A YEAR ago, when Johann Lamont was declared the winner of the Scottish Labour leadership contest, it was the SNP who seemed cock-a-hoop, while some in her own party appeared content to write her off.
She has surprised many who doubted her. First, she has made a decent job of taking on Alex Salmond, the consummate politician of his generation. Her combative style at First Minister's Questions has been more effective than that of her decent but ineffectual predecessor, Iain Gray. She has managed to get under the First Minister's skin and sometimes win the arguments. On two recent occasions – over green energy jobs and college funding – the Scottish Government has been forced into making retractions on previous statements.
Secondly, she has taken steps to resolve infighting within the Labour party and defuse long-standing tensions between MSPs and MPs. This, however, remains a work in progress.
Thirdly, she has sought to reach beyond the independence debate to raise questions about the fairness of Scottish Government policy, even within its current limited remit. Her central argument, fleshed out yesterday in a keynote speech to mark her first anniversary as leader, is about the profound inequality in Scottish society.
There are questions about the affordability of Scotland's free personal care regime for the elderly at a time when the Government is having to spend £60m a year on free prescriptions for everyone. Her home turf is in education, having worked as an English teacher in deprived areas. She questions the underfunded council tax freeze, while schools are having to cut staff, despite the gap in attainment between the highest and lowest achieving schools. She challenges cuts to college budgets, which hit the poorest hardest, while part of the price of free tuition for university students is the £75m a year the Government is obliged to shell out on EU students who come to Scotland to study.
Ms Lamont is right to raise the issue of whether this policy is sustainable in the long term "in an era of mass participation without a very serious diminution in standards and quality". Is she not merely saying what university principals in Scotland are thinking as they seek to maintain their institutions' places in the world rankings? Her core argument is that, as undergraduates are drawn predominantly from more affluent backgrounds, the current policy is regressive, especially when access is narrower in Scotland than England, despite the latter's tuition fees.
Ms Lamont does not have all the answers but she is asking pertinent questions.