`Control freak' Blair seeks a softer look with Scottish trip

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TONY BLAIR will seek to soften his "control freak" image today by promising that the new Scottish Parliament will allow Scotland to go it alone on key policy issues from this summer.

In an important concession to critics north of the border, the Prime Minister will tell the annual conference of the Scottish Labour Party that devolution will bring diversity and distinctive policies. The more conciliatory tone will be seen as a response to criticism that Mr Blair has been reluctant to turn Labour's rhetoric on devolution into reality. The Labour leadership has been accused of vetoing left-wingers as candidates for the parliament.

As Mr Blair began a two-day visit to Scotland yesterday, his allies conceded that "Scottish problems will require Scottish solutions." They cited issues such as land reform and the drug-abuse crisis north of the border.

Aides insisted that "Scottish New Labour" would still be acting in tune with the values of the Labour Party by producing distinctive policies. "Many of the problems are the same throughout the UK, but others will require different answers," said one.

Mr Blair's change of emphasis at today's Glasgow conference will be coupled with another strong attack on the Scottish National Party, which is on course to win a sizeable presence in the first elections to the Edinburgh Parliament in May.

The Prime Minister will also be anxious to tackle confusion among the public about the voting system to be used in the elections and growing fears in the Labour hierarchy that it will damage the party's prospects.

Despite a pounds 2.5m government "education" campaign, voters are thought not to fully understand the two-question system intended to produce a better balance between parties.

Vote one will be cast in the traditional first-past-the-post way for a named candidate and the second for regional party lists.

But a Labour source said there was still confusion, with people believing the second vote should be for a "second- choice" party.

Strategists fear this would mean second votes in normally solid Labour areas in the country's central belt going to the SNP.

Brushing aside a poll suggesting most Scots want him to keep out of the election campaign, the Prime Minister was in Glasgow yesterday meeting factory workers.