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Lamont needs vision not just brickbats

JOHANN Lamont had plenty to say at the Scottish Labour conference in Inverness yesterday.

Her speech took in her Hebridean childhood, her teaching career, and a guiding drive to eradicate poverty and all the evils that pool in its wake. It was pithy, funny, and received with genuine warmth.

It also faced head-on the criticism from within Labour ranks about her review of public spending in what she has termed "something for nothing" Scotland, and the devolution commission report which this week angered her MPs by proposing Holyrood control income tax outright.

Mention of other work on education, the economy, health and land reform contributed to the sense of something stirring in the Labour undergrowth, a feeling the Scottish party might actually be finding its feet after the drubbing of 2011.

In the week Margaret Thatcher was buried, Lamont remarked on the pain and damage the former PM did to Scotland, and praised the restraint of miners and shipyard workers recalling her "vandalism".

Rather than dwell on Thatcher, she advocated a more positive outlook. "Let our movement be shaped by our political heroes not by villains. Let's define ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against."

A fine sentiment, but not one in much evidence. For at the heart of Lamont's speech was an attack on the SNP, and Alex Salmond in particular.

Salmond, she implied with a promise to restore honesty to politics, is dishonest. His politics are "rotten", she claimed.

He is deceiving the public, trying to turn Scots against England, and failing to tackle society's ills by putting the country on pause until after the independence referendum.

Lamont is onto something with the charge that key policies are being used as constitutional pawns.

Childcare, which Salmond says would be transformed by independence, can be improved by more money today; it does not hinge on a Yes vote.

But while it made sense on one level to attack Salmond, Lamont's speech had gaping holes in it too.

Thatcher's funeral was not the only news to feature a senior Tory this week.

George Osborne's economic policy is unravelling: the IMF urged him to rethink his austerity plans to secure growth, unemployment rose, Fitch stripped the UK of its AAA credit rating, and MPs warned the Chancellor he risks inflating a new housing bubble.

Yet none of this made it onto Lamont's autocue.

Perhaps because, like Thatcher, Osborne is an aspect of the union she would rather not dwell on.

But if Lamont is to meet her own standard, she needs to present a positive case for the union she believes in. Attacking Salmond cheered her troops in Inverness, but it is not enough.

She needs vision as well as derision.

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