First, an admission. I like Johann Lamont.
I might not always agree with her politics but there is a robustness there which means you can say you don’t agree with her and she won’t flounce out of the room. She’ll even listen to your opinion. And throughout her time as an MSP and even, as a Minister, there was a real attempt to stay true to who she was. Which is why every day, she’d be on the train at 5.30 heading home to have tea with her family and when they were younger, help with homework and bath time, before heading out the door for an evening shift of politics.
I admire her too, for many of the unfashionable causes she has championed over the years – carers are an obvious one – and for the fact that she led a backbench rebellion against her administration’s opposition to Tommy Sheridan’s poindings and warrant sales bill. Indubitably, there were base politics at play here: Sheridan was, after all, snapping at her heels in her Pollok constituency. But that too is worthy of respect. When it came to it, she put the people she represented and what she believed in before party.
She is a fully paid up member of the scary Scottish wimmin in politics club and I like that. Takes one to know one after all.
And even though I like the fact that over the years, she has demonstrated a welcome ability to do the political street-fighting bit, I cannot understand what possessed her to attack Nicola Sturgeon the way she did at FMQs this Thursday. To try to make a wider political point, about the unfairness, perceived or otherwise, of Scottish Government policy by attacking the earnings of the Depute First Minister – AND HER HUSBAND! – was shameful.
As a woman who has represented one of the most impoverished constituencies in the country for thirteen years, she knows that very few women ever get to earn big sums. Indeed, a while ago, she was one such, having taken home a Ministerial salary herself. And she also knows how demeaning it is for a woman to be treated like a chattel, lumped in with her husband’s earning capacity. What Nicola Sturgeon’s husband earns – indeed, what Johann Lamont’s husband earns as a longstanding Glasgow councillor whose salary comes directly from the public purse – is an irrelevance in this day and age.
For every woman who needs not to care what their husband earns and how, there are thousands more who live in economic dependency, constantly reminded – yes, even in this day and age – that without him and his earnings, they’d be on the street. It’s that imbalance of economic power which compels many women to stay, with their children, cowering in fear and putting up with the abuse and the violence which still define far too many modern marriages and relationships.
So, for a woman so steeped in traditional politics, who has climbed to the very top of her party, by making a virtue out of pointing up inequalities for women, to attack another female politician in this manner in order to score a cheap point, is low. About as low as you can go.
Such tactics diminish the debate that Johann Lamont purports to be trying to create in Scottish politics, about what kind of public services we can afford. It is a debate which is welcome and overdue – which is not the same as saying that I agree with her contention, before the SNP supporters bray at my betrayal in the comments section.
And actually, to fall into simplistic party lines on this one is disingenuous. There are as many SNP folk who have muttered about whether free everything for wealthy pensioners at the expense of poor children – for universality appears not to apply to them – as there are Labour ones. I know, for I have muttered with them. Free allsorts makes for good short-term politics: it helps wins elections after all, but it does not provide a coherent base upon which to fashion a nation.
But if we are to have a grown-up debate – some of us cling to the prospect of such a concept – let’s first attempt to offer some balm to a few troubled middle class consciences. The council tax freeze probably does disproportionately benefit the better off. If you are one such, who frets at spending your financial filip on fripperies, give it away. If you are so bothered at the idea of that money burning a whole in your pocket, resulting in poor pensioners and single parents struggling, then donate your ill-gotten gain to charity. There are plenty of good causes which would welcome your largesse.
This one does have to be stripped out of the debate on the great government give-away. As Kenny Farquharson pointed out on twitter, prescriptions and bus fares and the like are benefits: a tax freeze is different. In any event, Johann’s thinking on this one is muddy. It is economically illiterate to claim that the council tax freeze is costing local government jobs, resulting in incomes being lost to the economy. The solution to that problem is not to take more tax out of other people’s pockets to keep folk in the public sector in work, for that also removes vital income from the economy. Or do these earnings, because they are made in the private or third sector, not count in Scottish Labour’s view of all things economic?
Johann Lamont is indeed brave for wanting to kickstart this debate at all, particularly in its efforts to define a place for Scottish Labour in our political future. I don’t buy the lazy SNP line that she is simply aligning her party with the London lot, though Ed Balls’ proposal for zero-budgeting is a bandwagon upon which she should jump. Indeed, I’m sure it’s something I’ve heard John Swinney champion in the past.
And the SNP while making political hay in the short term about Scottish Labour stealing away everyone’s supposed freebies, should welcome the debate. For, whatever is discussed and divined in the next two years, the conclusion is already inescapable that Scotland needs more powers to deliver the policies it wants to. Johann Lamont appears to have conceded this point by moving at last, to set up a Labour commission on devolution. She suggests that we must learn to deliver social justice on scant resources, yet she cannot ignore forever the fact that if we had control of all fiscal powers and levers, we would be better placed to decide how much we spend and on what.
Proving the maxim that a week is a long time in politics, I bemoaned last Sunday that we still do not know what Labour is for. On Scotland Tonight, I opined that Johann Lamont might well be committing political suicide with this venture. If she is properly serious about this debate, she is unlikely to reap electoral gains from its outcome. But the debate she has started has the potential to give Scottish Labour a purpose and a platform way beyond the next UK or Scottish elections, whether we are independent or not.
And if she can resist the temptation to deploy more tactical low blows, she could succeed in challenging the SNP to engage in a little more thoughtwork on the policy front. Johann Lamont might well have started something which we can all engage with.