By Bob Duncan
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont is today facing claims that she has been publicly humilliated after UK Labour leader Ed Miliband praised universal benefits as a "bedrock" of society, leaving the two leaders at odds on policy.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Mr Miliband said: "I think that universal benefits which go across the population are an important bedrock of our society," adding that such services were a "very, very important principle".
Last year, Johann Lamont caused controversy when she launched her plans for a 'cuts commission' to examine which popular universal services could be cut, removed or means tested in Scotland. Criticising what she described as Scotland's "something for nothing" society, the Scottish Labour leader targeted all services, including university education, free personal care and concessionary travel for older people.
In a speech in Edinburgh, the Scottish Labour leader told activists and the media, "I am not going to get into an auction with the SNP. They might cry freedom but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie."
However, her leader Ed Miliband's insistence that universal benefits are the "bedrock" of society has been seized on by the SNP who have claimed that the comments undermine the Scottish Labour leader.
Clips of Ed Miliband backing universal benefits
SNP Depute leader and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:
"This is an utter humiliation for Johann Lamont – her London boss Ed Miliband has completely undermined her with his comments in support of universal benefits.
"People across Scotland know the importance of universal services such as university education, free prescriptions, free personal care and concessionary travel for older people – and these Scottish Government policies are hugely popular.
"Johann Lamont wants to axe these benefits through her Cuts Commission, and has also insulted hard-working families and pensioners by branding Scotland a 'something for nothing' country.
"Labour's leader at Holyrood has now been left without a shred of credibility. Universal services are hugely popular and valued and will be properly protected and funded in an independent Scotland."
Ed Miliband's comments follow media reports that Ms Lamont's Scottish Labour group blocked a Holyrood debate on universal benefits – despite her calls for an "honest debate" on the issue.
According to the Sunday Herald, SNP MSP Clare Adamson had expected to hold a member's debate on the case for universal benefits this week. However, the Labour group at Holyrood complained there was not enough cross-party support to stage the debate – and after refusing to back it, the debate was axed.
The debate, which had been scheduled for this Thursday, was on a Jimmy Reid Foundation report entitled The Case for Universalism.
Having regularly attacked the SNP, claiming Alex Salmond's party were trying to stifle debate on the subject - as recently as last Thursday's First Minister's Questions - Lamont has now been accused of "rank hypocrisy" by her SNP opponents.
Jimmy Reid Foundation convener Bob Thomson, a Labour member for 50 years and a former chair of the Scottish party, said the Holyrood Labour group was wrong to act as it did:
"We would urge the Scottish Labour Party to see a debate on universal public services as an opportunity and not a threat.
"These are the principles on which the Labour movement was founded and many people in that movement in Scotland today want to hear Johann Lamont flesh out Labour's thinking a bit more than the slightly unfortunate soundbites which have been reported so far.
"It's no good calling for a debate if you don't take the opportunity to have a debate when it arises."
Commenting on Scottish Labour's refusal to step in and save the debate, Ms Sturgeon added:
“It is deeply revealing that Labour politicians are running scared on this issue to the extent that they are now trying to close down the open debate on universal services which they themselves called for.
“Perhaps they are afraid of what they might hear about their insulting claim that pensioners – who have paid taxes all of their lives – receiving free personal care, or the sick receiving free prescriptions, are getting ‘something for nothing’.”