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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 11:37 GMT
Labour hopes for easier ride
Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

In politics, there are frequently compensations - little things that cheer the soul.

For Labour leaders heading to Inverness for their annual Scottish conference, there is one consoling thought, one notion to clutch.

Labour Scottish conference
Last year's conference was overshadowed by the issue of Iraq
Whatever happens, this conference cannot be worse than last year.

Then, in the splendid setting of Dundee's Caird Hall, Scottish Labour contrived to tie itself in knots over reaction to the war in Iraq.

As the demonstrators crowded into the City Square outside, Labour organisers first squabbled over whether they could debate the war at all - then decided to hold the debate in private, excluding the media.

Hideously embarrassed party officials were despatched to tell the assembled journalists to leave the hall.

Sundry hacks - including a few determined Dundonians - declined before eventually leaving under strong protest.

It was not the finest moment in the history of Scottish Labour.

Need for repairs

In his foreword to this year's annual report, Tony Blair reflects on that tension when he acknowledges that the party was divided over Iraq.

He hopes, however, that the party can at least agree that Iraq is better without Saddam and that the priority now is to rebuild the country's shattered economy and social structure.

Iraq will feature again this year - not least in an anti-war demo scheduled to coincide with the conference.

Mr Blair knows he needs to repair the internal wounds opened by the war - while insisting upon the rightness of his course.

But there are other issues waiting to pose challenges for the party.

As Lesley Quinn, the party's general secretary reminds delegates, the Scottish Conference is Labour's sovereign policy making body on devolved matters.

Jack McConnell, Labour Scottish conference
Jack McConnell will be hoping to have an easier time
That means it is entitled to declare its view on key issues - and expect that stance to be pursued by Labour ministers in office.

With that in mind, a difficult issue looms on day one when the conference is due to debate the proposal to introduce proportional representation for local authorities.

Scottish Labour policy is already against such a move - which would weaken Labour's power base (although critics tend rather, for diplomatic reasons, to stress the weakening of the link between constituent and councillor.)

So there is no formal reopening of that policy debate as such.

Instead, the conference will have the opportunity to reflect on the PR deal done with the Liberal Democrats when conference considers the Annual Report.

Critics will say Labour has conceded too much.

Supporters will say that the PR concession was vital to create stable government.

The vote could be tight.

More generally, there is emerging disquiet over the role of conference and the role of the party.

A paper circulated by the powerful Unison union advocates more power for delegates and, particularly, a key role for the party in determining attitudes to any future coalition.

Conference reform looks on the cards - but Jack McConnell will not want to tie his hands on future coalition talks.

Then there are key debates on policy: education; health; the controversial Anti Social Behaviour Bill. All in all, a lively few days.

Labour conference urged to unite
22 Mar 03  |  Scotland
Labour 'a better choice'
21 Mar 03  |  Scotland
Labour chief in unity call
21 Mar 03  |  Scotland
Labour gathering cut short
19 Mar 03  |  Scotland

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