When David Cameron gets up at Prime Minister’s Questions he attempts to refute Labour arguments, and tells the public Labour is wrong and that adoption of Labour policies would put economic recovery at risk. But he doesn’t tell the Leader of the Opposition that he hasn’t got the right to criticise. It was the same when the parties were the other way round.
However we are getting near to a position in the Scottish Parliament where simply to ‘oppose’ is seen as illegitimate. Labour’s Kezia Dugdale criticised the failure of the Scottish Government to raise educational standards in our schools, and the First Minister’s response was ‘You are talking Scotland’s children down’. On a more recent occasion her words were: ‘while we get on with the job all Labour can do is whinge’.
If you genuinely think a policy is wrong, it isn’t wrong to be critical. Even well intended policies can have unintended and unanticipated consequences. Healthy opposition is an important democratic safeguard and constantly framing criticism as ‘negative’ is unhelpful.
Certainly oppositions need to present alternatives – as Labour in Scotland has done on Tax Credits – but criticism and scrutiny is essential. All governments, no matter how generally popular and no matter how large the majority, need to be challenged from time to time. The last Labour government was rightly forced to rethink proposals on detention without charge, for example.
Scottish political debate seems to be getting stuck in a groove which goes like this:
“We do things differently in Scotland.”
“Our way is better.”
“To criticise is to criticise Scotland/the Scottish people.”
“Why are you always so negative?”
Close down discussion.
So it is on the issue of higher education and, in particular, tuition fees. One of the arguments against tuition fees is that to charge would put off students from more deprived backgrounds from going to university. Recently there has been data suggesting that more students from deprived backgrounds are going to university in England and Wales than in Scotland, and that there has been greater improvement in England than in Scotland.
There are several other reasons why tuition fees, especially at their current high English level, should be opposed; not least the way in which they add to the burden of debt. However what should be worrying the Scottish Government is the fact that they are making so little impact on the numbers of young people entering higher education from poorer backgrounds.
It isn’t enough to congratulate ourselves on free tuition as proving that Scotland has a better system. Is the reduction in bursaries a factor? The Scottish Government has recently increased funding for bursaries, but did that only after reducing it previously. Does the problem lie at school level , and if so what measures should we be taking to close the school attainment gap?
A similar complacency exists on social care. We are told we do it better in Scotland because we have ‘free personal care’. This only deals with a limited aspect of ‘who pays’ for care . Very short home care visits, outsourcing of care to companies which have poor pay and conditions, raising of the ‘bar’ for eligibility making it harder to get care – all of these problems exist in Scotland as much as they do in England.
As the SNP currently forms the government, when we ‘oppose’ any of its policies or its record, we are being critical of the SNP. Too often that is met with an accusation that we are ‘just anti SNP’, another means of deflecting the detail of the criticism. Labour shouldn’t apologise for doing its job as an opposition.