Renewing the Scottish Labour Party

The Scottish Labour Party consultation paper ‘Renewing Our Party’ has attracted some commentary that on occasions has bordered on the hysterical and certainly doesn’t reflect what the paper actually says. So let me attempt a calmer look at the issues.

The section in the paper that some have focused on says this:

“Other than the status quo, there are a number of broad approaches to reform. At one end of the spectrum is further devolution from the UK party and at the other, the creation of an independent Scottish Labour Party. In between is a ‘federal-type’ option where members belong to the Scottish Labour Party first and foremost, and agreement is reached over which matters and procedures are best shared on a UK basis.”

In any objective analysis of reform, this paragraph is simply a statement of the obvious. Just because you identify the range of options, doesn’t mean that the writers, or the Scottish Labour leadership are proposing them. Particularly the outlying options.

A few comrades have suggested that we should leave well alone and the status quo is fine. Reference has been made to previous reviews, without understanding that a number of the recommendations adopted from those reviews have not actually been fully implemented. At the very least, the hopelessly outdated UK and Scottish Labour rule books need to reflect agreed devolution measures.

However, this is not simply an issue for the self confessed rules anoraks – it’s political as well. Anyone who lived through the Falkirk debacle should understand that it is simply not acceptable to have the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party having to say ‘not me guv – someone from London will come up and sort this out’. That was precisely the invidious position Johann Lamont was left in because issues such as who was responsible for CLP management were left unresolved. And it wasn’t the only example that underpinned the ‘branch office’ comment on her resignation.

At the other extreme there are those who argue that an independent Scottish Labour Party is required to give the Party a distinctive status and bury any perception that Scottish Labour receives its instructions from ‘London’. My own view is that this solution is an over reaction to the problem. Most of Scottish Labour’s mistakes have been home grown and it is too easy to blame others. In addition, most party members share the sentiment in the joint statement by Kezia and Jeremy, repeated in the paper: “Like the UK itself, the Labour Party is also a family of nations. We benefit from the solidarity that comes from working together as a movement across the whole of the UK.”

That leaves us with a ‘federal-type’ solution. The UK is an asymmetric state, so pure federalism has its challenges, but as with devolution, solutions can be found that recognise the current constitutional position. The paper sets out a number of practical considerations that need to be addressed.

CLP management is in my view a no brainer. Any reform has to pass what I would call the ‘Falkirk Test’ – ensuring that similar issues in future are dealt with in Scotland.

The Scottish Labour Party already has responsibility for Holyrood and local government candidate selection, even if the rule books need updating. This should be extended to the other elections. It may be that Scotland would follow a similar process, but that would be for the Scottish Party to decide. Any issues arising out of the selection process have to be dealt with in Scotland.

Sharing services on a UK basis is a practical solution to the administration of the Party. The Party should be focusing on the strategic political and organisational issues, not duplicating administrative functions or wasting time managing them. That includes staffing administration, but we do have to develop a clearer approach to the accountability of the Scottish General Secretary and his staff than the current position.

Finally, that leaves policy. Again policy on all devolved issues is already the responsibility of the Scottish Labour Party. The U.K. Manifesto is a problem for all Scottish parties that operate across the UK. There may be differences of approach on reserved matters that reflect Scottish views and you can’t totally ignore devolved matters. Not least because many voters don’t have a full understanding of which services are devolved. This means we need to have a manifesto in UK and European elections that reflects the complete picture. It also needs to have a proper internal democratic process – not cobbled together by officials and the leadership.

The difficult bit is what do you do if there is a different view on a reserved issue across the UK. Our sister parties in federal states would wonder why we think this is a problem – they manage this regularly. Having a different position doesn’t happen often, but when it does you can use a mechanism like the current NPF to resolve them. That requires compromise and some times you just have to agree to differ – it’s called politics! Parties enter into coalition arrangements on a similar basis, but everyone understands what their preferred position is, even if it isn’t achievable at any particular point in time.

I would therefore urge all comrades to read the consultation paper carefully, after all it’s only a couple of pages. The status quo isn’t an option, even for the most ardent unionist and neither is this somehow giving in to nationalism. Subsidiarity is a cumbersome word, but it means that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical level. It’s an idea that has growing political resonance across the UK and in our debates over centralism and the role of local democracy in Scotland. Labour is the party of devolution and our structures needs to reflect our policy.


SEC report – May 2016

The May meeting of the Scottish Executive Committee inevitably focused on the election post-mortem.

Brian Roy set out his analysis of the voting and the party’s own polling. The numbers can be found in the SPICe report, for those in need of further depressing reading.

The party’s mid-campaign polling was better than the final result and this appears to be the basis for the suggestion that the anti-Semitism row had an impact on the result. While it was certainly unhelpful and may have had an impact in one or two areas, most SEC members were sceptical that it had much of a wider impact.

Much more significant was the squeeze on the constitution, reinforced by the huge resources available to the Tories to exploit it. There were differences of emphasis on the SEC between those who favoured a stronger ‘unionist’ position on the constitution and those who argue that, while this may have helped in this election, in the longer term it’s a dead end position consigning the party to around a quarter of the vote.

