SCOTTISH Labour cemented its break from the UK party yesterday with a lurch to the left and backing for public sector strikes next month.
At a special conference in Glasgow designed to overhaul its constitution and revive party fortunes after May’s Scottish Parliament election defeat, all the candidates for the Scottish leadership and deputy’s position said they would campaign alongside workers striking against changes to their pensions.
The show of solidarity was in contrast to the position of UK Labour leader Ed Miliband. He was booed at last month’s TUC conference in London for saying an earlier one-day strike on the same issue had been “a mistake”.
Up to three million people are expected to take part in the November 30 strike. The 24-hour walkout is against UK Government plans for a 3.2% increase in employee contributions from 2014 and a change in linking pensions to the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation, from the higher Retail Price Index.
In the leadership hustings, left-wing MSP Johann Lamont said she was proud her old teaching union, the EIS, “beat” Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and said these latest strikes were about people “fighting for dignity in their old age”.
Although on the right of the party, MP Tom Harris also said he would support the strikers and said it was wrong for the public sector to be punished for a crisis started by the private sector.
MSP Ken Macintosh, who was cheered for saying he wanted to reregulate buses and take the ScotRail franchise out of private hands, said he wanted to show “solidarity” with the workers.
Dave Watson, Scottish organiser of Unison, said of the candidates’ support for strikes: “I’m very pleased all the candidates committed to supporting workers defending their pensions on November 30. It is a leadership example we welcome across the UK.”
In the biggest internal changes for 90 years, the conference agreed to beef up the role of the next leader, giving him or her far more autonomy.
Whoever succeeds Iain Gray on December 17 will be in charge of the whole Scottish party, its MSPs, MPs, MEPs and councillors, not just the MSP group at Holyrood, as is currently the case.
Judging by the reception she received yesterday, Lamont is the frontrunner for the post.
Around 500 delegates at the Royal Concert Hall also heard from the deputy leadership hopefuls: MPs Ian Davidson and Anas Sarwar and MSPs Elaine Murray and Lewis Macdonald.
Davidson, MP for Glasgow South West, used the platform to hit back over a row with the SNP over his chairing of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford last week withdrew from the group, claiming Davidson told her she would get “a doing” over leaks to the press.
First Minister Alex Salmond said Davidson, a regular thorn in the SNP’s flesh, should resign as chairman.
But Davidson said: “We’re in here, on a Saturday, talking about politics. That is not normal.
“We have to identify ways in which we can speak normal to people that are normal.
“I think I can speak normal to ordinary people, even if that normal is sometimes misunderstood by people that want to cause mischief.
“Bullying is not acceptable, but neither is smearing. Not only can I talk normal, I think I’m probably the candidate the SNP want least.”