Is Scottish Labour Making a Gamble on Benefits?


September 28, 2012 by Nash Riggins

The Scottish Labour Party gambled on its future this week after the announcement of a major shift in the party’s social policy-agenda.

The leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, brought forth the assertion that the continued provision of many universal benefits in Scotland – such as free care for the elderly, free prescriptions and free university tuition fees – is both unethical and unaffordable. Accordingly, Ms Lamont said that her party would go into the next Scottish elections in 2016 with a pledge to end some of these benefits.

“I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need. Alex Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich,” she said. ”Scotland cannot be the only something-for-nothing country in the world.”

It cannot be ignored that, since 1999, successive administrations in Scottish Parliament have allowed the number of free benefits on offer to increase exponentially – in fact, last year the Scottish government spent a whopping £1,409 more per head on social benefits than Westminster spent on its English citizens. Yet Ms Lamont dismissed this rampant public spending as a manipulative political tool used in order to buy votes.

“I am withdrawing from the game where politicians look not at needs but at slogans and ask not how to improve the lot of the Scottish people but what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free,” she said.

In essence, the Labour leader’s driving argument behind the move is simple: it’s the idea that the taxes of Scotland’s poor are helping to purchase the medical prescriptions of citizens making well over £100,000 per year – meanwhile, services for the nation’s poorer areas are being substantially scaled back. Ms Lamont appeared to have gingerly forgotten the fact that it was a Scottish Labour administration that introduced many of these costly benefits – such as free care for the elderly, free bus travel for pensioners and free eye tests.

Yet just one day after the announcement, members of the Scottish Labour Party are already worried that Lamont’s statements may cost them quite a few votes – and unfortunately, they have every reason to worry. Scotland’s Deputy Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was swift on the attack.

“At a time when people are facing serious wage restraint and rising living costs, the council tax freeze, the abolition of charges for prescriptions, support for higher education, apprenticeships and the elderly are all part of the support we in society give to each other,” Sturgeon said. “To destroy those shared social bonds, that we all pay for through our taxes, is a disastrous approach for Labour and one that will only increase support for an independent Scotland.”

If nothing else, Sturgeon’s words serve as a reminder that politicians thrive on cherry-picked numbers and purposeful misinterpretations. Indeed, it appears as if Ms Sturgeon would have the nation’s poorest individuals believe that the Scottish Labour Party is dead-set on making their lives a living Hell – whereas in reality, the Scottish Labour Party is merely attempting to scale back benefits for the rich, subsequently reaching a positive financial position in which the government is able to provide more benefits to the poor.  That being said, the damage of Nicola Sturgeon’s misleading sentiments may already be irreversible.

According to the IPSOS-Mori poll – perhaps the most encompassing breakdown of Scotland’s voters and their political leanings – Scottish Labour supporters most likely stand to lose the most from any loss in benefits; however, the majority of Scotland’s poorest voters poll as undecided, meaning that Ms Sturgeon’s comments could have just potentially scared hundreds of thousands of votes away from the Scottish Labour Party in the run up to 2016.

Of all registered voters, the Scottish Labour Party has the highest number those living in the country’s most deprived areas, at 24% – whereas 27% of voters in these poorer areas are undecided. That being said, 41% of undecided voters claimed that they would vote Labour ‘if they had to decide tomorrow.’ Furthermore, Scottish Labour also boasts the highest percentage of registered voters currently residing in a council house or flat, at 26%. The party also maintains the highest level of support from foreign nationals, at 28% of the registered vote – whereas the Scottish National Party (SNP) only claims 4% of the immigrant vote.

In short, the Scottish Labour Party boasts the highest number of decided voters currently receiving welfare benefits, universal or no – and although Ms Lamont and her party have made absolutely no indications that Scotland’s most deprived will be negatively affected by their proposed cut in universal benefits, Ms Sturgeon and the SNP are more than willing to interject with vague and misleading statements that suggest otherwise.

As the Scottish people draw closer to making the UK’s biggest legislative decision in living memory, it truly is a shame that their politicians will go so far as to cite ‘unity’ as a reason for dividing a vast political collective of the Scottish population. Is cutting benefits for some in Scotland a smart idea? Only time will tell; however it seems that, for now, the Scottish Labour Party will be forced into doing some intensive damage control.


6 thoughts on “Is Scottish Labour Making a Gamble on Benefits?

