Johann Lamont’s call for a debate on spending priorities is welcome. But underpinning this, some fundamental issues of philosophy, principle and values have to be agreed in order to answer the question, what does Labour stand for? For most Scots, the answer is not clear. What defines a progressive centre left or social democratic party when it’s up against a public that is disillusioned with uninspiring, managerial and technocratic politics, care of a right-leaning coalition, the populism of the SNP and the ever-changing politics of the Liberal- Democrats?
Scottish Labour has yet to spell out what is required to win back public support. It must dig deep to find a new sense of political purpose and relevance, one where it gives modern expression to its political philosophy of yesteryear where equality and equal worth were aspirational goals.
Johann is right to remind us of a changing world; public finances will remain scarce and issues such as demographics will put further pressure on the public purse. But we know this already. Further, attacks on the SNP’s political priorities could be dangerous as, after two election victories at Holyrood and positive opinion polls, the public remains supportive of many of the SNP Government’s reforms, for example, in health, including personal care and tuition fees. On the council-tax freeze, Johann is right: it is wasteful, populist, unsustainable, damaging to councils’ long-term interests, benefits wealthy householders and makes more councils dependent on central government and less responsible for the money they spend!
Any successful review of public spending, based on clearly defined social and economic priorities, must be seen in the wider context of political principles, values and a vision for Scotland. Labour needs to constantly remind itself that spending priorities must reflect politics and philosophical ideas in terms of the kind of society we want. It needs to “ask honest questions and face up to different answers.” There have to be moral limits to the role of the market in public services. For far too long, commercialisation and privatisation of services has been seen as the way forward and the socalled benefits of the market viewed as the only way of improving efficiency and adding value.
Labour has to rethink market-driven solutions and say, resolutely, where market values do not belong.
What is the role of a progressive tax system in Scotland? Does Labour believe in a fairer tax system and if so, surely Scotland’s wealthy could contribute more to our public services?
The financing of local government is a mess. We either face up to the idea of more centralisation leading to local councils becoming merely the delivery arm of central government or we radically revise the financing of local government, set it free and strengthen its accountability to local people. Labour needs a view on this. it must also address concerns about the state of the Scottish economy. A more productive and successful economy will help underpin our public spending. Labour needs a more imaginative approach to generating work, the impact of technology and the importance of education and learning.
To achieve these goals, should Scottish Labour be looking to Scandinavia and northern European states for inspiration, rather than the rest of the UK or England?
Labour’s leadership should accept that the constitutional question is not some irrelevant side show which distracts people and politicians from the ‘real’ issues. The constitutional future of our country is integral to the kind of Scotland we want to create and the issues of fairness, justice, virtue and equality most progressives want to see. Let’s stop pretending that the SNP has got it wrong in giving such prominence to Scotland’s relationship with the Union. Labour can’t run away from this reality.
What does Labour stand for today? What can it offer to Scottish electors? What are the defining issues which set Labour apart from the other political parties? And what does supporting Labour now mean for the Scottish voter?
Fundamentally, how does Labour become a progressive and modern centre-left party in Scotland with a recognisable philosophy, a clear set of principles and distinct values? In branding terms, how can it differentiate itself from the other parties? This question must be asked.
Labour can- not rewrite history and pretend the last five years didn’t happen! The party ignores, at its peril, the confusion that exists in electors’ minds about what Labour stands for. This is creating a real identity crisis for the party in Holyrood politics. These are the crucial issues in that they will determine Labour’s electoral success and its existence as a credible, progressive party. That is why I maintain there is more work to be done before Labour tackles the spending priorities.
A debate, addressing all of these questions, is long overdue and will contribute subsequently to making sense of a review of spending priorities which is currently in danger of becoming devoid of context about political philosophy and a rethinking of Labour’s strategic direction. The party must not allow this to happen.