Alex Salmond might not wish to be compared to Gordon Brown but there is one sense in which the two dominant Scottish political personalities of the age are more alike than either would care to acknowledge: they each love a good dividing line.
In Edinburgh yesterday Salmond announced that all pupils in their first three years of primary school would henceforth be entitled to a free school lunch. This, he claimed, would save parents £330 a year per child. A useful benefit for those parents whose offspring do not currently qualify for free meals; a means of ending, the First Minister suggested, the stigma presently endured by those children who do rely on free meals.
Labour voted against the proposal.
Cue much celebration in Natland. Another dividing line has been established. The SNP are on the side of the kids; Labour will leave them starving. Imagine it: a Labour party that won’t feed Scotland’s children!
Of course it is not quite as simple as that. But the episode was another reminder that the SNP are quite good at playing the game of politics and Scottish Labour have, yet again, been wrong-footed by the nationalists.
It’s politics, Jake. If the nationalists had simply proposed a motion for free school meals, Labour might well have voted for it. But that wouldn’t have given the SNP their dividing line. So they included a poison-pill in which they tied additional child-friendly measures such as increased child-care to independence. This was too much for Labour to stomach and Johann Lamont’s troops duly voted against the government motion.
SNP members in turn voted down a Labour amendment that removed all references to childcare provision post-independence and concentrated solely on the free meals policy. But no-one will hear or pay any attention to that.
It is true that many Labour types ask – not unreasonably – how choosing to spend money subsidising meals for middle-class children really helps poorer children who would have qualified for free meals anyway. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on expanding childcare now? These are, that is to say, both good things but one of them is better than the other.
Labour’s view – shared by the Conservatives, I believe – is not an unreasonable one. But that’s not what anyone will remember. Once again they have been out-witted by the nimble – if also, a sceptic might say, duplicitous – nationalists. We will feed the children, Labour wouldn’t.
Nor, of course, will voters be encouraged to note that this is not really an SNP present at all. On the contrary, it follows the coalition governments plan to offer a similar programme of free meals in England. The SNP will not thank you for noticing that – as with a cap on benefits – they are following Tory-Lib Dem policies.
The money for all this comes courtesy of the famed Barnett Consequentials. Increases in spending in England trigger increases in spending in Scotland (and cuts cause cuts too, the equally famed Barnett Squeeze). Every time George Osborne finds some “new” money in England, Alex Salmond and John Swinney receive a wee present.
In essence, then, this is a policy made in London and might even be spun – if Labour in Scotland had anyone who could spin properly – as a demonstration of how we might actually be Better Together.
But, as I say, that’s not how it will play or be perceived in Scotland. Another dividing line has been created and the nationalists, in political and electoral terms, are on the better side of it. Once again they have the easier story to sell and Labour, hampered by the need to seem “responsible” are painted as child-starving Scrooges. This is unfair but, hey, that’s politics. And the SNP are better at it than Scottish Labour.
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