  1. chris byiers says:

    In the very least this is a bizarrely timed move, one could see London Labour moving their party to the right on welfare and NHS reform over the course but to do it at a time of such constitutional uncertainty in Scotland? Scotland has a tradition of social justice and egalitarian politics that stretches back beyond the previous century. Socially and culturally the Scottish structure has always been much flatter than our Anglican neighbors and since the days of John MacLean we have respected the notion of social justice and the redistribution. To brazenly throw these principles out seems to simply be calling Scottish Labour’s base supports bluff. Do they truly believe SLP’s base in the central belt care more for the Union than they do for their traditional socially responsible principles? Do they believe they can afford to concede the centre left to the SNP so emphatically? After all it will only take a relatively small swing toward the YES campaign and the Union shall continue but minus Scotland. This shift would seem to hit them hardiest in the central and urban area. Parts of Scotland were this may be an easier sell Labour are less of a factor so it’s not going to benefit them much in rural areas such as the NE, borders or Highlands. It’s this same central belt that so long eluded the SNP and prevented them making the national break thru so recently achieved so conceding this ground seems all the more questionable. Have I been underestimating the love of the Union all these years? Shirley not! Small nations, small energy rich nations who wisely invest in their infra-structure, people and country can retain a social concise in the face of “I’m all right Jack” policy. Free education, universal health provision and compassion for the weak and elderly in our nation is not something we as Scots should apologize for, its something that we should trumpet and use to put clear water between the YES campaign and the “hoodies that cry doom”. The choice in 2014 will be stark and simple thanks to this London driven stake thru the heart of Scotland’s Labour Party.

  2. scotbychoice says:

    ‘In short, the Scottish Labour Party boasts the highest number of decided voters currently receiving welfare benefits, universal or no – and although Ms Lamont and her party have made absolutely no indications that Scotland’s most deprived will be negatively affected by their proposed cut in universal benefits, Ms Sturgeon and the SNP are more than willing to interject with vague and misleading statements that suggest otherwise.’

    Well, considering that the bureaucracy around means testing (including pursuing people trying to cheat the system) is so expensive as to mean that any savings are likely to be minimal if they exist at all and puts off the people who are most entitled to the benefits because the process is either too complex, too time-consuming and/or too degrading and they just give up in frustration, it is quite likely that the most deprived will lose out. The wealthy pay for their universal benefits through higher taxation. That’s how a progressive tax system works. To pretend that this is anything short of a complete betrayal of Labour values is what is misleading.

    • Jane Harrison says:

      Not really. Westminster pays for a good chunk of the universal benefits that the rich in Scotland have access to. Scottish Labour is just saying that not everybody needs these benefits, so why not send those tax dollars elsewhere, whilst keeping some benefits reserved for those who actually can’t afford them? It’s an idea that a lot of people are bound not to like, myself included, and it rightfully will lose Labour some votes in the future. But the rich in Scotland definitely don’t pay their way, and institutions that work for them are facing substantially less cuts in services than those that work for the poor.

      • scotbychoice says:

        Westminster does not pay for free prescriptions, free bus passes, the council tax freeze, free tuition for Scottish-domiciled students or free personal care for the elderly. These are paid out of the block grant by the Scottish government and these are the benefits being discussed here. Of course not everyone needs those benefits, but means testing them doesn’t actually save any money and actively prevents some of the neediest people accessing those benefits because they can’t navigate the bureaucracy. In order to prevent a small percentage of wealthy people from getting free bus passes, is it really worth blocking the path of the much larger number of people who do ‘deserve’ them? These services benefit everyone, and to make it more difficult for everyone just because a few rich people currently use them (and have a right to, because they pay their taxes for them) seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

      • Jim Bucknell says:

        Mmmm….that’s quite the metaphor….

  3. chris byiers says:

    Here is a novel idea, how about Scotland gets to pursue its on economic agenda, the rest of the UK is free of us subsidy junkies and we can go about cutting our welfare in the rare forgotten format of putting people back in work. Ah yes that old nugget, more people working less people collecting welfare. When an agile small nation of 5 million has control of its economy the options are boundless, unconstrained by the will of the block grant and Westminster. Scotland can truly be innovative again, placing people from welfare back in employment. This will truly cut welfare, if the lessons in europe and history teach us anything, its you cannot lash and burn your way to growth. This is how nations like Finland, Norway and yes, Iceland continually are at the top of the metrics used to measure standards and quality of living. This is what flexible, responsive small nations can achieve. And the rest of the UK no longer has to carry the burden of us too wee, too poor and too stupid Scots.

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