Labour veteran attacks `absurd' devolution plans

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Tam Dalyell, the longest-serving Scottish Labour MP, launched a fierce attack on the party's devolution plans yesterday, condemning proposals to set up a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh as "absurd nonsense which may well cost Labour the next gene ral election".

Mr Dalyell signalled his intention to cause party leaders maximum embarrassment on the constitutional issue when he rejected warnings from his constituency party that he faced deselection at the next general election if he did not back Labour's plans.

After a four-hour meeting of his Linlithgow party, described as "lively and frank", Mr Dalyell said he would "rather go to the political stake" than support his party's "fundamentally flawed" devolution proposals.

Mr Dalyell will reinforce his anti-devolution message tonight in a speech at Blaby, Leicestershire, in which he will reopen the "West Lothian question" that he first posed 20 years ago.

The question, which John Major has put at the heart of the Conservatives' attack on Labour's constitutional plans, asks why Scottish MPs at Westminster should be allowed to vote on education, health, housing and other matters in England, when the same policy matters in Scotland will be determined by a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

"How can it be right that I as MP for Linlithgow will have a say on policies that affect London but not Linlithgow?", Mr Dalyell will ask."It is a fatal flaw in Labour's argument".

Labour leaders say that the party's plan to establish regional assemblies in England and Wales provides an answer. But Mr Dalyell dismissed their argument yesterday as "inadequate because the English and Welsh proposals have not been worked out in any detail at all".

He "perfectly understood" local Linlithgow party members' anger at his decision to speak out. But, he said, he had decided to highlight the "contradictions" in the proposals because they could be "lethal" for Labour's election chances.

"John Major has decided quite deliberately to fight Labour on the constitutional question. Devolution will dominate political debate in the run-up to the election.

"Mr Major and Tory party workers will travel around all the marginal constituencies in England and say to voters: "Do you realise that if Labour wins, 72 Scottish MPs who have not been elected to represent you, will be able to determine the critical education, housing and health policies that will affect you, while they will have no such rights in relation to their own constituents north of the border?

"It is a powerful argument. It makes a mockery of Labour's claims to be the party of accountability, the anti-quango party. It will cost Labour thousands and thousands of votes in places where the party needs them most - probably enough to lose us the election. It is vital that we air these arguments now and squeeze out the intellectual pus before it is too late."