20 October 2013

Ed's energy-freeze: “something for nothing”?

"Something for nothing culture." (Eng.) Political Idiom. Origins: A rightist, typically Tory, critique of the "idle" or "undeserving poor".  Often invoked to garnish, or to impose more onerous conditions on the receipt of, social security rights and entitlements. Related terms: "scroungers", "slackers", "benefit dependency", "ripping off hard-working taxpayers".

"Something for nothing culture." (Scots) Political Idiom. Usage limited to a small, isolated community of Scottish politicians. Origins:  A Labour critique of universalism, with specific reference to "middle class welfare".  Invoked to justify the introduction of means-testing. Target: income taxpayers paying the higher, 40% rate, maybe.  Related terms: "millionaires with bus passes", "the investment banker's frozen council tax bill", "the spoilt wean of some rich bastard lawyer, idling around university studying something pretentious, which your frozen granny, living on pennies, is required to pay for."

These definitions in mind, what do you think Johann Lamont makes of Ed Miliband’s proposals to freeze energy prices for all domestic and corporate consumers, if elected? Her colleagues in Holyrood have all warmly endorsed it, demanding the Nats dance along with the tune. Anything less, Baillie and Gray argue, puts the plastic social democrats of the SNP government in hock to the greedy corporate purveyors of electricity. It's knockabout political stuff. What I am struggling to understand, however, is how this palpable enthusiasm for Ed's proposals fits with their Scottish leader's recent policy wheeze and hostility to universal measures.

You may remember, last year, the Scottish Labour leader railed against Scotland's “something for nothing culture”. Taking the slogan in itself, you might be under the impression that JoLa was inveighing against feckless folk who sook and sook away at the public purse, without “giving anything back”. But she wasn’t. The target of her critique was not the idling indigent, but wealthier Scots who were benefiting from universal benefits, their kids escaping tuition fees at Scottish universities, able to access prescriptions free at the point of need, whatever their disposable income, and the council tax charged on their homes, frozen.

Whatever you think of the merits and demerits of these policies, whatever costs you might think they impose on the public purse, only the wrongheaded would imagine – or argue – that taxpayers are getting “something for nothing”, having 40% income tax levied on earnings over £32,011 a year. By all means, let’s have progressive taxation, Johann, but the idea that these taxpayers are all mooching idlers is just bizarre, and without any discernible connection to your petty sloganising. As Salmond said in his speech yesterday, at the very least, these local government funding, education and prescription policies represent "something for something".

But let's take you at your word, and assume you're an intellectually honest, consistent soul. You oppose all measures, when we have a limited pot of public money to spend, where universalism trumps more focussed redistribution according to need. That's an interesting argument. So how the devil can you do anything but condemn Miliband's energy proposals as anything but middle class - and worse - big corporate welfare?

Miliband’s proposal will freeze energy bills by cannibalising the profits of energy companies, and consequently, decrease the UK exchequer's tax-take from those profits via corporation tax. Ed has not sought to finesse his proposal, distinguishing between the rich and the poor, businesses large and small.  All energy consumers, corporate or consumer, loaded or impoverished, will benefit from the scheme your leader has proposed.

Through a decrease in general taxation, we'll all collectively, indirectly, subsidise the energy glut of the richest individuals and corporations, while reducing the pot of money available to alleviate other social ills. And in the process, we'll do little to demonstrate the importance of government, or cultivate the critical social democratic values of universality and solidarity. Bracket any questions about the scheme's practicality. Ideologically, Johann, for you, isn't this just the sort of "something for nothing" scheme, privileging the privileged while reducing the money for targeted aid to the poorest, which you were so recently railing against? Lest you've forgotten, let me remind you. You said:

"Well, I have to ask, what is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefiting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze? What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut? What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can't get a job or a place at college?" 

Well, I have to ask you, what is progressive about bankers and chief executives and lawyers on more than £100,000 a year, living in the big hooses and leaving the lamps burning late into the night, benefiting more than customers on average incomes from Ed's energy freeze? What is progressive about the wealthy laird ratcheting up the heating in his castle, while the struggling Dunfermline granny still fears to ignite the second bar of the fire in her flat, despite the winter chill, as her care-budget is threatened as UK taxation falls?

What is progressive, in your terms, about a Labour government subsidising the energy costs of the massive corporate headquarters of companies recording stonking profits - computer screens glowing, lights shining out - while our small-town businesses continue to struggle in a difficult economy, and for whom this freeze will be of far more marginal financial benefit?

Or does your dismal vision of our "something for nothing country" end at Gretna?


