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Scottish Labour should back a universalism debate

It’s in Scottish Labour’s interests to back a parliamentary debate on universalism. We hope they do.

Late on yesterday the Foundation was approached by a couple of newspapers seeking comment on a story which suggests the Labour Party has sought to prevent a debate which had been scheduled to take place next week based on the Foundation’s report on the benefits of universal public services.

I want to take great care in responding to this – it is not really for the Foundation to get involved in inter-party disputes in the Scottish Parliament and the circumstances of this particular affair (as I understand them) are a little complicated. But it seems to me a matter of some importance.

What I understand has happened is that the Labour Party has highlighted a procedural error in the scheduling of a debate on the report which had just been announced for Thursday next week. No-one is disputing that there has indeed been a clerical error. The debate was to be based on a Motion by SNP MSP Clare Adamson. Procedurally, for the debate to go ahead it should have had the support of MSPs from three different parliamentary groups. It has SNP support, Green support and the support of independents Jean Urquhart and John Finnie. However, as Jean and John are now in one parliamentary grouping along with the Greens, that means the motion is supported only by two parliamentary groups and not the necessary three.

It was Labour which (correctly) drew this error to the attention of Parliamentary staff. However, as I understand it (I have not been able to check this against the Standing Orders of the Parliament in the timescale) Labour could have added its support to the debate and it could have gone ahead. However, that is not what has happened and it appears the debate will not now take place.

Given the tensions and hostilities in Scottish politics just now it is probably worth pointing out that the Foundation did not lobby for either the Motion or the debate. In fact, other than an email sending a summary of and link to the report to all MSPs we have had no contact with Clare or her office about the Motion or the debate prior to it appearing on the agenda of parliamentary business. I note this to make clear that this is in no way a ‘joint’ initiative with the Foundation and while it is clearly of interest for us to have our report debated in Parliament we have no vested interest beyond that.

So what is to be said about this issue? Above all we’d like to make the case to the Scottish Labour Party that we believe it is in its best interests to engage with the ideas in this report and openly to debate its contents. There are three straightforward reasons for this:

  • Firstly, it’s what the wider Labour movement in Scotland wants. While most of it has taken place below the media radar there has been a pretty significant backlash against some of the statements on universal services which have come from the Labour leadership. Many people know of hostile meetings which have taken place in which Party members, trade unionists and others that consider themselves very much part of the Labour movement have expressed serious reservations and no small amount of anger at what has come to be seen as the perceived Labour position. Put simply, the Labour Party in Scotland is not now in such a robust condition that it can afford to fragment its core support. I have spoken to people in the more senior levels of the movement and the hope is that when this is expanded into a proper debate about the nature and limits of public service Labour’s position will be much more nuanced than it has appeared so far. Well, there seems no benefit for Labour to delay that process. It is likely that the very people who are most angry within the Party will not respond well to this news; this is an excellent opportunity to address that.
  • Secondly, there is an important credibility issue here for Johann Lamont in these early days of her leadership. She has adopted a not-ineffective strategy of seeking to appear serious and pragmatic, not glib and grandstandy. So far she has gained a bit of credit for that stance. But it is hard to see how that cannot be seriously negatively affected by making a very public call for a debate and then seeking to close down the first opportunity to have that debate. The very real risk is that it looks, well, glib and grandstandy. As I know from long experience, writing a press release is easy; making it come true is much, much harder. If Labour’s line is that it is waiting for the outcome of its review, it shouldn’t have asked for a debate yet and it shouldn’t have come out all-guns-blazing with eye-catching initiatives leaving people in little doubt what the review is going to conclude. This is a chance to make clear that Labour is serious about exploring this issue.
  • Thirdly, it provides an excellent opportunity to put away the dog whistle. It is widely believed that this intervention into the debate on universalism is primarily a media-led strategy to take advantage of what is believed to be growing anger among the general public at welfare and benefits. The strategy, so it is argued, is to ride the wave of Daily Mail-style anger at ‘benefits’ but to give it a Scottish spin. So rather than exploiting anger at the poor (George Osborne-like) it is exploiting anger at the rich (‘why should millionaires get bus passes’ and so on). But it is still a dog whistle, and it is still using right-wing attacks on the welfare state as the starting-point for a Scottish Labour media strategy. The reason it is so very much in the interests of Labour to put this whistle away is that it is an ill-thought-through strategy. If the UK’s rising intolerance with the poor and people on benefits really does reach as far into Scotland as some think Labour strategists believe, you can’t tap into that intolerance by refocussing your attacks on universal services for which there is absolutely no evidence of rising discontent. Put simply, when the votes come, Labour does not want to be relying on public anger about services for which there is very little public anger. If this really is the tactic it is woefully mistaken and it is not one I would want to take into an election campaign. Labour, I’m sure, would deny that this policy is being led by a dog-whistle media strategy. This is a great opportunity for its leadership to put these allegations to rest.

Will it be an easy debate for Labour? Probably not. Again, in my view the rhetoric has got too far ahead of the policy work and some of the broad claims that have been made are going to be hard to sustain in the face of hard numbers. Put simply, the implication that small charges to university students, removing bus passes only from millionaires or tweaking prescription charges will either raise or save large amounts of money is wrong. If you want to save serious money you have to hammer the middle classes and working classes, right down to a pretty low threshold. There are also some very difficult questions to be answered about inefficiency, inequality and social fragmentation.

But choosing only debates you think you will win is unhealthy. It is how political parties become convinced in policies that have not been robustly tested through argument. It prevents you from developing your own thinking sufficiently. It encourages you to hide behind pre-prepared soundbites. It is comfortable in the short term but weakens you in the long term. Once more, in my opinion the SNP got it badly wrong over NATO, but it had the nerve to hold the debate and while the issue has had a very divisive effect right through the Party, it would have been much worse had the SNP leadership not had the nerve to stand up and fight for a policy it knew its members did not want.

Anyone who has been out and about in Scottish politics over the last few months knows that Labour is under fire from many quarters over its early interventions into the universalism debate. One way or another, Labour needs to demonstrate some courage under that fire. Taking shelter behind technicalities is not the way to do it.

Robin McAlpine