By Bob Duncan
There has been yet more embarrassment for the Scottish Labour party as Johann Lamont’s attack on universal benefits continues to unravel.
Further pressure was heaped on the Scottish Labour leader after STUC Deputy General Secretary Dave Moxham said on national radio that Johann Lamont’s proposal to reintroduce means testing for universal benefits “came as something of a surprise, to put it mildly” referring to it as an “extreme position.”
Mr Moxham also resolutely defended the principle of universal benefits, which he said the STUC supported “almost per se,” and noted that “I haven’t heard a clear argument apart from affordability, and there has not been any principled argument, or policy argument, as to why they are bad things.”
“It’s obviously my hope, you know, and possibly my expectation that the kind of, extreme position that seems to have been presented this week in which all of these universal benefits are potentially at threat will have been tempered somewhat,” he added.
Mr Moxham’s comments echo sentiments expressed by a number of other organisations including NUS Scotland, Age Scotland and the Scottish Police Federation after the Scottish Labour party announced it was to set up a working group tasked with deciding where cuts should fall within Scotland’s universal benefits system.
According to the leader of Labour in Scotland, the universality of the benefits is unsustainable and her group, labelled a ‘cuts commission’ by the SNP, will be looking at ways to implement cutbacks.
SNP MSP Mark McDonald, who took part in the STUC event yesterday with Mr Moxham entitled “A Just Scotland”, said:
“It’s no wonder that Labour supporters have been so horrified by Johann Lamont’s Cuts Commission. Dave Moxham is quite right to warn against the extreme position taken by Johann Lamont this week.
“In a move which has been described as ‘positively Blairite’, Ms Lamont has completely abandoned Labour’s core values and is now looking for ways to implement Tory cuts.
“People in Scotland overwhelmingly back these universal benefits – they define the kind of society in which we want to live. If Johann Lamont won’t listen to people like the STUC, then I really don’t know who she will listen to.”
Embarrassingly for Scottish Labour, Johann Lamont has the backing of the Welsh Tory party whilst her Welsh Labour colleagues have come out against her plans.
The Labour Health Minister in Wales, Lesley Griffiths AM, was invited in the Welsh Assembly on Wednesday to “agree” with Johann Lamont on the need to impose prescription charges by the Tory Shadow Minister for Health and Social Services, Darren Millar.
However, despite the Tory support for Lamont’s opposition to free NHS prescriptions, the Scottish Labour policy shift was condemned by Ms Griffiths.
In a move designed to embarrass Labour, a press release from the Welsh Tories congratulated Johann Lamont for opposing universal free prescriptions and called on Welsh Labour to do likewise.
Mr McDonald added:
“The fact that Johann Lamont is being held as a role model for the Tories in Wales, while the STUC call on her to re-think her attack on universal benefits, is hugely embarrassing for the Labour Party – not just in Scotland, but across the UK.
“Labour voters will note the stark contrast, and the fact that the only people publicly backing her plans are the Tories perhaps says it all about the extent to which Labour in Scotland has completely lost its way.”
Clues as to the reason for Johann Lamont’s surprise announcement of her Cuts Commission emerged with comments from Labour leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.
In an interview in the Guardian newspaper Mr Balls made clear that any future Labour government will be “ruthless” with public spending.
Commenting yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband described the arguments that universal benefits could not continue as “compelling” and revealed that the subject would form the theme of today’s Labour party conference in Manchester.
However, Mr Miliband also appeared to suggest that a future Labour government would not grant Scotland fiscal autonomy and would continue with the block grant system of funding. Asked if Labour would cut some universal benefits they previously supported, the Labour leader said: “Clearly fiscal circumstances have changed, and Johann as part of a policy review in Scotland will have to make the judgements on what can and can’t be afforded within the block grant.”
Responding to the comments by Mr Balls, SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts and Scotland’s Health Secretary Alex Neil said:
“This disclosure that Ed Balls is pulling Johann Lamont’s strings is an utter humiliation – and also explains why the Cuts Commission speech appeared to cobbled together at the last minute, with different people in Labour saying different things about what may or may not be cut. We now know that everything is on the table for a Labour Party axe – including free prescriptions and free personal care.
“The new revelation that the Labour Welsh Assembly Government is implacably opposed to re-imposing prescription charges – and that Johann Lamont is the poster girl for the Tories in Wales as well as in Scotland – will cause soul-searching among Labour members and supporters the length and breadth of Scotland.
“No wonder Labour Party activists have founded the ‘Labour for Independence’ group.
“It is says it all that while Welsh Labour is able to assert its independence and defend free prescriptions, Johann Lamont has abandoned the principles of Scottish social democracy to tow the Westminster line.
“Whether it is free education, personal care for the elderly or the council tax freeze, the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining the social contract that binds us all together as a society.
“The week’s events have made clear that it is only the SNP which is prepared to defend and deliver these policies as part of a balanced budget – and that it is only with the powers of an independent Scotland that we can be entirely protected from the determination of the anti-independence parties to take the axe to these vital public services.”
MEANWHILE, there was more embarrassment for Scottish Labour after photos emerged of several Labour MSPs signing protest banners at a student protest proclaiming “I commit to no tuition fees”.
The student demonstration took place prior to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011.
Labour MSPs who publicly declared they were against tuition fees included Richard Baker, Saray Boyack, Jenny Marra and Lewis Macdonald.