There is an increasing feeling within the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) that our annual conference and decision making processes require some revitalisation. Party conferences are increasing seen as sterile rallies with little opportunity to develop policy. Attendance by CLPs in particular is poor. This is leading to disillusionment and cynicism which impacts on party membership and our ability to campaign effectively.
Very few party members want to see a return to the 1970/80s style of motion based policymaking, with its lengthy compositing far removed from members and even delegates. However, it should be possible to develop processes that allow delegates to make real policy choices and involve members in a meaningful way. In addition we need to allow greater flexibility over the issues covered in debates to avoid the ludicrous machinations over debates on reserved matters, which dominated the 2003 SLP conference.
A REFORM AGENDA
The following measures could be considered:
Contemporary issue resolutions should cover reserved as well as devolved and European issues. In the run up to a general election it is absurd that the party in Scotland does not debate these issues. The other restrictions on contemporary resolutions would remain although the restriction on policy document topics should be clarified to allow motions on an issue that is not substantially addressed in a report to conference. A report back on the implementation of contemporary and emergency motions should be given to the next party conference.
The current Partnership in Power (PiP) processes focus on developing policy. Important though that is there is no mechanism for the SLP to check on what has been achieved by the Scottish Executive, what has worked well and what hasn’t. To address this the Scottish Policy Forum (SPF) could adopt a scrutiny role that might include monitoring progress on contemporary resolutions.
Linked to accountability is the process for approving coalition agreements after Scottish Parliament elections. This year the arrangements adopted by the Liberal Democrats gave at least the appearance of being more democratic than our own. One solution might be a recall conference that would ensure a proper debate and a collective ownership when hard decisions have to be made.
Policy documents produced by the SPF should not be presented en bloc. Real alternatives and choices should be set out each year for conference to debate and decide. In addition CLPs and affiliated organisations should be able to submit a limited number of amendments to reports. This approach would promote a more structured debate at conference and give the Party as a whole greater ownership of the outcome.
The review of the first PiP cycle was helpful in identifying the need to stimulate greater involvement of members in the process. We need to build on that feedback and in particular to ensure that the process is transparent and effective. This could include:
- Using the web site for submissions and summaries indicating when they were considered.
- Less compressed timescales, ensuring that documents are distributed in sufficient time to allow everyone to consider.
- Encourage structured (if possible consensus) submissions following rigorous debates rather than relying on all views ‘flip chart’ feedback of every opinion expressed.
In addition to the above conference should be more participatory. Both in plenary and workshop sessions. More opportunity for delegates to contribute and fewer (and shorter) keynote speeches.
THE WAY AHEAD
If there is a general consensus around the changes that are needed the next question is how to implement them. The current standing orders for SLP conference are particularly vague and do not even reflect the interpretation on issues such as contemporary motions as set out in the notice of conference.
The easiest solution would be a single deletion and amendment, including the suggestions above that requires a rule change. This ‘all or nothing’ approach does not allow conference to adopt some if not all the suggestions above. Another approach would be a series of rule changes on each of the substantive suggestions.
Some of the practical changes to conference and the work of the SPF could be pursued through the SPF and Scottish Executive Committee.
This paper identifies a general concern over the operation of Scottish Labour party conference and the policy making process. It suggests some reforms to address these concerns in the spirit of promoting debate within the party on these issues.