We don’t often get to see Johann Lamont on the telly, so when she made one of her rare appearances in a five-minute interview with STV’s excellent Bernard Ponsonby this week we couldn’t only do half a job. As we’re still stuck in the house fighting off this year’s unusually-horrible and persistent germs – and as Lamont repeated most of the speech at today’s FMQs – we steeled ourselves, sat down with a large medicinal hot toddy and transcribed the rest of the piece.
What with it being Christmas and everything, though, you’re probably busy, so if you’re in a rush we’ve condensed all of Johann’s umming and aahing and stumbling and waffling down to its essence, where there is such a thing. The parts highlighted in red below are all you really need to read.
BERNARD PONSONBY: On the issue of funding for universities, you said in the speech that “a no-change system is essentially regressive”. Can I take it from that that whatever Labour proposes at the next election, it will involve a graduate contribution?
JOHANN LAMONT: Well it’s very hard to see how it could be otherwise. We have said that we’re not in favour of upfront tuition fees, but currently we’ve got a situation where a policy of no tuition fees in higher education is essentially being funded by cutting college funding, with the consequence that has actually for the quality of education. That’s unsustainable, and I recognise in these tough times it may be those with the broadest shoulders can bear… bear the cost.
BP: You were asked a specific question by a Labour student, I didn’t think that you gave him a straight answer. He said “Are fees on the table?” Are they?
JL: Not upfront tuition fees, but a graduate contribution, a way of funding higher education, is being examined. This is part of the review process, testing policy against both its benefits and its consequences. We’ve, as I highlighted before, this is something that we want to do. What we have currently got is a closing down of that debate, and not a recognition that there are consequences, and I want to open that up.
BP: Will you bring back tuition fees if elected?
JL: Yes, but a graduate endowment rather than upfront fees, even though our website still promises “No up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students”.
The problem with this strategy is that the graduate endowment simply doesn’t work either as a funding method or of placing the burden onto the “broadest shoulders”. For a brilliantly informed explanation of why, see this superb piece from the Jimmy Reid Foundation from earlier in the week.
BP: In a sense haven’t you been guilty of perpetual oppositionism in the last year? I mean, you’ve constantly pointed out that the government have been cutting the college budget – 24% over the last two years – but you haven’t actually been making firm pledges. Are Labour committed to restoring the cuts which you say the SNP are making?
JL: Well we will certainly argue in the budget for them to be restored. We know that the, the, the Education Minister is presiding over a situation where £75m a year is funding access to Scottish education for free for students from across Europe. We know that they’re making other funding decisions too, and we will certainly argue –
BP: Will you reverse the cuts if you’re in power?
JL: I don’t have a clue. We haven’t done any sort of work into finding out whether or not it would be economically or politically feasible, we’ve just reflexively attacked the SNP, because perpetual oppositionism is our only actual policy.
See the same JRF piece linked above for an explanation of why the £75m cited by Lamont wouldn’t be saved if European students were denied free tuition, even if such an arrangement were possible under EU law, which it isn’t.
BP: 24% amounts to approximately how much?
JL: Well, I won’t give you the exact figures just now, but what we would certainly want to do is to highlight the fact that, that that cut should be restored.
BP: How much is this sum that you’ve made the centrepiece of your criticisms?
JL: I haven’t the faintest idea. It never occurred to me that you might ask.
In fact, five seconds on Google reveals the figure. It’s £74m.
BP: What would you cut to restore that?
JL: Well, we’re fortuna- unfortunately not in government, we don’t have access to the figures –
Nor apparently the ability to use a computer. We like the Freudian slip, though.
BP: No, but you’re “a politician of tough choices”, and therefore what you want to do is to say, if we’re not going to cut the college budget, you’re going to have to tell the government what they’re going to have to cut in order to protect college budgets.
JL: No, no, no, we don’t have to tell the government, the government has produced a transparent budget, which has not been properly scrutinised, and what we’ll say to them, we believe it is possible to restore those cuts. They should be looking at, you know, end of year monies and so on –
BP: But if you attack the government’s plans, presumably you must be offering an alternative?
JL: No. We haven’t scrutinised the budget (for some reason), but I nevertheless feel sure it must be the case that there’s an extra £74m in it somewhere that the Finance Secretary hasn’t noticed.
With no other clues as to where the extra revenue could be found, we can only assume that by “end of year monies” Johann means all the tenners in John Swinney’s Christmas cards from his aunties. We hope he has a lot of aunties.
BP: But where should they cut elsewhere?
JL: They should be looking, well, they should be look within their budgets to see what can be done.
Johann Lamont is the leader of Scotland’s second-largest political party and the Holyrood opposition, and wishes to be the country’s First Minister. No, really.
BP: That speech you made on universality at the [???] in Edinburgh those months ago has provided a very clear faultline in Scottish politics. I’m interested about the timing of this – why didn’t you delay it until after the referendum in 2014? Because arguably, what you’ve now done is that you’ve given Alex Salmond an argument for saying that you can either have cuts with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, or cuts to universal benefits from Labour at Holyrood. It appears, really, that you’ve given him a stick with which to beat you.
JL: Well, it’s an essentially dishonesty to say that there aren’t cuts currently. What we have is a Scottish Government that says “We do these good things, but let’s not talk about the consequences of that”, and I think what I have brought into sharp focus in this debate is actually there are consequences to the current choices, and I laid out some of these today in my debate – in my speech on education.
So it is depressing for me that the response to my speech from Alex Salmond was simply to close it down. A debate that his own Finance Secretary wanted to take place – that’s why he commissioned the Beveridge report, that’s why he commissioned the Christie report, and there’re very important opportunities in those reports to address this problem.
Everybody who provides public services knows they’re a problem, everybody who’s receiving public services knows there is a problem. I don’t think, in the real world, when Alex Salmond says “You can have everything fantastic with me, or you only have the Tories”, people don’t believe that. But I also think, while we debate the constitution for the next two years, one critical job for me is to make sure that the rest of politics is not put on pause.
BP: Why did you make this speech now rather than after the referendum?
JL: Ed Miliband told me to. He can’t go around talking about “One Nation” when Scotland has such significant differences on major issues. He assumes we’ll win the referendum no matter what, so I’ve been ordered to align Scottish Labour policies with those of the UK party as a priority, and I’m doing what I’m told.
BP: 12 months into the job, what’s been the high?
JL: Surviving! And it has been remarkably good fun, em, it’s difficult to say what was the most fun, but I think genuinely, feeling, probably the local government elections. Just that sense in Glasgow that people had begin, perhaps, to put their trust in us again, but we know we’ve got a long way to go, and we have to make sure that trust they again put us, em, in May em, is, is, em, merited.
BP: Are you amazed you’re still in a job?
JL: Yes. God knows how we’re going to pay for that free wifi in Glasgow, though.
BP: Johann Lamont, thank you very much indeed.
BP: Christ, what a diddy.