Free Speech

Free Speech

It is always interesting in the Chamber to see the reaction on the Labour benches when the SNP hits a raw nerve.  My recent speech, in a shameless Labour debate on student funding, was rudely interrupted to such an extent that the Presiding Officer was obliged to intervene.

Why?

Because I had dared suggest that the “Blue Labour” ideology close to the heart of Ed Milliband’s leadership was driving the abandonment of universal services by his Party.

Just this week Labour have refused to reverse the bedroom tax or cuts to Child Benefit, and have pledged to means test winter fuel payment for pensioners.  In the chamber, Labour went so far as to complain that the minimum income guarantee for students, which the NUS describe as the best funding package for students anywhere in the UK, was a scandal. Yet, they ignored the fact that bursary support elsewhere is funded by tuition fees which burden all students, including the poorest students, in the rest of the UK. In the debate Stewart Maxwell addressed this issue admirably in his analysis and research:

… by comparing two students, one in Scotland and the other in England. In carrying out this comparison, I wanted to be fair to Labour and have therefore focused on the very students it mentions in its motion. Both students come from households with incomes of £15,000 and they are doing the same course but at different institutions, one in Scotland and one in England. In 2013-14, the Scottish student will receive £7,250 in a combination of bursaries and loans while the English student will receive less than that—£7,177—again through a combination of loans and bursaries. However, the Scottish student will pay zero—absolutely nothing—in tuition fees, while the English student will have to pay fees.”

And we all know that average debt to students in the rest of the UK is £6000 per year.

I was struck during the debate by the unfamiliar picture of Scottish society being painted by the Labour Party that I did not recognise. Labour’s Hugh Henry had the audacity to say:

Scotland stands alone in its diminishing use of student grants, in asking poorer students to subsidise the better off and in refusing to take the action needed to help more students from poorer backgrounds succeed at university. The new support package is penalising the poor to help the rich.”

For me, this quote sums up from me the vacuous nature of Labour’s attack on universal benefits.  Do Labour really see Scottish society as the very poor and the rich, with nothing in between? The Scotland I grew up in and the communities I see in Central Region are mixed, with very few people are in the “rich” echelons.  Most families are struggling under the pressure of austerity Britain and while they may not be at the lower end of the poverty scale they couldn’t be described as affluent or wealthy or able to shoulder student debt of ten of thousands of pounds.  These families are forgotten in the “something for nothing“ lamentable mantra.  And yet they are the very blue collar workers from which “Blue Labour” takes its name.

When it comes to Council Tax, for instance, we would be led to believe that vital services are being cut so the “rich” can save on the tax.  In a Parliamentary question last week Bruce Crawford MSP was able to establish the average saving for households:

To ask the Scottish Government how much the average household has saved since the introduction of the council tax freeze. (S4O-02175)


The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth (John Swinney): Over the six-year period during which the council tax freeze will have been in place—from 2008 to 2014—the average band D household in Scotland will have benefited from cumulative savings of almost £690.

In my home area of North Lanarkshire, there has been a significant benefit to residents since the election of the SNP Government in 2007 and the implementation of the policy of a Council Tax Freeze.  At a time when Labour are calling for this policy to be abolished it is important to have a clear picture of what this would mean to residents.

From the establishment of North Lanarkshire Council in 1996 to the election of the SNP Government in 2007 there was a steady increase in the level of Council Tax at an average rate of 3.4%.  The total increase in payments over this time equates to a staggering 45%.

Had this average rate of increase continued residents would now be paying Band D council Tax at a rate of£1,342, an incredible 77% higher than it was in 1996/97.

Those who argue against the Council Tax Freeze regularly forget to mention that the Scottish Government provide Councils with additional funding to cover the cost of the freeze.  In North Lanarkshire the total received so far has been £18.586 million.

Without the council tax freeze and even before any additional spending commitments could be made the council would need to make up this difference in funding.  Simply to stand still the council would need to increase Council Tax at Band D to £1,214, almost 11% above the current level.

Labour would argue rich, middle class affluent people are the ones benefitting but the most recently available statistics on the number of properties in each council tax band across North Lanarkshire show that 83% or residences in North Lanarkshire are rated at Council tax band D or below.

 

pie

Band A Band B Band C Band D Band E Band F Band G Band H Total
Number of Properties 52,315 36,269 18,379 15,060 14,894 7,234 2,547 121 146,819
35.6% 24.7% 12.5% 10.3% 10.1% 4.9% 1.7% 0.1%

 

The shift of Labour to right wing conservative narrative and hue is absolutely driven by the “Blue Labour”, the mere reference to which caused uproar in the chamber:

Clare Adamson :“It is coming from the blue Labour agenda, which is why Labour down south is not proposing to reverse the child benefit cuts and is proposing the introduction of means testing for fuel payments. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order, please.

Clare Adamson: Labour members would lead us to believe that they are looking after poor people, but that is not what is happening in reality. In the London borough of Newham, the long-standing Labour mayor, Robin Wales, has overseen fast-tracking of people who are in employment on to the housing waiting list. What Labour members say here does not reflect what Labour is doing down south. We must remember that the recently appointed Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman—Baron Glasman—is at the forefront of this agenda. He advocates removing absolute entitlement to welfare in favour of rewards that are based on financial and social contributions. The Labour Party is not protecting the poor, or anyone else, in Scotland.“

The dilemma for Labour Scotland is that in trying to woo back the missing 4 million Labour voters who are moving to right wing parties south of the border they fail to acknowledge that Scottish people have never parted company with old Labour values of Social Justice, Universal benefits and a welfare system that supports the most vulnerable.  It is any wonder they shout us down when we bring this to the attention of Scotland’s People?

 

Footnote: further information on “Blue Labour” the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme “Labour’s New New Jerusalem”

See Clare’s speeches at her YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/ClareAdamsonMSP