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Labour is united on greater tax power plan

A YEAR ago, on a sunny spring day in a busy train carriage heading up to Scottish Labour's conference in Inverness, I tapped away at a column describing how provisional plans to extend devolution had split the party down the middle.

A battle between MPs and MSPs was looming. It duly overshadowed the weekend gathering.

Until a few days ago I thought ("hoped" would be unfair) I would be able to cut and paste the same piece into today's paper changing little but the date and venue.

But the final report of Labour's devolution commission, published on Tuesday, has forced a more substantial rewrite. Johann Lamont's horribly convoluted proposals to give Holyrood control over a greater proportion of income tax, and to allow MSPs to raise but not lower the higher and additional rates relative to the basic rate, have prompted criticism from both the SNP and centre-right voices but, crucially, not from within.

To the slight surprise and mighty relief of those who wrestled with the devolution plans right down to the wire, Scottish Labour is publicly united about how Holyrood should develop in the event of a No vote in September's referendum.

As a result, party chiefs are confident they will be able to spend their weekend in Perth getting across their intended message, which, put simply, is this: Labour is Scotland's truly progressive party. Alex Salmond's SNP, they want you to understand, are but Janus-faced imposters, speaking the language of the left but pursuing policies of the right.

This belief has been the source of considerable frustration and resentment among Labour folk for a long time. It irks them even more that they have consistently failed to challenge what Mr Salmond himself might call his progressive "credentials," even when he put a 3p cut in corporation tax at the heart of his economic plan for an independent Scotland.

A big push is now under way, however. In recent weeks, Ms Lamont has sacrificed the chance of easy headlines at First Minister's Questions by challenging the SNP over its failure to propose a 50p top rate of tax for an independent Scotland and its refusal to back Labour calls to make firms accepting government contracts to pay workers the living wage. The attacks sat outside the day-to-day news agenda so attracted little coverage but they will be revisited in Ms Lamont's keynote conference address this afternoon.

In another speech today health spokesman Neil Findlay will invoke the memory of William Beveridge, the architect of the welfare state, with his "Beveridge 21" proposal for a root-and-branch review of the NHS. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown picked up the theme at an eve of conference rally, arguing lower and middle income Scots would be better off under Labour than the SNP, and then there is Anas Sarwar's "red paper" project. The document unveiled by Scottish Labour's deputy leader yesterday comes in an unmissably bright red. It's about aspirations rather than costed policies (a manifesto it is not) but with its talk of creating a "moral economy," and commitments, for example, to halve child poverty by 2021 and end zero hours contracts, its progressive principles are clear.

Mr Sarwar denies the document is a direct riposte to the SNP's independence White Paper but that's what it looks like. It is published under the banner of the party's United with Labour referendum campaign and a shortened eight-page version will be sent to every household in the country in the run-up to the vote.

"Old time religion," was how one insider described the overall message and there is no doubt who it's aimed at - old time supporters. Labour are trying to reconnect with people who would have been natural, loyal supporters in years gone by but who have either turned to Mr Salmond in recent elections or turned off politics altogether.

It is no coincidence this demographic is open to the SNP's message that independence would rid them of a Tory Government and might just give them their old Labour Party back. Ms Lamont's success or otherwise in the coming weeks and months could have a significant bearing on the referendum - and on Labour's chances of regaining power at Holyrood in 2016.

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