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Calls grow for Scottish Labour autonomy

About the author
Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

Tom Griffin (London, OK): For the first time since the advent of devolution, the Scottish Labour Party is going through a competitive leadership contest, and it's proving to be an invigorating debate.

In an incisive analysis in the Sunday Times, former First Minister Henry McLeish argued that the party's Holyrood leader needs greater powers:

The current leadership debate in Scotland has given Labour a unique chance to address five key areas: the need for the party in Scotland to have much greater autonomy; the need for the Scottish Labour leader to have more power and a wider authority; the need for a radically reformed and flexible Union fit for the new purposes of the 21st Century; the need, to embrace a coherent, modern post-devolution strategy for the constitutional future of our country; and the need for Labour in Scotland to reconnect with its base with a new narrative of what it stands for in this new era. 

McLeish's prescription is, if anything, more radical than last week's similar call by former Finance Minister Tom McCabe, which has prompted a distinctly mixed reaction among Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster.

Dumfries and Galloway MP Russell Brown said he was opposed to McCabe's idea: "We have a leader of the Labour party in Scotland and in the UK, and that leader is Gordon Brown. Why do we want to start changing the rule book just because some people believe it needs changed? I really don't see any need for creating divides."

His view was echoed by Paisley and Renfrewshire North MP Jim Sheridan, who said: "This election is about the leader of the Scottish group at Holyrood, and that's the way it should be. We have a leader in Scotland - it's Gordon Brown."

Whatever the concerns of Westminster MPs, the signs are that political realities are pushing the Scottish Labour Party in a more independent direction. The Scotsman reports today that the council tax looks doomed north of the border as all three Labour leadership candidates support its replacement with a different form of property tax.

This may not be as radical a departure as the local income tax favoured by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, but it still contains the seeds of tension with Westminster:

A spokesman for Cathy Jamieson, the former justice minister and the other candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership, said: "She believes there needs to be a property-based tax, but there is still a lot of work needing to be done."

The spokesman said that Ms Jamieson wanted to move away from the council tax, but only if the Scottish Government could keep the £400 million in annual council tax benefit which comes from London.

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