McAlpine