What next for Labour?

As the UK Labour Party conference comes to a conclusion, it’s time for everyone in the Party to remember the words of Keir Hardie; “Unity should be the first object of all of us who desire socialism.”

The one fact that has to be recognised is that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership ballot emphatically. He won in all three parts of the selectorate and he won on a higher rate of participation. His victory was all the more remarkable given the vitriolic campaign against him in the media. Even normally progressive papers like the Guardian use value based language like ‘moderates’ to badge his opponents. I am usually the last to attack the BBC, but as the Media Reform Coalition report shows, it is justified on this occasion. Twice as much airtime was given to critical voices and BBC reporters regularly use pejorative language when describing Jeremy and his supporters.

After the ‘coup’ failed, it was always unclear to me why the plotters continued with a leadership challenge. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, “it was to take the shine of the incumbent”, it failed dismally. Rawnsley, himself a Corbyn critic, explains why. Most party members, including myself, were appalled by the behaviour of the PLP at a time when we should have been attacking the Tories. Whatever the reservations about aspects of Jeremy’s leadership, we were not going to reward bad behaviour.

There has been a lot of coverage of the role of Momentum, but much less about Progress. I am not a member of either, but I accept that Momentum is at least an open and transparent movement, something that cannot be said for Progress. Again, the BBC did not cover itself with glory with its botched documentary.

On the issue of ‘The Purge’, I have to say that I have seen no examples in Scotland of members who were suspended without due cause. However, when you look at the voting numbers there does appear to be cause for concern, particular at the turnout of registered supporters. There must be greater transparency over this matter and the application of the rules of natural justice. Suspension letters that I did see were not of the standard we would expect in any walk of life.

Research amongst party members undertaken by Queen Mary University has highlighted some interesting views. They found that party members, old and new, shared a common vision of what the Labour Party should stand for. They also found that Party members have been longing for someone like Jeremy, long before he was on a ballot paper.

Newer members are more likely to feel politicians are estranged from them, but the big difference is over their view of leadership. Fewer than half (42.5%) of old members said they had been driven to join because they believed in the party leadership. More than three quarters (76.5%) of the post-May 2015 members said this had been a driving factor. Rising to 82% among those who joined during the 2015 leadership election and to virtually everyone who joined afterwards.

As far as Scottish Labour is concerned, the most important part of conference was passing the rule changes that give significant autonomy to the party in Scotland. The SEC will be responsible for the procedures and selection of all UK parliamentary candidates in Scotland and for the management of constituency Labour parties in Scotland. Scottish Labour will also have full control over policymaking, including for the first time in reserved policy areas.

These are very big changes. It’s not an independent party because members clearly rejected that option – rightly in my view. For those who think they are minor, just look at how certain sections of the UK party hierarchy resisted them!

A frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament, nominated by the Scottish Labour leader, will also directly represent the Scottish Labour Party on the NEC. This was not part of the joint SEC/NEC working group’s proposals, but it does regularise an arrangement that has been in place for several years and is therefore consistent with the tidying up elements of the rule changes. Personally, I am not convinced that there needs to be a seat on the NEC, given the new levels of autonomy, but I am equally unconvinced about direct elections with limited accountability. The measure only became contentious due to Kezia Dugdale’s unwise intervention in the leadership ballot – Carwyn Jones used better judgment.

So where do we go next? I thought Owen Jones struck the correct note in his ‘critical friends’ approach. Members will expect the PLP to accept Jeremy’s mandate, recognising that you can express dissent without damaging the Party. If Labour’s right wing had an obvious route to power they wouldn’t be in such a parlous state. Equally, mandatory reselection is not the way forward – the current rules are perfectly adequate. Jeremy now needs to set out a coherent vision on the big issues of the day and communicate it effectively.

As Gary Younge says; “Principle and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive, and neither side owns a monopoly on either. Political parties do need to win elections, but they are more likely to do so if they stand for something more than just power”.

That’s a circle the Labour Party has joined up before and can do so again.

SEC Report – September 2016

Saturday was the September meeting of the SEC. One of the few party organisations meeting at present due to the UK leadership elections.

Kez highlighted the themes that the PLP had focused on over the summer, post-Brexit. The focus has been on investing in public services and opposing the cuts. Scottish Labour’s alternative legislative programme reinforces that focus, rather than constitutional debate.

Education and the Council Tax are some of big issues coming up after the recess. £100m for attainment gap is being funded by Council Tax, decided by central govt, not councils. What happened to ending ring fencing! Councillor reps emphasised that we need to see this in context of council cuts.

Trade union reps strongly made the point that some council actions don’t match the alternative legislative programme and Labour groups need show more political awareness locally.

Despite the ‘bread and butter’ focus, there was a recognition that the voters constitutional focus is not going away and therefore we need a conversation about the next stage for Scottish Labour. There was broad support from the SEC, irrespective of position on the detail, recognising that the SNPs post-Brexit constitutional fig leaf is likely to collapse. There is also a helpful UK Labour initiative on power led by Jon Trickett MP.

At Westminster, the debate rarely moves away from Brexit. What exactly does ‘Brexit means Brexit’ translate to in practice. There will also be a big shift of powers to Holyrood as a consequence of Brexit and thought needs to be given to this as well. A useful discussion on migration and the concerns in some communities, balanced by the importance of migration to the economy and public services. Employers in Scotland are exploiting migrant labour and that should be our focus. The SNP government has been been criticised by a UN committee on their human rights record in relation to employment rights.

In local government there is significant opposition to the proposed Education Bill and centralisation of services, together with adding even greater bureaucracy on schools. The early years expansion also needs to be addressed. Funding is inadequate and a risk that it will only be achieved by a new race to the bottom in poor quality provision. Also need to address the devolution of powers from Holyrood to local government.

On next year’s council elections, the SEC agreed a paper on how many candidates should be put up in each ward, following work with each Local Campaign Forum. Some plans are still outstanding and we are awaiting parliamentary consideration of the Boundary Commission report. There was a welcome consensus in this year’s process. A range of positive action measures are being taken, including all women short lists in winnable seats, with the aim of returning more women councillors than in 2012. Still plenty of challenges to change the culture of under representation of women in councils across all parties. An organisational strategy paper for local government will be presented to the November meeting.

The meeting agreed the process for the election of CLP places on the SEC later this year in time for the February conference. The closing date for nominations will be 4 November.

An excellent paper on accessibility issues within Scottish Labour, ‘Not just chairs and stairs’ was agreed. A really good piece of work done by Ryan McMullan.

The party autonomy proposals are on track. It will go to the UK conference in September and then to Scottish conference next February. This is a significant step forward and will bring the party rules into line with devolution.

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.