Week of confusion sees Scottish Labour stance on key policies questioned

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  By Owen O’Donnell
 
Scottish Labour has been asked to clarify what they actually stand for after a week which has been wrought with confusion following a series of contradictory statements on official party policies.
 
The SNP has accused Johann Lamont’s party of giving “mixed messages” to the public, most notably after Labour voted against the Scottish Government’s plans to extend free school meals to children in P1-P3 and increase childcare provision in Scotland.

Labour’s Holyrood group opposed the measures despite several individual members of the Labour party giving their full support to both initiatives.

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing questioned Johann Lamont’s leadership and said:

“Do Labour have any policies left?  We’ve only been back in parliament for one week and already they’ve appeared to throw out five policies they once claimed to be for – free school meals, extension of childcare, the council tax freeze, the small business bonus scheme and lower business rates.

“The pressure is on Johann Lamont to explain exactly what – if anything – Labour stand for in the new year.”

Last week Scottish Labour MSPs voted against a motion which included a £114 million package aimed at supporting Scottish families by providing more free childcare.  Labour MSPs also opposed a plan to provide free school meals to all P1-P3 schoolchildren, which is estimated to save families £330 per year per-child. 

The SNP has pointed out that Scottish Labour’s refusal to support the measure was at odds with the party’s previous stance on free school meals.

  • In March last year, Labour MSP Elaine Smith lodged a motion for free school meals which was signed by party members Anne McTaggart, Mark Griffin, Hanzala Malik, and Margaret McDougall.
  • In September last year, Gordon Matheson, Labour councillor and leader of Glasgow City Council told the Evening Times that all children in Glasgow from P1-3 should be given free school meals.
  • In 2010, Labour MP and Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls ran a “Save Free School Meals” campaign in when the Coalition threatened to roll back Labour’s planned extension of free meals. Speaking at the time, Balls said: “Michael Gove, the Tory who’s now in charge of our schools, is following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher…in 2010 Michael Gove is about to become the meal snatcher.”

Ms Ewing added: “They say they support free school meals and the extension of childcare provision. But actions speak louder than words and by voting against these policies this week it’s clear they cannot possibly support the measures.”

Council Tax Freeze

Scottish Labour’s stance on the council tax freeze has also caused confusion.  Labour’s candidate in the Cowdenbeath by-election has come under pressure to clarify his views on the flagship SNP policy after being filmed making contradictory statements on the freeze.

In an interview with STV news, Alex Rowley claimed always to have supported the council tax freeze and added: “you won’t find me saying introduce a Council Tax rise”.

However in a separate interview which is available on Youtube, the Fife council leader attacked the policy and indicated his support for a rise in council tax in order to raise more money, stating: “one option could be that you put something on the Council Tax”.

Business Rates

This week, speaking on Scotland Tonight, Scottish Labour’s Education spokesperson Kezia Dugdale suggested that funding for support for small businesses should be cut in order to improve childcare. The move would see business rates in Scotland increase to a level greater than other businesses throughout the UK.

The SNP has matched business rates with the rest of the UK since 2007 with Finance secretary, John Swinney confirming in December that the Scottish government intended to continue matching business rates for the duration of this parliament.

The comments from the Labour MSP came despite her own party having backed the Small Business Bonus Scheme in its 2011 election manifesto.  Ms Dugdale’s view was also at odds with statements from key members of her own front bench.

Only hours before she appeared on Scotland Tonight, Dugdale’s colleague, Labour MSP Neil Findlay called for consistency in business tax policy across the UK. 

Findlay told the Scottish parliament: “The corporation tax policy, as applied by different Governments, is fine as long as it is consistent across the UK.”

Ms Dugdale’s comments were also contradicted by Labour’s Finance spokesperson, Iain Gray who has said he “doesn’t agree” with Scotland having higher business rates than the rest of the UK.

However, adding to the confusion were comments from another Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson who when asked directly on BBC’s Politics Scotland the following day, “So you would cut the small business bonus?” replied: “we would certainly consider that.”

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing added: “The people of Scotland deserve to know the truth – the mixed messages on business rates, the small business bonus scheme and council tax bills are unacceptable.”

“Labour’s ducking and dodging on these issues underline how we cannot trust a word they say.”