*Labour not to blame for crisis
*Labour’s last 13 years was “great progress”
*North Sea Oil is a “diminishing resource”
*Fiscal Autonomy would make Scotland a “tax haven”
Labour’s Holyrood group leader Iain Gray has insisted that Labour do not shoulder the blame for the UK’s economic crisis and that the party actually saved the UK economy.
Speaking to delegates at the party’s Scottish Conference in Oban Mr Gray claimed that full fiscal autonomy would turn Scotland into a tax haven and that an independent Scotland would have no air force and fewer defence jobs. He also claimed that independence would have seen RBS and HBOS collapse along with 40,000 Scottish jobs.
In a speech peppered with references to the First Minister Alex Salmond, Mr Gray tried to contrast his own life experiences with that of the SNP’s leader. The speech itself contained no fewer than fourteen references to the SNP leader and eighteen in all to the SNP but only six for the Tory’s and two mentions for David Cameron. This is an indication perhaps of the fear that Labour have of the current First Minister and for the SNP, who recently overtook Labour as the biggest political party in Scotland.
Mr Gray insisted that, rather than causing the UK’s economic woes, the last Labour government had in fact saved the economy. Mr Gray also claimed that UK public spending prior to the financial collapse was not out of control and was “a necessity to right the wrongs of decades of Tory mis-rule” describing governance under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as “great progress of the last thirteen years”.
Mr Gray accused the current UK coalition of “protecting bankers” and attacked them over the RAF Kinloss decision. He also attacked the spending cuts describing them as too fast and too deep. Mr Gray said Labour in Scotland would not make “lavish spending proposals”
Mr Gray then turned his attention to the SNP saying that they would not give up easily and had “money to spend” in the forthcoming Holyrood election campaign. He claimed that the SNP would try to hide behind “shiny slogans” and attacked what he described as a “track record of failure”.
Mr Gray boasted that, at Holyrood, Labour MSPs had “harried, hounded and hamstrung SNP ministers” and accused the SNP of having “used and abused” the Scottish parliament. He spoke of his pride at seeing Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson, who have decided to leave Holyrood for Westminster, sitting on “those green benches” in the House of Commons. Mr Gray also praised former First Minister Jack McConnell and George Foulkes who have also decided to leave Holyrood and are off to the House of Lords.
Mr Gray launched a personal attack on First Minister Alex Salmond describing him as a “wee sleekit cooering timorous beastie”.
He accused the SNP of being timid in their desire to reduce public body HQs and pledged that Labour would cut even more. Mr Gray promised to cut the number of police forces in Scotland from eight to just one and to do the same with the fire service HQs. Mr Gray accused the SNP of increasing the number of managers in the NHS and pledged to cut the number of health boards from 22 to 14.
The Labour group leader described Alex Salmond as a gambler and claimed the First Minister was planning to “bet Bute House” on independence. He also claimed that the First Minister had “got it wrong” on the banks and the economy and blamed the SNP for Scotland’s rising unemployment. Mr Gray mocked the First Minister calling him a minister for funny hats, shortbread tins and porridge.
The reference to ‘funny hats’ is believed to relate to the Scottish Commonwealth Games official tracksuit uniform that came complete with a sun-shielding style hat and was worn by the First Minister when he visited the Scottish team in Delhi.
Mr Gray alluded to North Sea oil describing the resource as having ”diminished somewhat” and claimed that the Union was not holding Scotland back. Labour’s Holyrood leader suggested that Scotland’s real problems were drugs and alcohol, an inability to read or count and the empty future of unemployment.
Mr Gray promised to restart the Project Scotland programme claiming that it would give young Scots “a start in life”. He also promised that some time in the future every qualified school leaver who wants one would be guaranteed an apprenticeship. He accepted that it could not be done overnight but that Labour would try to find a way.
Mr Gray promised to retrain as many unemployed teachers as possible in order to provide one-to-one training for pupils with reading and numeracy problems. He also claimed credit for the new apprenticeships announced by the SNP in the last budget.
Mr Gray insisted that Labour had saved the carrier contracts and that he had personally forced Alex Salmond to “get off his backside” and join Labour’s campaign to protect Scottish shipbuilding on the Clyde and the Forth.
Mr Gray claimed that independence would prevent Scotland from trading with the rest of the UK saying “Alex Salmond wants to separate us from our greatest market in the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Adopting the now familiar slogan of “Stronger together – Weaker apart”, Mr Gray claimed that an independent Scotland would see defence jobs hit and that we would have “no aircraft carriers, no air force and no submarines”. Mr Gray also claimed that in an independent Scotland “RBS and the Bank of Scotland would have gone and forty thousand jobs would have gone with them.” and that fiscal autonomy would see Scotland become “a tax haven for rich people”.
Mr Gray attacked the Scottish government’s Council of Economic Advisors and vowed to replace it with what he called “an economic cabinet” influenced by Trade Unions and by business.
Mr Gray described the closing of Gogarburn Hospital as his “proudest moment” saying it had allowed people with learning difficulties to live in their own homes. Mr Gray promised to set up a National Care Service to help care for vulnerable people describing current services as “inadequate”.
A surprising omission from the speech was any reference to the council tax. Mr Gray has come under increasing pressure to explain his party’s stance on the issue after making a series of confusing and contradictory statements. The leader of the Labour Holyrood group has already confirmed his desire to see a rise in the tax, however despite media reports suggesting a cap of 2% Mr Gray has yet to confirm whether councils will indeed be prevented from increasing the tax above this level.
The SNP responded to the speech by questioning Labour’s commitment to new teacher recruitment pointing out that Labour run councils are responsible for two thirds of the current total reduction in teacher numbers.
SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson – Deputy Convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee – challenged Mr Gray to tell his own councillors to address the teacher employment issue since they were responsible for two-thirds of the drop in teacher numbers in the last school year.
Commenting Mr Gibson said:
“In the last election Labour made the same lavish promises about education and then proceeded to forget about those promises with Iain Gray ripping up their manifesto pledges.
“Trainee teachers cannot trust Labour as the performance of the Labour party in power in local government shows.
“Over two thirds of the drop in teacher numbers is due to councils where Labour is in administration. If Iain Gray wants to have his supposed ‘boldness’ tested why does he not tell his own councillors to start meeting this pledge?
“Or is this yet another example of how no-one can trust a word Labour says? That what they promise fails to be delivered.”
Mr Gray’s plans for a single police force suffered a blow when it has emerged that the Labour group at Highland Council opposed a centralised police force in Scotland just days before Iain Gray’s speech, the motion was co-signed by the leader of the Labour group.
SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell – a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee – said:
“This is another example of Iain Gray being so eager to attack the SNP that he forgot to check his facts. Another case that no one can trust a word Labour says.
“Whilst the SNP is looking at making savings by reducing the number of forces this has to take into account a number of views. It would appear Iain Gray doesn’t feel the need for consultation.
“Or is it a case that what Labour say at their conferences doesn’t match what they will do when in a position of power? Just like how he is promising 1,000 extra teachers when he could be telling his own councillors to stop cutting the number of teachers.”