  1. The underlying logic of this post is that Johann Lamont is right and the SNP's bogus embrace of "universality" is a pretence that you can get something for nothing, while in reality it amounts to buying votes by populist measures.

    1. How does Labour plan to pay for all that means testing? You do realise it isn't free and requires large increases in staff, increases in appeals, more increases in staff to handle appeals, etc.

  2. Excellent article.
    Logic isn't Johanns strongpoint though.

  3. Nor Councillor Gallagher's, by the look of it.

    1. I can just imagine the young Councillor Gallagher (pre-council, one would hope) in school, being taught why 2 + 2 isn't 5. A whole afternoon of pain-staking explanation, showing him in a variety of ways why 2 + 2 = 4. At the end he says:

      "So 2 + 2 = 5, yeah?"

      Actually, that's probably missing a reference to the SNP...

  4. This post can only be described in terms of an Alan Partridge quote,from one of the episodes of The Day Today.

    "GOAL!!!!... AND ANOTHER!!!!"

    Johann Lamont has "Something For Nothing" pie all over her face.

  5. "But let's take you at your word, and assume you're an intellectually honest, consistent soul."

    One hell of an assumption right there! I'm more than ever convinced given JoLo's disappearance over summer (the Krankies were reported to be in summer season in Bognor... just saying, have you ever seen Jeanette and JoLo together?) that the nauseating New Labour project's prime indyref tactic is just to sit tight and hope for the best. Of course they will occasionally send a few of their "dress neds" like Davidson, Sarwar et al over the top to bayonet the cybernat wounded, calculating that the damage done by such sorties will be outweighed by the benefits of playing to the slavishly loyal One Nation Labour cadres.

    The calculation must be that if they can "stick where they are", and the Yes campaign fails to persuade enough don't knows, then they can continue to do nothing much except cheerlead from the sidelines for Project Fear. Davidson's chilling warning about bayoneting the wounded post a No vote deserves wider circulation - we now know what to expect in the event the vote IS No.. the bayonets are being sharpened, and Holyrood is for a doing!

    1. "the bayonets are being sharpened, and Holyrood is for a doing!"

      Not in a sexual way, of course. Merely a GBH way.

  6. I'm usually a fan, so it's disappointing to read this. A whole argument hinged on a fundamental misrepresentation of what was said.

    Johann never used the phrase "something for nothing culture". Here's the pertinent paragraph, so regularly misquoted by the usual suspects:

    "Alex Salmond is quick to point to the high levels of welfare in Scandinavia but those universal benefits are paid for by high levels of taxation. Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world."

    So nothing about a culture. Everything about SNP promises of Scandic services but without introducing Scandic taxation. That really is the "something for nothing" argument that Johann was exposing, and she was dead right to do it.

    I might wish that Labour had followed up that speech with a series of policy explorations and commitments to set out how we plan to make the country fairer. It may be that vacuum which has allowed our opponents to define us. But it remains that case that the central assertion in this piece is a misrepresentation, and that is seriously disappointing.

    1. 'I might wish that Labour had followed up that speech with a series of policy explorations and commitments to set out how we plan to make the country fairer' -

      the point where laughter set in and any credibility (if there ever was any) left the building.

      The petty semantics from Hothersall on the use of the world 'culture' to define the future of universal policy in a blatant attempt to divert from what is a perfectly fair question only serves to sum up the bickering nature of his argument.

      God forbid he ever tries to address the substance of what is being said.

      According to Hothersall, Labour now recognise universal welfare to be a Scandic invention. Bevan must be rolling in his grave.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Duncan, concisely and clearly explained. The Nats promise everything to everyone but never explain how it will all be paid for. There's no need: independence comes with its own magic wand.....

    4. Duncan, agree it's disappointing that LPW got his facts wrong on this post. He is usually quite scrupulous and fair with the facts, even if he draws different conclusions than we might. Your quote shows clearly what Johann said and it wasn't what the post was based upon.

  7. Don't think I've ever seen a hair split so expertly there Duncan.

    Kudos etc.

  8. A deeply disingenuous response Duncan. Despite your fairly desperate attempt at head of a pin dancing, the fact remains that JoLo's something for nothing remarks were widely seen as what they are; an attack on the principle of universalism. There IS a debate to be had on economic policy, and how you pay for Scandinavian levels of public services, or at least moving towards them. Lamont and "Scottish" Labour haven't only failed to engage in that debate however, they have by specifically abandoning the attachment to universal benefits, aligned themselves even more closely with the regressive outlook and policy agenda of the Coalition.