There was strong support for the manifesto, even if some reservations about leaving the publication so late. The strong anti-austerity pitch places Scottish Labour in a stronger position as the cuts begin to bite deeper in this parliament. Polling demonstrated that this was popular with the voters and it was the late focus on the constitution that was more damaging.

The ‘Both Votes Labour’ message at least addressed the historic problem with the list vote, but did not resolve the gap. There were significant differences in organisational performance at local level. Increased membership doesn’t always translate to more activists on the ground, as other parties have also found. There are obvious challenges over funding, paid staff and engagement of all elected representatives. The SEC recognised the huge efforts put in by staff and many activists.

There was broad agreement on the next steps following the EU referendum. These include a focus on building for next year’s council elections, fundraising, MSP contracts building a regional strategy, as well as the new Leader’s political office.

Other political reports covered the excellent work done in the House of Lords over the Trade Union Bill. There was also a discussion on a framework for local government election manifestos for next year.

After the break, the SEC considered a procedural document for local government selections. While there are obvious challenges in building greater political engagement amongst Labour councillors, media references to ‘deadwood’ are unhelpful. There will be a call for candidates and a letter to existing councillors to identify those who wish to stand next year. The Local Campaign Forums will need to be reactivated in most areas. Further progress is also dependent on the Boundary Commission deliberations and the SEC received an update on progress with that review.

The SEC received an update on party autonomy discussions following the joint statement agreed between Kezia and Jeremy. A consultation paper will be agreed by the joint SEC/NEC working group. On the issue of wider political devolution reform, Jon Trickett MP is visitingScotland this week.

There was a report on the investigation into the well publicised disputes in East Kilbride CLP. This will be referred to the Constitution Sub-Committee.

Another long and difficult SEC meeting. However, considerably less fractious than some other post-election discussions in recent times – with a clearer understanding of the task ahead.





We can do better with list ballots

The announcement of the list ballot will be received by most Labour Party members with a sigh of relief this weekend. In boxes will no longer groan with the weight of emails from the candidates and they can answer the phone again safely.

Congratulations to those candidates who did well in the rankings. The media headlines focused on the lack of new faces, but if you look carefully at the results, members did take a view about those MSPs who frankly have not shone in the role.

The scripted media comments from political opponents are beyond irony. Anyone who spends any time watching debates in the Scottish Parliament knows, that beyond a few competent performers, the majority of SNP backbenchers are simply lobby fodder. They read out, often badly, scripted speeches and lines handed down from central command. Thinking for yourself is not in the job description.

So, the cadre of candidates is in the main a strong team to take Scottish Labour into the election campaign. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a look at the system for the future. Indeed, the SEC has agreed to conduct such a review.

It is a fair comment that the system didn’t deliver many new faces. There are reasons for that which need to be considered by the review.

  • First and foremost the selectorate was limited to those who had six months membership. This is normally a reasonable rule, but these are not normal times. As a number of SEC members argued, the decision to exclude the large number of new members recruited during the UK leadership campaign, not only marginalised them, but also ensured that those candidates with well established party networks benefited the most.
  • The top down transferable vote system adopted, rather than the eliminating system, also favoured incumbents. It was their second votes rather than other first preferences that count for more in this system. While either system can work for selecting a group of candidates, it is largely untried as a method of ranking those who exceed the quota.
  • The SEC did adopt rules that applied some limitations to the resources candidates were able to deploy. However, it simply isn’t possible to regulate resources like time and expertise. This means that full time politicians will always have a built in advantage.
  • In anticipation of a large number of candidates, the SEC did agree to have a short listing process for the first time. However, instead of the normal approach of presenting members with a manageable number, it was limited to delivering a gender balance. This meant that members in the central list area had 20 candidates. In a system that puts a premium on first preferences, this is not a viable way of proceeding.

So, yes we have a strong team of candidates and it did weed out a number of weak performers. However, if we want to attract more new faces and address the bias in favour of incumbents, then the system needs to be changed.

Having said that, we don’t need to take lectures from other parties whose own selection systems have delivered very poor results. We can do much better.

SEC Report – January 2016

Political reports were kept short this month to allow time for a full discussion on election strategy.

Kez and Alex covered the main issues in the Scottish Parliament including education, social care and the Trade Union Bill. Brian confirmed that following the resignation of Richard Baker that Lesley Brennan had been sworn in as an MSP.

There was a written report from Ian Murray and an update on the Trade Union Bill and the Scotland Bill in the Lords.

The main political discussion was on Local government. The grant allocation is being slashed by £500m, which means nearly £1bn of cuts when unavoidable commitments are taken into account. It is still unclear how much of the £259m of IJB money being routed through health will reach council care services. Councils may have to delay budget setting due to the uncertainty.

There was a recognition that councils are in different places and will adopt individual solutions, although that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a common political strategy. Some will consider an increase in the Council Tax despite the penalties, as the cumulative impact continues to damage services and undermine local democracy.

