Labour backs bread-and-butter issues over Brexit – Ian Swanson

Rather than Brexit, party is keen to focus on what matters to ordinary people, writes Ian Swanson.

Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 5:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 5:32 pm
Richard Leonard delivers his keynote speech at the Scottish Labour conference. Picture: PA
Richard Leonard delivers his keynote speech at the Scottish Labour conference. Picture: PA

FREE bus travel for everyone was the ‘big ticket’ item in Scottish Labour leader ­Richard Leonard’s keynote speech to the party conference in Dundee at the weekend.

It would start with under-25s but be extended to all Scots in the longer term.

Bus passes for the over-60s was one of the flagship measures introduced by the Labour-Lib Dem coalition in charge at Holyrood in the early years of devolution. Last year the SNP considered raising the qualifying age, as is happening south of the border, but after a review announced there would be no change.

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Now Labour is keen to build on one of its most popular achievements from its time in power.

Mr Leonard called on the SNP to bring in a free bus pass for all under-25s before the next election. He added: “If the SNP won’t do it, we will do it on day one of an incoming Scottish Labour government.”

He said Labour would go further, eventually delivering “universal” free bus travel for all Scots with an improved network focused on providing a public service rather than ­maximising private profit.

Mr Leonard also used his conference speech to propose an annual wealth tax and to promise Labour would use the powers of the parliament to take on large landowners like the Duke of Buccleuch and deliver “land justice”, which he described as “the cause the SNP has ignored”.

These are ambitious policies, likely to go down well with many voters.

They match the radical tone of Labour’s UK manifesto at the 2017 general election which helped the party secure the biggest increase in its vote since 1945.

With the chaos surrounding Theresa May’s government and the Brexit debacle, Labour should be way ahead in the opinion polls. Some polls have given the party a lead of up to three points, but others show them either tied with the Tories or behind.

The latest poll on voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament showed Labour still firmly in third place with 19 per cent support compared to the SNP’s 41 per cent and the Tories’ 27 per cent.

Labour nationally has been dogged by allegations of anti-semitism, divisions over Brexit and the departure of so-called centrists to form The Independent Group.

Nevertheless, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the delegates in Dundee that Labour would win a “reasonable majority” if there was a snap election to resolve the Brexit turmoil and revealed he is already preparing a budget.

In Scotland the party has suffered from no longer being the biggest opposition party at Holyrood. Third place inevitably means less prominence and more of a struggle to be heard.

Mr Leonard warned that the party could not rely on automatic disillusionment with the SNP to help Labour back to win again.

Brexit has dominated all political debate across the UK since the 2016 EU referendum – and it looks set to continue doing so for years to come.

Labour is eager to focus attention on other issues which are of more direct concern to voters, like jobs, inequality, schools, hospitals and police numbers.

Despite its troubles and the all-consuming business of Brexit, the party is putting its trust in the bread and ­butter issues that affect everyone’s lives as the way back to power.