Something for nothing?

By Elaine Smith MSP

When Johann Lamont uttered the words “something for nothing” she sparked a storm both within and out with the party. The phrase in itself is controversial, in that it has been long used by right-wing elements to undermine the principles of universal benefits and the welfare state. As such its use by a leading labour politician was questionable.

There has since followed much debate on what Johann actually meant by that phrase in the context of her speech. She went on to say: “This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere”.

Undoubtedly her intervention was aimed at the SNP Government and this is where, although I would question her choice of words, I agree with her point that the current administration is protecting some benefits but underfunding and cutting others. Their position is not consistent.

The spending choices of the SNP do need to be put under the spotlight and their stealth cuts exposed. Also, their propensity to cut taxes evidenced by their freeze on council tax, their plans for reducing corporation tax and their removal of the ability to use the Scottish Variable Rate should be highlighted.

Johann went on to say that she would not “tolerate a country where the poorest pay for the tax breaks for the rich”. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening as income tax levels for the wealthy are less than they were under Thatcher, the better off benefit most from the council tax freeze and bankers continue to bag obscene bonuses.

However, the answer is not to remove hard won universal benefits; it is to tax fairly. As we know full well in the Labour Party, services for the poor are often poor services. That is why our party has unequivocally supported the universal provision of school education, the health service and free access to libraries, public parks and other vital services provided by local and central govt. The standards are better because we all buy in and we collectively demand improvements.

These services, along with bus travel, further and higher education, personal care, etc. are not “free”. They are paid for by redistribution of resources via taxation and fairer, more progressive taxation has always been Labour Party policy. It is time we started to restate that loud and clear.

Means testing is expensive and can result in some people losing out even when they are entitled to benefits. It also means that the working poor and the so-called squeezed middle suffer financially whilst the wealthy continue to enjoy benefits like ‘free’ medical treatment through company insurance, ‘free’ school meals for their children provided as part of their subsidised, charity status private schools and ‘free’ travel via company cars and limos.

We also know from bitter experience that when we move services away from universalism they then become easy pickings for privateers.

There are changes ahead that will allow for different tax choices to be made no matter the outcome of the referendum in 2014. But of course we have some tax choices even under the devolution settlement.

The referendum in 1998 involved two votes, one for devolution and the other for tax varying powers, and both were overwhelmingly supported, giving a tax mandate straight from the people. However, the tax varying powers have never been used and the SNP failed to maintain the administration fee that allowed this tax to be used.

The tax issue was raised recently in a debate by Jenny Marra MSP who asked why the SNP had “forfeited the Parliament’s constitutionally decided tax-varying powers”. In response Kevin Stewart MSP said “Ms Marra obviously wants to raise income tax, while the Tories want to lower it. To be frank, people are paying enough as it is…”

That was a very interesting exchange, given that at the start of the debate Alex Neil MSP said: “we should let Fred Goodwin get the bus pass as long as he pays for it through much higher taxation, which would help to pay for everybody”. I happen to agree with Alex on that point but this highlights the lack of consistency on the SNP benches.

However, the SNP, albeit a neo-liberal party occupying the centre ground, won the last two elections by presenting an image of a party in touch with the people and to the left of Labour.

No tuition fees, retaining local services like Monklands A&E, committing to no privatisation of the NHS, free prescriptions, promising free school meals, supposedly abandoning PFI and taking an anti-trident/anti-Nato stance, along with their stance against the Iraq war, won them support amongst traditional Labour voters.

The policies to provide free services and benefits have proved popular but there is a cost in providing them if taxes are not increased. The SNP government no longer provide central heating for all pensioners, bursaries have been reduced and music tuition is no longer free.

Other cuts have included withdrawing free orthodontic treatment for children and podiatry services for elderly people, and free personal care is not as comprehensive as it should be due to lack of time and resources.

The council tax freeze was electorally popular but shouldn’t feature in any debate about universal benefits as it is not a benefit. However, the services that the council tax provides should feature, and in particular those that are now being slashed because of this longstanding freeze.

Instead of slashing services, policies to add to our provisions should be under consideration such as free universal childcare which would help parents get back to work and boost our economy and the government should be fully funding free school meals to help tackle poverty and childhood obesity instead of blaming hard pressed councils for not delivering on this.

So, Johann is right to criticise the SNP Government, expose hypocrisy and demand that they be held accountable for their actions. However, if we believe in keeping the universal benefits we have gained since devolution and adding to them via fairer progressive taxation then we must argue for that in the party and across the wider labour and trade union movement.

These are principles that surely must lie at the very heart of any socialist system of Government since universality underpins the quest for a fair society. Universal benefits are fair, efficient, do not stigmatise anyone and they provide a collective benefit paid for by a system of proper progressive taxation.

That is what we should be striving for in Scotland: a redistribution of wealth in a country where there is more than enough to go round but it’s in the hands of the very rich who don’t even know there is a recession and whose wealth has reached record levels in the last year.

The Labour party, set up to represent the working class, has the moral mandate, and should have the political will, to tackle this and rebalance tax in favour of a fairer society. At the moment the reality is that the rich continue to get ever richer whilst the poor get poorer.

Rather than pursuing divisive responses to the current economic situation, such as a rush to separate from our comrades across the border, or being pushed into arguments about which benefit is better, we should be arguing for income tax powers to be devolved in the post referendum settlement if there is a ‘no’ vote. If not then we are in danger of sinking to the depths of an argument that pits the working class against each other.

Free prescriptions or free bus passes? More college places or free university education? Free personal care or reduced waiting times?

The party of the labour and trade union movement must surely recognise that the obscenity in our society is not the person who’s worked all their life, has a decent pension and gets free bus travel; it’s the wealthy few who wouldn’t dream of using public transport but who have just received a massive Tory tax cut.

Keir Hardie could not have anticipated a 21st century Scottish Labour party whimpering about reviewing spending priorities while sick and starving citizens depend on food banks, have their welfare cut and are evicted because of the bedroom tax . Undoubtedly, he would have expected the party to react with a bang and find policies and solutions to advance the interest of the working class and present clear alternatives to SNP and Tory cuts.

The austerity of 1945 did not stop Labour, in government, from introducing radical reforms to nationalise industry and create a welfare state that protected our citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’. I believe it’s our challenge and our duty to protect our people now through universal provision and progressive taxation and re-establish our party as the mass party of labour. We could make a start by re-affirming our 1945 manifesto statement: “The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it”.