Ian Swanson: Scottish Labour stuck in the wings

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IT’S nearly six years since Labour was in power at Holyrood, polls show it still trailing the SNP and there is every chance the next Scottish Parliament elections could hand it another term in opposition.

But the party is determined to be upbeat as delegates gather in Inverness for its annual conference.

With next year’s independence referendum dominating all political debate in Scotland, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and her colleagues can comfort themselves that however unenthusiastic voters might be about them becoming the government, they are at least on the same side on the question of the country’s constitutional future, according to the polls.

Labour prides itself on being the party that delivered devolution and tomorrow it will unveil its latest thinking on extending the powers of the parliament if and when Scots vote No to independence.

The package is expected to include transferring full control of income tax from Westminster to Holyrood, which – unlike the extra powers already in the pipeline – would allow the Scottish Parliament to set a higher top rate, widen the bands or introduce a new lower rate.

Critics say in the context of devolution, as opposed to independence, such powers would just give an excuse for cutting Scotland’s share of overall UK tax revenue. But it is significantly further than Labour’s commission looking into further devolution might have been expected to go.

The proposals will be put out to consultation in a “dialogue with the Scottish people” before finally being adopted as party policy a year from now.

That will be less than six months away from the referendum, but it could be just in time to offer a positive alternative to independence.

But even if the result of the referendum is a clear No, current indications are that the SNP could easily be re-elected as the government at the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. Ms Lamont can put in an impressive performance at First Minister’s Questions and leave Alex Salmond looking defensive and blustering. But most voters don’t see the weekly sparring contest at Holyrood. Labour needs to be doing a lot better at getting its message across and presenting itself as an alternative government for Scotland.

At UK level, Labour is ahead in the polls and Ed Miliband, who will address the conference tomorrow afternoon, looks on course to oust David Cameron at the 2015 general election.

Mr Miliband came under fire from former prime minister Tony Blair and his acolytes at the weekend with warnings that the party should not be tempted to veer left, but stick with the Blairite approach.

However, in a powerful riposte at the weekly meeting of Labour MPs and peers, Mr Miliband pointed out New Labour was founded two decades ago, and added: “Tony Blair taught us that the world changed. The world does change.”

Mr Blair was the prime minister who legislated to create the Scottish Parliament, but he was never hugely enthusiastic about devolution. Mr Miliband is genuinely more relaxed than his predecessors about Labour in Scotland doing its own thing.

Scottish Labour insiders say Ms Lamont has shown she is not afraid of a debate and they cite her controversial call for a rethink on Scotland’s free bus travel, free prescriptions, free tuition fees and free personal care. Now she is showing the same readiness to engage with difficult issues by opening up the option of more devolution.

But in her welcome in the conference programme, Ms Lamont acknowledges: “We still have plenty to do to regain people’s confidence in us so that once again they will ask us to serve them in government.”

Six years on from defeat, that’s quite an admission for a party which dominated Scottish politics for the previous half-century.

SNP keeps significant lead over labour

THE SNP has increased its opinion poll lead over Labour since the last Holyrood elections.

The Nationalists secured over 45 per cent of the constituency votes in 2011 to win their unprecedented overall majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament, while Labour took just under 32 per cent.

On the list vote, the SNP had 44 per cent and Labour 26 per cent.

A Panelbase poll last October showed the SNP had maintained its 45 per cent support in the constituency vote and Labour was up slightly on 33 per cent. On the list, the figures were SNP 45 per cent, Labour 30 per cent.

But another survey by the same pollsters last month put the SNP two points up in the constituency vote, on 47 per cent, and Labour down to 30 per cent – a gap of 17 points.

On the list, the SNP was at 45 per cent and Labour 25 per cent. The SNP claimed these figures would mean Labour losing key seats including East Lothian and Edinburgh North & Leith.