The Scottish Labour Party gathers at Inverness on 27-29 February for the first time since last year’s Scottish Parliament elections. The conference will provide an opportunity to debate progress with the coalition agreement Partnership for a Better Scotland, give some focus on the forthcoming European elections and take a longer look towards next year’s UK general election.
Looking at Labour policies in Scotland, the UK and Europe highlights the need for constitutional changes to the Scottish Labour conference. Since the last Scottish Labour Party conference there have been a number of informal discussions amongst CLPs and affiliated organisations over ways the conference might be revitalised.
The Party conference is increasingly viewed as a ‘rally’ by many delegates, with little opportunity to develop policy. 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.
The proposed changes fall into three categories. The ability to debate ‘reserved’ Westminster issues, conference’s role in the policy process and a role for conference in Scottish Parliament coalition agreements.
Debating ‘Reserved’ Issues
Last year’s SLP conference was dominated by the war in Iraq. The Executive claim that SLP rules debar motions on ‘reserved’ Westminster issues, which meant that conference had to refer back the conference arrangements committee report to force even a closed doors debate.
In the run up to a general election it does not make sense that the party in Scotland cannot debate UK and international issues. Motions passed by Scottish Party Conference would send a clear message as to the views of the party in Scotland, but would still be fed into the National Policy Forum (NPF) process. The simplest way of resolving this issue is to explicitly provide for reserved motions in the standing orders.
There are differing views within the Party on the decision of the Scottish Parliament Labour Group to enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and over the content of the partnership agreement. Proportional representation in Local Government elections is the main concern. Wherever members stand on PR 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.
The proposal is to hold a special conference. That would ensure a proper debate and collective ownership when hard decisions have to be made. There are of course limitations to this accountability. We must recognise 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.
Policy making process
The review of the first Partnership in Power (PiP) cycle was helpful in identifying a number of necessary reforms including the need to stimulate greater involvement of members. The party needs to build on that feedback. In particular to ensure that the process is transparent and that the views of the majority of members come through. 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 later this year, hence the need to take action now on the findings of the Scottish review.
In particular there is concern over the practice of presenting documents from the SPF ‘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.
In summary the changes proposed to conference standing orders are a measured response to the concerns identified by all sections of the party in Scotland. They would also demonstrate that the Labour Party is an outward looking democratic organisation, where the views of all members count.