Labour leader Iain Gray today denied his party had blundered with its about-turn on an independence referendum.

He claimed Labour was right to offer Alex Salmond a referendum a year ago - and was now right to rule one out.

Mr Gray also denied the u-turn has provided ammunition to the First Minister by enabling the SNP to enter the 2011 election campaign as the only party offering voters a choice.

Mr Gray told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "No doubt he will try and say that, but it simply will not be true."

"It was us who offered Alex Salmond the opportunity a year ago."

Mr Gray said his predecessor, Wendy Alexander, had thrown down a "clear challenge" to the SNP leader but Mr Salmond walked away from that.

He said: "We will spend the next two years focused on what this Government should be doing and is failing to do, to help Scots through the most difficult times for a generation.

"It was Alex Salmond who lost his nerve when given the opportunity to put this questions to the test."

And Mr Gray, facing his first Labour conference as party leader, claimed Labour would have won the referendum last year if Alex Salmond had taken up Wendy Alexander's challenge.

He said: "I'm absolutely sure we would have won.

"I think Alex Salmond was absolutely sure we would have won as well.

"That is why he turned his back on that opportunity and walked away from it.

"But right now I think the people of Scotland want all their politicians in all parties to spend all their time focusing on helping them get through these difficult economic circumstances."

On other policy issues Mr Gray claimed his party's plans for reforming local government finance could go further than simply reforming the council tax.

He said: "That could be a reform of the council tax, it could be a replacement.

"I favour a property-based tax, a tax set locally - but I think it has to be fairer, it has to be more broadly-based, than the council tax we have got now."

The opening day of the Scottish Labour conference will hear a plea for a public inquiry into a Clostridium difficile outbreak linked to 18 deaths.

Michelle Stewart, whose mother-in-law Sarah McGinty died during an outbreak of the bug at the Vale of Leven Hospital in West Dunbartonshire, has been invited to address the event in Dundee. Ms Stewart, a member of the C diff justice group, has made repeated calls for a public inquiry to be held into what happened at the hospital.

And she said: "We think systems at the Vale of Leven Hospital totally failed - that's why this bug was allowed to run rampant for six months.

Nobody detected it was going on, nobody detected how many people were catching it.

"The Scottish Government should listen to the experts and listen to the families. We need them to order a public inquiry now to make sure that no other families have to go through the same experience as us."