Scottish Labour’s leadership contenders have pledged to work to reduce poverty and inequality in the Highlands and Islands and give more powers to local government.
Anas Sarwar, the Glasgow MSP, said he would introduce a “fair deal” for the region by using parliamentary powers to end local authority cuts if elected as first minister in 2021.
His rival for the top job – Richard Leonard, the Central Scotland MSP and former trade union organiser – promised to lead Scottish Labour as a party for “the whole of Scotland” and “deliver hope in place of despair.”
Both candidates made a firm commitment to visit all parts of the Highlands if elected as the new leader.
The pair were speaking today as the battle for their party’s top job north of the border started in Inverness.
A room full of about 50 activists gathered at the city’s Beaufort Hotel in Culduthel Road for the first hustings in the wake of Kezia Dugdale’s resignation.
The contest will likely involve a tussle between Labour’s moderates and leftwingers, fuelled in part by accusations that Mr Sarwar comes from the New Labour wing of the party.
But Mr Sarwar, who signed a statement by Labour MSPs last year opposing Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for re-election, insisted today that his party is now “unified as one movement.”
Today, both contenders said they would work to end the public sector pay cap for 31,000 workers in the Highlands, and stop the “diminution” of power to local government.
Mr Leonard said he has been – and will continue – fighting to keep the Highlands and Islands Enterprise board instead of a central strategic board.
Mr Sarwar said he would introduce a derelict land tax on land “sat on” by private developers which could instead be used by the council to build social housing.
And he would also give Highland Council the power to introduce a tourism tax which he says would raise an estimated £9.2million a year.
Mr Leonard said his first priority for education would be “investment” to combat the lack of IT teachers in schools teacher recruitment problems, and wants to see more powers for education at the local government level.
With 19% of children in the Highlands living in poverty, he added that “tackling poverty and inequality” at home is the way to reduce a “widening attainment gap.”
Mr Sarwar echoed these points and said he wants mental health specialists or service nurses in all primary schools and secondaries, and the guarantee that every pupil leaves school with a job or apprenticeship.
Mr Leonard said the private sector has “failed to deliver” on public transport in the north and would support the railways being taken into public ownership.
Mr Sarwar said there should be a “re-regulation of the bus service” as private bus companies think about profit over communities when making decisions about retaining certain routes.