From our Scottish Political Correspondent
ON THE 11th May 1559 John Knox preached a sermon in the fair city of Perth which marked the start of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Roused by his oratory over the next two days the townspeople ransacked the city’s wealthy friaries. Four-hundred-and-fifty-five years later Johann Lamont’s leader’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in the same city had no such dramatic effect on sudden wealth redistribution but it marked a decisive bid to put clear red water between Labour and the nationalists.
Denouncing the “seven years of nationalism in Scotland – and not one policy which redistributes wealth from rich to poor” she promised to restore the 50p tax rate on incomes over £150,000 and strongly attacked First Minister Alex Salmond for planning to offer “multinationals and millionaires a bigger cut in corporation tax than anything the Tories could contemplate”.
Lamont also promised to “reverse the SNP's centralisation with a radical transfer of power to communities and people”. But apart from promising more powers to the island authorities, she made no specific promises to reverse the centralisation of the fire and police services, which have been taken out of local authority control by the SNP government.
Some of the victims of the SNP’s policies are fighting back. Police civilian workers are to ballot on strike action after relations with Police Scotland broke down. As a result of the creation of a single Scottish police force four command and control centres, which field 999 calls across the country are facing closure. The first, in Dumfries, is scheduled to shut by the end of May, with the loss of 34 jobs. Control rooms at Aberdeen, Stirling and Glenrothes face an uncertain future and police staff have had redundancy terms reduced.
At the conference George McIrvine, the Unison branch secretary representing civilian workers in the police force, said that the SNP “crow on about how well policing in Scotland is performing, with a 40-year low in crime. I remember last year it was 38-years record low, the year before was a 36-year low. Even their sums don’t add up in accounting for crime”.
Bashing the SNP over its social policy comes easy for Scottish Labour leaders, who have difficulty in recalling that for the first 10 years of devolved rule the country was governed by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.
This amnesia is clearly selective. Labour’s national leader, Ed Miliband, could remind delegates of role of John Smith, the Labour leader who led the party in opposition until his sudden death in 1994, but say nothing about another fellow Scot, Gordon Brown, who led the last national Labour Government.
Naturally Miliband attacked the Nationalist record in government, claiming that history had "enabled us to fight for equality and social justice" and called for a No vote in the forthcoming independence referendum.
“The SNP have no plan for social justice. Remember the ‘progressive beacon’, they were going to be?” he said. “They can’t say that any more. The SNP had to be dragged kicking and screaming to abolish the Bedroom Tax. It was Labour’s campaign that forced them to do it.”
Miliband says that retaining the parliamentary union is the "right choice" because of the "bonds and the history we share across the UK" – a theme amplified by many in the Scottish labour movement who argue that breaking the link would weaken the collective strength of the unions north and south of the border.
But this argument has been considerably weakened by the way that the employers walked all over the biggest union in the country during the Grangemouth dispute and because Labour nationally does little to promote trade unions rights and is currently working to marginalise their organisational role in the party that is still overwhelmingly funded by them.
The real threat, of course, is to Labour’s seats in the Westminster Parliament. And this was bluntly spelt out by Glasgow MP Margaret Curran, who said: “The only thing that the SNP’s plans guarantee is uncertainty in Scotland and permanent Tory government in what is left of the United Kingdom.” Though quite why Labour thinks it cannot win majorities in the English heartlands with its vast working-class cities is never answered.
Labour’s alternative to Scottish independence is the promise of greater home rule and this was developed by former Scottish Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, during a packed fringe meeting debate with Allan Grogan’s dissident Labour For Independence Group (LFI).
McLeish led the Scottish government from October 2000 until his resignation the following year amid a scandal involving allegations he sub-let part of his tax-subsidised Westminster constituency office without declaring it. He now plays no part in mainstream Scottish politics but he returned to the fray to oppose independence while calling for more devolved powers than those Labour is currently offering the country.
He also called on Scottish Labour to "stop hating Salmond and the SNP" in the debate with Grogan, who said: "Labour For Independence consists of members, voters, supporters, former voters who felt the party had left them and not the other way around, trade unionists, councillors, former Lord Provosts and former chairs of the late Scottish Labour Party.
"We believe in the ideals and principles of the Labour Party, but we also believe that independence is the best way forward for Scotland."
As for the “unity” Grogan said: “Let me begin by asking the question to all those waiting for the British road to socialism. How close are we to achieving this? I have campaigned for a better society within the UK and there are many here today who have spent a lot longer doing so than I, and yet we seem to be further and further away from making this a reality.”
But Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, the MP for Glasgow Central, says the LFI is just an SNP front – a claim denied by Grogan who did, however, admit last August that only 40 per cent of his group’s 80-odd members are actually in the Labour Party.
Scottish Labour is "on the way back," Anas Sarwar told delegates in his closing-conference appeal. He said Labour was on track to win next year's Westminster election and the 2016 Holyrood poll, reversing shattering defeats in the two parliaments in 2010 and 2011.
Labour is, indeed, set to win next year’s general election if the opinion polls are anything to go by. But that is largely due to the collapse of the Liberal-Democrat vote and the rise of the far-right UK Independence Party.
Miliband’s strategy from the beginning of his tenure has been to rely on these factors to send him to Downing Street rather than adopt a working class agenda that Labour’s traditional core voters and the unions want. Labour cannot take them for granted and neither can Scottish Labour.