Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Why are Scottish Labour attacking universal benefits?

It is extremely difficult to imagine what Scottish Labour leader Johann  Lamont
 is playing at. Is her attack on universal benefits inspired by neoliberal
 austerity fetishism? Or is it a crude attempt to stoke class envy?
Since Scotland gained a small measure of political autonomy in 1999 under devolution, successive Scottish governments have introduced several universal benefits (free bus passes for the elderly, free prescriptions, free eye tests) and maintained free university education, whilst tuition fees in England have risen to an incredible £9,000 a year "aspiration tax".

One could imagine that these Scottish universal benefits are relatively safe, given the fact that the fanatically right-wing Tory party are a minority element in Scottish politics, but you'd be wrong. The concept of Scottish universal benefits has come under attack from the Scottish Labour party, a nominally left-wing party, that has in fact embraced the neoliberal economic orthodoxy so thoroughly that they now sit far to the right of the centre ground Scottish National Party government.

The Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has decided to attack these universal benefits as "wrong" and "unaffordable".  The idea that entitlements like free bus passes for the elderly are "unaffordable" would be absolutely laughable, if it wasn't such a sickening case of myopic austerity fetishism. Especially given that the costs of benefits like these are many orders of magnitude smaller than the vast scale of banker bailouts and  socially and economically damaging Quantitative Easing windfalls for the extremely wealthy.

The argument that universal benefits are "unfair" is also a pretty absurd one, which seems to have the objective of stoking class-warfare, rather than any real social or economic substance. OK, so some wealthy pensioners might benefit from free bus passes and some rich people suffering from illnesses or disabilities might benefit from free prescriptions. However the cost of providing these free services to a minority of very rich people would probably be completely dwarfed by the cost of implementing a vast government redistributionist means-testing bureaucracy to exclude the rich from such benefits. Just look at Neo-Labour's Tax Credits system: Making sure the poor and ordinary have enough wealth to raise their children is a noble objective, but doing it through a huge redistributionist bureaucracy is absurdly wasteful. Instead of employing tens of thousands of people to administer an extremely complex means testing system, a few simple reforms (free universal nursery care for working parents, abolishing income tax for low earners) could have achieved the same results at much less cost.

An even more frightful idea than a Neo-Labour government designed redistribution system is the thought that these days Neo-Labour would probably choose a government backed private sector outsourcing deal with parasitic scum like G4S, A4E, Serco, Capita, Atos or Veolia instead. The current trend in the Labour party is to make the taxpayer fork out tens of £millions to one (or many) of these parasitic outsourcing companies in order to pay them  to deny benefits, probably for the flimsiest of excuses (earn naff all but live in your own house you paid for through 35 years of sweat and toil? Labour & Atos say F*ck you, no bus pass or free prescriptions). Think this is unlikely? Perhaps you've forgotten that Neo-Labour were the party that originally set up the disgusting Atos disability denial factories.

I can almost see it now, Scottish Labour ministers drooling at the thought of all the perks, kickbacks and corporate junkets they'll manage to blag as they negotiate a new range of benefits denial contracts with the parasitic outsourcing sector. Then once the contracts are signed it will turn out that these corporate profiteers will begin wringing such enormous profits out of denying wealthy and reasonably well-off pensioners their free bus passes, that it would actually have been cheaper to give every man, woman and child in Scotland a free bus pass and then burn a pile of cash the size of Arthur's Seat too.

If Labour want to position themselves alongside the Tories and Lib-Dems as orthodox neoliberal fanatics that oppose the very concept of universal benefits, that's their prerogative I suppose, but I can only see it losing them votes. The majority of Scottish people seem to be quite proud of their nation's efforts to retain a social safety net, whilst the Tories slash and burn benefits and services south of the border. Probably the most shocking thing about this attack on the concept of universal benefits is that it has come from a nominally left-wing party, pretty disgraceful stuff.

It is hard to even imagine what Scottish Labour think they are going to achieve by launching an outright attack on the widely approved Scottish social safety net. The obvious outcomes will be a lot of lost votes for Scottish Labour and many more people convinced to support the Scottish independence movement.

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