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Leadership debate returns Labour to the devolutionist cause Stephen Daisley

Analysis: Stephen Daisley on the role of devolution in the Scottish Labour leadership election.

Contenders: Neil Findlay, Sarah Boyack, Jim Murphy.
Contenders: Neil Findlay, Sarah Boyack, Jim Murphy.

At some point after setting up the Scottish Parliament, Labour forgot that it had done so.

The party that was the political driving force behind the Scottish Constitutional Convention and that campaigned on and delivered the most far-reaching constitutional change since the Fifth Reform Act, became complacent and began to drift.

There were dedicated Labour first ministers -- Donald Dewar and Jack McConnell -- who wanted to use the powers of devolution to a purpose and they were served by industrious and astute ministers (diverse talents like Susan Deacon, Andy Kerr, and Tom McCabe).

But the party as a whole, particularly the mixed bag of MPs it sends to Westminster, settled into a self-assured funk. Devolution had been delivered but what did that matter now anyway; finally, there was a UK Labour government.

The junior comrades at the bottom of the Royal Mile could pass warm and fuzzy laws -- Malawi good, smoking bad -- but Labour at Westminster was where the real power rested.

While some were contemptuous, others bordered on the hysterical in their antipathy towards devolution. Midway through the referendum campaign, one Labour irredentist predicted belligerent triumph: "Losers should lose. The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood's powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored."

This misadventure has hurt Labour's support in Scotland and handed the SNP an advantage it has been only too happy to pick up.

The contest to lead Scottish Labour has taken place in measured tones but that conceals a quiet devolutionist fightback under way in the party. That rearguard action broke out into the open on Tuesday night's Scotland Tonight, a half-hour special in which the three Scottish Labour leadership candidates were grilled by John MacKay.

Jim Murphy reaffirmed his shift on full devolution of income tax, which he now supports as long as the Barnett Formula that funds Scottish spending can be safeguarded. This reverses Scottish Labour's tepid submission to the Smith Commission, which call for only part of income tax to be handed to Holyrood.

Earlier in the day, Mr Murphy said he would use this power to impose a 50% tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year, a redistributionist policy that outflanks the SNP on the left. He had not told UK leader Ed Miliband or shadow chancellor Ed Balls about this pledge, he said; they could "read about it in the papers". A shameless soundbite, to be sure, but an effective one that sends the message that Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy would be a branch office no more. The centre of gravity would move from a few green benches in Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.

Even Neil Findlay, still sceptical about full income tax devolution, hinted that he could agree to such a move if the Smith Commission report due on Thursday protects the Barnett Formula.

Sarah Boyack kept the theme going in addressing the failures of the (successful) No campaign. She said Labour should have been "on the front foot" on further devolution and "campaigning to talk about how we wanted to strengthen Scotland within the UK, a stronger more accountable Scottish Parliament".

And the three candidates set out bold policies that showed ambition for using a stronger Scottish Parliament as an instrument for social change. Ms Boyack outlined a radical, job-creating energy scheme; Mr Findlay urged measures to "eradicate" youth unemployment, build 50,000 council houses, and replace the national minimum wage with the living wage.

Here was Scottish Labour remembering the maxim (either Ron Davies' or Donald Dewar's, depending on who you ask) that "devolution is a process and not an event". Whoever wins the top job has to keep moving that process forward, showing ambition for further devolution beyond and after the Smith Commission. The internal pressure group Labour for Scotland has put forward radical ideas that deserve a hearing from the party's next leader.

If Labour can reclaim the mantle of the devolution party, it will be on its way to the political rehabilitation it so badly needs.

Labour leadership candidates set out their stalls on Scotland Tonight

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