Johann Lamont, the Labour leader in Scotland, has established two commissions. The first was a means of forestalling a motion that called on the Party to explore other options for constitutional change in Scotland rather than settling for the status quo. The second arose out of a speech Lamont made suggesting that all universal benefits should be questioned.
Commissions are a great way of postponing the flack that comes with unpopular policies. They allow the leadership to continue stating their own positions while preventing democratic challenge by saying… “well that is with the commission”.
It took six months for the members of the Devolution Commission to be announced. They include: deputy leader Anas Sarwar MSP, Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran MP, Holyrood finance spokesman Ken McIntosh MSP, Red Paper supporter Jackson Cullinane of Unite, and Duncan McNeill MSP who is identified with the Reform Scotland position of ‘Devo Plus’. The Commission has made little progress and an interim report to conference in April will simply serve to delay decisions for a further year.
The Commission on Welfare Benefits was announced in a massive furore around the speech questioning free prescriptions, bus passes and free tuition at Scottish universities. The Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament had not been notified, let alone consulted, about the content of the speech which was felt to attack those in need rather than the wealthy.
It was no surprise to those who have followed Johann’s rightward trajectory over the past ten years, but for some who had supported her leadership campaign it seemed to come out of the blue. She believes she is speaking for “hard working decent families” who should, in her view, resent better off people having access to universal benefits. The impact of her statement is however more likely to fuel the “strivers v skivers” polarisation.
Professor Arthur Midwinter, chair of the Welfare Commission, which has become known as ‘Labour’s Cuts Commission’, stated that “We are going to review everything. It’s not just the areas that have received most publicity. There is nothing off the table.”
We have two years ahead when the referendum will dominate political debate. Instead of a united fight back against government cuts – Scottish government as well as UK government – we are preoccupied with constitutional issues. We cannot ignore the referendum, but we should use it to ask how we create a Scotland with greater economic democracy and equality. That will not be delivered by independence, but by making class, rather than nation, the driving force for change.
This article first appeared in the LRC Briefing.