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Target Salmond

JOHANN Lamont has laid out her blueprint for rebuilding Scottish Labour after its disastrous defeat last May, promising a new commission on devolution and identifying Alex Salmond as the party's number one target.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont

Yesterday, in her first conference speech since being elected leader in December, Lamont tried to position Labour firmly on the middle ground of the devolution debate, standing up for Scotland and willing to examine new powers for Holyrood, but staying within the UK.

In a sustained attack on the First Minister, she accused him of being a "conman" and a right-wing ideologue more interested in big business and political calculation than the daily struggles of ordinary voters.

Peppered with Lamont's bone-dry humour, the half-hour speech was aimed at improving spirits within a beleaguered party rather than winning votes, and was well received by the 700 delegates at Dundee's Caird Hall.

However, there were also signs of the challenges facing Labour. Lamont conspicuously failed to mention the forthcoming council elections, now just eight weeks away on May 3.

The omission was "because we're going to get trashed in May," as one delegate explained afterwards.

Lamont's speech also angered some trade unionists with a reference to comrades leaving Labour last May.

"We didn't leave the party, the party left us," grumbled one senior union player.

Lamont started with an admission that Labour looked "tired and complacent" last year, when she was deputy leader, and "got the kind of beating we deserved". But she said it was time to stop apologising for the mistakes of the past and start fighting again.

She promised the next 12 months would be a "period of renewal", with her deputy Anas Sarwar examining how new talent could be nurtured instead of "stifled" by rigid party structures.

Her recurring theme was that Salmond was obsessed with accumulating powers and status while neglecting people's basic needs.

"I am a Scot and I love Scotland," she said. "I will wear the saltire with pride, but I won't bind it around my eyes so I cannot see the injustice in our country.

"I will not talk Scotland down. But I will not be silent while under Alex Salmond children suffer in poverty and he does nothing about it."

Mentioning Salmond – but no other SNP politician – by name some 20 times, she ridiculed the First Minister's claim to be a political progressive.

"What we need is a commitment to Scottish values. A commitment to our communities, to equality, to solidarity. And I am afraid, Mr Salmond, that doesn't mean a commitment to the low-tax, low public-spending ideology which is at the heart of your politics."

She attacked the SNP government over just £20 million of £800m of contracts for the new Forth Road Bridge going to Scottish firms, with steel from China instead of Lanarkshire.

"Let me tell Alex Salmond something. Putting saltires around his fireplace is no proof that he is

putting Scotland's interests first, and there is one thing we in this country are good at – spotting a conman when we see one.

"Putting Scotland first means more than holding press conferences at Edinburgh Castle. It means ensuring that Scottish investment benefits Scottish workers."

Announcing a Labour commission on devolution, she said it would take "a radical look at not just what powers the Scottish Government should have, but what powers local government needs and which should be devolved further to local communities".

But she immediately downplayed the possibility of backing the devolution of corporation tax, calling tax competition with the rest of the UK a "race to the bottom".

She said the commission would not demand powers for their own sake, but consider what would genuinely help Scotland to build a fairer society.

Before the commission reports next year, Lamont said the party's immediate task was fighting to keep Scotland in the UK, and that she was willing to work with "people from all parties and none".

She also said former chancellor Alistair Darling and former prime minister Gordon Brown would have key roles.

She ended with another attack on Salmond, saying: "If you measure your love of your country in yards of tartan, go with the other guy, not with me. But I ask everyone in this party, everyone in our land, to come with me, to celebrate Scottish values and make them real.

"We will renew our party, rebuild our land. And we will do it by being a better Labour, real Labour, Scottish Labour."

Lamont's commission is already increasing tensions within Labour. The Sunday Herald understands Unite and Unison will argue for a second question on more powers on the referendum ballot, whereas Lamont wants a single Yes-No question on independence.

Dave Watson, Unison's Scottish organiser, said: "We are interested in exploring the options with a broader group of people and extending devolution, and to see if that can be turned into a second question."

SNP Depute Leader Nicola Sturgeon said: "The anti-independence parties are mired in confusion and negativity.

"They are confused, because they are either unable or unwilling to spell out to the people of Scotland what their alternative to independence is – and Labour have just asked for a year to come up with one. And they are negative, because in the absence of a positive alternative they are consigned to negativity about independence."

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