Revitalising Scottish Labour Party Conference – The Next Steps – Dec 2003

Introduction

In October 2003 a discussion paper was circulated to stimulate debate over ways we could revitalise Scottish Labour Party conference. It set out a possible reform agenda. This paper sets out some proposals to take that agenda forward including draft rule changes.

Background

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, over the full range of policy issues facing Scotland, and involve members in a meaningful way.

Next Steps

This section looks at draft constitutional amendments or other actions needed to take forward the reform agenda set out in the discussion paper:

Debating ‘Reserved’ Issues

Contemporary issue resolutions should cover reserved (i.e. Westminster) 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. Motions passed by Scottish Party Conference would still be fed into the National Policy Forum (NPF) process. However, it would send a clear message as to the views of the party in Scotland on the issue under debate.

The current SLP rules and standing orders do not specifically debar motions on reserved issues. However, the Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) has previously been advised that as reserved issues are not specifically mentioned as within the remit of conference, it must be outwith the powers of conference.

There are a number of inconsistencies in the advice to the SEC on this point. However, the simplest way of resolving the issue is to explicitly provide for reserved motions in the standing orders as follows:

Model constitutional amendment 1
SO 3(c) – insert after ‘topic’ – “(including devolved, reserved, European and international issues”

Scrutiny

The current Partnership in Power (PiP) processes focus on developing policy. Important though that is there is no mechanism for conference to check on what has been achieved. How the party programme and manifesto has been delivered, what has worked well and what hasn’t. To address this the Scottish Policy Forum (SPF) could adopt a scrutiny role that could include monitoring progress on contemporary and emergency resolutions passed at conference to ensure a proper feedback.

The current SLP rules do not clearly set out the functions of the SPF. It reports through the SEC (SO 1) and its membership is set out in SO 11. To achieve a scrutiny role amend as follows:

Model constitutional amendment 2
SO 1(f) – insert after ‘including’ – “its assessment of progress in implementing the programme, manifesto, contemporary and emergency resolutions agreed by annual conference,”.

And a consequential amendment:

Model constitutional amendment 3
SO 3(b) – insert after ‘Forum’ – “, its assessment of progress in implementing the programme, manifesto, contemporary and emergency resolutions agreed by annual conference,”.

Accountability

Linked to scrutiny is the process for approving coalition agreements after Scottish Parliament elections. There are differing views on the decision of the Scottish Parliament Labour Group to enter into a coalition and the content of the partnership agreement. However, there is widespread concern over the absence of meaningful consultation with the party, particularly when the arrangements adopted by the Liberal Democrats gave at least the appearance of being more democratic than our own. One solution is a special conference that would ensure a proper debate and a collective ownership when hard decisions have to be made.

There are of course limitations to this accountability recognising the constitutional position of MSPs and the practicalities of negotiating an agreement with one or more other political parties. How an MSP votes in parliament is a matter for that MSP and the Group cannot conduct detailed negotiations with conference selecting different parts of the proposed coalition agreement. None the less it would be an opportunity for the Scottish Parliament Labour Group to receive meaningful feedback and support or otherwise for their position.

Provision for special conferences exist in the current rules (Clause 7). A rule change to extend the grounds for calling such a conference is as follows:

Model constitutional amendment 4
Clause 15 – add new (c) – “In the event that the Scottish Parliament Labour Group is unable to command a majority in the Scottish Parliament and/or decides to enter into a coalition with another parliamentary group, that decision, together with the proposed coalition agreement, shall be put to a special conference, constituted as set out in Clause 7 above. That special conference shall either ratify or reject the decision of the Scottish Parliament Labour Group.”

And a consequential amendment:

Model constitutional amendment 5
Clause 7 – add after first sentence – “A special conference will be summoned by the Scottish Executive Committee in the event that the Scottish Parliament Labour Group is unable to command a majority in the Scottish Parliament and/or decides to enter into a coalition with another parliamentary group as set out in Clause 15 below.”

Policy making process

The review of the first Partnership in Power (PiP) cycle was helpful in identifying a number of reforms including the need to stimulate greater involvement of members. There is recognition that we need to build on that feedback and in particular to ensure that the process is transparent and that the views of the majority of members come through the process. The National Policy Forum (NPF) has also recognised the need to reform and is undertaking its own review. This review reflects the later cycle of the UK Parliament. Scotland’s PiP cycle starts again next year, hence the need to take action on the findings of our own review.

The Scottish Policy Forum (SPF) has not met for a considerable period and therefore has not discussed the processes to be adopted in the next cycle. There is a need for the SPF processes to be clearly documented in the next cycle in the absence of an explicit rule setting out its role and functions.

There are rules on the treatment of policy documents produced by the SPF for conference. There is particular concern over the practice of presenting documents 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.

SO 3(a) already allows for “options, alternatives or minority reports by the SPF”. This approach could therefore be promoted through the SPF. The safeguard would be the power to amend final reports as follows:

Model constitutional amendment 6
SO 3(a) – add at end – “In a year when conference is considering the final stage documents from the SPF, CLPs and affiliated organisations may submit up to two amendments to the final stage documents.”

Conference Structure

Lastly the discussion paper highlighted the view that conference should be more participatory. Both in plenary and workshop sessions. More opportunity for delegates to contribute and fewer (and shorter) keynote speeches.

This would be difficult and inflexible to encapsulate in a rule change. However, It can be promoted through the SEC and CAC. If this years conference does not reflect these changes then a general motion as guidance to the SEC and CAC could be promoted.

Submitting Motions

The approach set out above recognises that individual CLPs and affiliated organisations will feel more strongly about some of the issues in the original discussion paper than others. It is therefore offered as a ‘menu’ for organisations to select as required.

Each CLP or affiliated organisation may submit a constitutional amendment to the rules and standing orders in lieu of a contemporary resolution. It should be submitted on the ‘green’ form included in the Notice of Conference pack sent to the Secretary of each organisation.

Motions should be returned to the Scottish Labour party no later than 12 Noon, 19 February 2004.

Conclusion

This paper sets out ways that the working of Scottish Labour Party Conference might be revitalised in response to the ideas floated in the original discussion paper. The changes proposed are a measured response to the problems identified, aimed at strengthening the party to face the electoral challenges ahead.
December 2003