    The piece isn't misleading, nor is it a misrepresentation of the policy re-triangulation required by the nauseating New Labour project. The truth hurts Duncan. Lamont, Curran, Davidson, Sarwar and all the other hangers-on have to follow the logic of a party which lost its soul along with it direction when it started chasing middle English votes in the 90's.

    No amount of desperate hair splitting about Lamont's repugnant speech, or wishful thinking and apologias for NuLab not following thru their regressive ideas with "policy explorations and commitments about how we plan to make the country fairer" will make up for the fact that a once proud party which COULD and SHOULD have been championing a progressive vision for a fairer, more egalitarian society, spearheading a drive for increased devolution even if the rest of the UK wanted something different, has essentially sold its soul to the devil.

    The misrepresentation isn't on the part of Lallands Peat Worrier, it's on the part of New Labour supporters like you that your party is now anything other than a pale imitation of the Coalition, advocating much the same but less quickly and less deeply.

    Andy Ellis

    1. I love how Labour scream about "You're promising Scandinavian spending with US taxation!!!"

      (1) No. What we're promising is *not UK* spending. No Trident we don't need. No vastly oversized military to protect us from nobody. No PFI crippling future generations like sending our children and grandchildren out to swim in concrete boots. Different priorities. The same resources, but spent for the benefit of the people, not the wealthy.

      (2) I've seen no SNP promises to cut taxation to US levels, only to reduce Corporation Tax a bit to attract investment and create jobs. Gordon Brown cut Corporation Tax twice (by more than John Swinney proposes to cut it), and George Osborne's going to cut it. Why is it only when the SNP do it that it's a bad thing?

      All of this is wasted on Dunc, of course, whose hilarious attempt to create a completely new meaning out of what Johann said and clearly intended is entirely in keeping with his usual schtick - semantic hairsplitting and ridiculous sophistry, hiding the fact that the party he's set on a career in has sold out every principle it ever stood for, and which he just can't bear to face up to.

  9. Excellent post and interesting comments.

    I'd like to ask Duncan if Labour has any plans at all to reduce the misery which the Tories and their lap dogs have wished on us.

    If they are not in favour of univeral benefits, how do they intend to means test them, at what cost and at what level? How to they intend to deal with the almost inevitable resultant reduction in quality of benefits that, instead of being a right for which one has paid National Insurance all one’s life, become handouts to be feared by those who need them, and looked down upon by those who do not?

    This, particularly given the climate which has been created over the past 30 years where people on "benefits" are seen as scroungers.

    What is Labour’s answer to the poverty that covers the whole of Scotland? What do they think about people working a full week and relying upon benefits to pay outrageously high rents? What do they feel about food parcels from the Red Cross being handed out to the poor and what would they do about the need for them and for food banks? Do they see any irony in a country possessing WMDs, sitting on the Security Council’s permanent membership, but needing an international organisation to distribute food parcels to its needy?

    As the Rev Stuart pointed out, if we don’t need to spend on nuclear weaponry and following every order from the White House; if we don’t require to sit at the top (and very expensive) table in every organisation of which we are a member; if we care more about people, our people, and less about the “clout” that Cameron is so fond of bragging that the UK (he) has, we can easily manage to treat our people decently without raising taxes to Scandinavian levels. After all, didn't the OECD reckon that we would be in the top ten of rich per capita nations?

  10. Duncan, Braveheart,

    It seems to me that there are two distinct issues here: one, the phrase "something for nothing" and what it was intended to relate to and two, the broader argument, which I think I treated relatively fairly in this post, that universal provision of services and benefits during a period of financial difficulty privileges the interests of rich beneficiaries of those services, which offloading cuts elsewhere, onto services which more, less-well-off people rely on. As it happens, I don't consider that an inadmissible point of contention in the policy field (but then, I'm an academic: everything is freely arguable every which way).

    On the idea, however, that the politically poisonous "something for nothing" line was a wilful construct and a mischievous Nationalist distortion of Johann's message: I'd refer you to the anticipatory coverage her remarks received in the Labour-sympathetic press. It just isn't credible to argue that the Daily Record, with its headline on the "something for nothing culture" Johann was criticising, were doing anything but relaying the message which was relayed to them - doubtless by Johann herself and her functionaries. It is clear in my mind that this phrase was not, at least at the time, a throwaway remark taken out of context. This was the message which Lamont wanted us to take from her speech. All of that is, however, political in the most boring way, quibbling over words.

    I still haven't heard how an energy freeze doesn't fall foul of Johann's critique of universal series in the context of resource constraint.