There is an assumption that the Europe Referendum will be held in June and Gordon Brown has kicked off the Scottish campaign. There are plans for a digital single market that also recognises skill shortages. 55k IT vacancies in UK, are likely to grow to 177k.

Most of the meeting focused on strategy for the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections. There were presentations on organising, messaging, policy, digital content and fundraising.

There will be a review of the list selection procedures after the conclusion of the current ballot. The member meetings were well attended and the feedback was positive despite the logistics of managing so many candidates in the same hustings. It was agreed to publish the results by ranking only.

There was a report on candidate selection in the remaining constituencies. In view of the need to complete these quickly, voting would take place at hustings meetings without postal votes.

A paper was presented on the process for reselection and selecting candidates for the 2017 council elections. The Boundary Commission has not completed its work so it won’t be possible to start the process until the new boundaries are known. Campaign Forums will be established and new guidance was agreed on constituting them. The selection process will go out for consultation and the SEC will return to the issue at the March meeting.

Lessons from Oldham for the Blairite Tendency

There has been little so entertaining this week as reading the bemused response to the Oldham by-election result in the mainstream media. All those ‘Corbyn must go’ stories had to binned and a whole raft of explanations dreamt up to explain why it didn’t go to script.

Just for the record, Labour’s candidate Jim McMahon secured a 10,722-vote majority over UKIP’s John Bickley, and a 62% vote share that was higher than at the general election. Yes, that’s right, a 7.5% increase in the share of the vote.

Of course Labour had a good local candidate, as we should, and of course the campaign played to those strengths. However, this victory was on the back of a well funded UKIP campaign that talked about little else than Jeremy Corbyn – during a week when he was being vilified for his stance on bombing Syria. A campaign that played to some stereotypes about white working class voters, which I thought were very effectively dealt with in this article by Harris Beider.

Yesterday morning I came very close to cancelling my Guardian membership. This fine newspaper’s news coverage of Jeremy since his leadership victory has been very poor, sometimes almost as bad as the Tory tabloids. But its news piece on the result was a new low – nothing positive about Jeremy, it was all down to other factors. It showed all the signs of the panic rewrite I mentioned above.

I was also opposed to the decision to bomb Syria. I wouldn’t have explained my reasons in quite the same way as Jeremy because I have no problem in principle with military action. I just don’t think it would work and Cameron’s case for war is very weak, not least his fanciful 75,000 ground troops claim. I accept that we do on occasion have to meet evil with force as our socialist forefathers did in the Spanish Civil War. But even so, I thought Hilary Benn’s attempt to claim this is a war against fascism, was very weak.

Sadly, I had to turn to the Daily Mail for a credible analysis, one that I suspect played equally strongly with the voters of Oldham. Peter Oborne, no fan of Jeremy’s, said:

Whether or not you like Mr Corbyn (and I profoundly disagree with many of his policies), there is no denying that he emerged from the arguments over Syria as a man of moral courage, integrity and principle. Indeed, how interesting that after months of denigrating Corbyn, the Blairite tendency — together with those excitable inhabitants of the Westminster bubble — have been made to look silly in their prediction that Labour would lose the Oldham by-election. In the real world, it seems the voters have more time for the Labour leader than the metropolitan commentariat.”

The ‘Blairite Tendency’, as Oborne puts it, can be guaranteed to pop up whenever a rent a quote is required to attack the Labour Leader. Even some of those who lost their seats in the General Election, show little sign of any humility or taking responsibility for their contribution to that defeat. I rather enjoyed this blogger’s theory that certain members of the PLP have narcissist tendencies.

Today we have Carolyn Flint attacking Momentum in the Independent. Sorry, but I must have missed her criticism of Progress – a real party within a party, with minimal internal democracy and millionaire funding. Jeremy has rightly condemned abuse, but not all the stories turned out to be true, such as the mythical protest outside Stella Creasy’s house. What actually happened is explained in this post at Left Futures.

And for those MPs who think they can launch a coup in the summer, Tom Quinn’s explanation of the party mechanics should be required reading. As I have frequently pointed out, the Labour Party rules are poorly drafted, but it is hard to find fault with this interpretation on Labour List.

That’s not to say I am uncritical of Jeremy’s leadership. In particular, some of the messaging has been ill disciplined. The conversational style is fine in small groups, but addressing the mass media requires clear lines that are tested carefully so that they are less easily misinterpreted.

At least in Scotland we have a leadership that has recognised the benefits of a different approach to politics. Kez Dugdale wears her ideology light and is by no means a natural supporter of Jeremy’s. None the less, her measured, team building approach has accommodated the change rather than confronting it. Today’s interview in the Guardian is an honest reflection on her own and Scottish Labour’s position that I think most people will respect.

So, it may be wishful thinking, but let’s at least hope that the Oldham result will give those narcissistic MPs some food for thought. Time for a bit more campaigning with the party than against it. I can but wish!