Scottish Executive report on Partnership in Power – comments – Feb 2005

This briefing comments on the Scottish Executive Committee’s (SEC) report to the 2005 SLP conference on Partnership in Power (PiP), including proposed constitutional amendments.

KEY POINTS

  • The SEC report understates the concerns of many members, and others who have left the party in large numbers, over the PiP process.
  • The constitutional amendments seek to strengthen PiP – not replace it.
  • Amendment 1 gives all party organisations the right to put their view of a particular issue to conference – rather than accept or reject policy reports en-bloc.
  • Amendment 2 reclaims the ability of Scottish conference to properly debate reserved Westminster issues. Sending clear messages on key issues – not flip charts.
  • The Party should have an effective say in future coalition agreements, through the Scottish Executive Committee, whose members are directly accountable to all sections of the Party.
  • Constitutional objections to the amendments unnecessarily confuse the issues. Conference is entitled to change its rules, subject only to approval by the NEC.

Introduction

Most of the report is a factual description of the PiP process, albeit painting a somewhat optimistic picture of the process. It is important to emphasise that the proposed constitutional amendments seek to strengthen PiP. They are driven by widespread concerns from all sections of the party that the credibility of PiP has been undermined. These concerns were highlighted by the process for developing the last Scottish Parliament manifesto, the Iraq ‘debate’ at conference in 2003 and the coalition agreement with the Liberals that introduced PR in local government, without any meaningful involvement of the party.

The essential problem is that members (individual and in affiliates) have abandoned the party in droves, at least in part, because they believe that as members they have little real influence on party policy. They may make submissions and participate in forums, but they see little evidence that their views have been taken seriously.

The constitutional amendments being considered this year are only a small part of the solution. The party structures responsible for PiP have to reform as well. But they do build in some valuable safeguards for party democracy.

Constitutional Amendment 1
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.”

This amendment would give CLPs and affiliates the option of submitting amendments to final stage documents from the Scottish Policy Forum (SPF), rather than accepting or rejecting reports en-bloc. Giving conference the opportunity to vote on particular issues.

The SEC report correctly states that the SPF can present minority positions that are supported by a minimum of 20 members of the SPF. Given the average attendance at the SPF this is a fairly high threshold. In addition there may be issues that have been overlooked by the SPF in what is a complex and wide ranging policy framework. Other organisations, who may not be directly represented on the SPF, may also feel that their particular concern has not been addressed. All the amendment does is to allow them an opportunity to state their case to the conference that makes the final decision. We should never be afraid of dialogue and democracy in our party.

The issue has been unnecessarily complicated by reference in the SEC report to the National Policy Forum (NPF) review of their PiP process. As the SEC report correctly states, Scottish conference has sovereignty over Scottish Parliament policy. The NPF deals with UK (Westminster) policy. The NPF review, as set out in their consultation document, is rightly not even considering the Scottish process. In fact their document explicitly recognises that devolution means “different policy processes”. All a reference to the NPF will achieve is a delay of at least two years and compromising our devolved responsibility for Scottish policy.

The suggestion in the SEC report that the authority to make such changes lies with Annual (UK) Conference directly contradicts the correct description of Scottish conference’s devolved powers earlier in the report. The advice from an NEC official presented to the SEC working party also does not support this. He correctly stated the constitutional position which is that any rule change passed by Scottish conference has to be approved by the NEC. The NEC may accept his view that any rule changes should be referred to the UK PiP review. But that is a matter for the NEC to decide and has no bearing on how Scottish conference views this amendment.

Constitutional Amendment 2
SO 3(c) insert after ‘topic’ -“(including devolved, reserved, European and international issues)”

This amendment seeks to clarify the disputed legal position over the ability of Scottish conference to properly debate reserved Westminster issues. It was argued in 2003 and in the SEC report to this conference that this right was given up in 1996 when Scottish conference took responsibility for Scottish Parliament policy.

The SEC report quite wrongly portrays this amendment as an attempt to ‘take decisions on reserved matters’. It does not. Policy decisions on UK matters are rightly a matter for the NPF and UK Annual Conference.

However, that should not debar Scottish conference from expressing a clear view on a reserved issue as we have always done. We adopted devolution – not a separatist model in 1996. Any resolution passed by Scottish conference would still go to the NPF.

Whilst a Scotland in Britain debate at Scottish conference is an improvement – it doesn’t allow conference to vote on an issue and send a clear message to the NPF. We can have a debate; several different views may be expressed and dutifully reported to the NPF. This is fine at the early stages of the policy process when we are looking for ideas. However, at later stages we sometimes need to send an unambiguous message of where the Scottish conference stands on an issue. Particularly those issues where there may be a distinct Scottish interest. On those issues a resolution and vote sends a clear message. Again we should never be afraid of dialogue and democracy.

Partnership Agreements

The SEC report responds to the concerns over the absence of meaningful dialogue with the Party over the decision to adopt electoral reform. It proposes a consultative role for the Scottish Joint Policy Committee (SJPC).

The problem with the SJPC is that its membership has limited direct accountability to the main sections within the party structure. In particular the two CLP members come from the SPF with only the most indirect link back to the area groupings of CLPs, making it very difficult for them to consult. There is no role at all for local government.

A better way forward is set out in a constitutional amendment from Glasgow Central CLP that won’t be debated this year. This uses the SEC together with a committee of the SPLP for the task. This is already the mechanism in Clause 15 of the SLP Rules for deciding which issues from the party programme go into the manifesto. SEC members are all elected and accountable to a party ‘constituency’. If there was a particularly controversial issue the SEC has the power to summon a special conference (Clause 7) to seek a mandate from the wider party.

The concerns over the way the last coalition agreement was negotiated have raged across the party over the last 18 months and featured strongly at last year’s conference. Vigorous debate is good – but putting in place mechanisms to ensure effective accountability in future, is even better.

Conclusion

In the best traditions of the Scottish Labour Party this is a constructive debate about how best to revitalise the Party.

The constitutional amendments seek to strengthen the current processes, encouraging meaningful dialogue and debate, building a stronger internal democracy. The SEC report in response to these concerns does make a limited attempt to address the issues. But we need to be somewhat bolder if we are to rebuild the party to the levels we achieved in 1997. Let’s loosen the control and re-empower the party.

 

February 2005

Revitalise Scottish Labour 2005 leaflet – Feb 2005

Revitalise Scottish Labour

Few Labour Party members would deny that the Scottish Labour Party needs to be given a new lease of life. Declining membership, union disaffiliation and less active participation, particularly at conference, needs to be addressed. A strong campaigning party respects its members by giving them a meaningful role in policy development.

Peter Hain MP put it succinctly: “Parties inclusive enough to manage debates are winners. Parties split by rancour, personality faction and division are losers. It is time to open up the system, loosen the control and re-empower the party”

This year’s Scottish Labour Party conference has the opportunity to take some modest steps to re-empower our party when it considers a number of proposals to change the Scottish conference.

Policy Development

The 2006 SLP conference will be considering reports from the Scottish Policy Forum that will form the basis for the Scottish Parliament manifesto in 2007. Instead of having to accept or reject entire policy documents, 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.

SUPPORT the constitutional amendment to standing order 3(a)

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.”

The Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) is likely to ask the movers of this amendment to remit the idea to the National Policy Forum (NPF). This body deals with the UK General Election manifesto and has no role in the Scottish Parliament manifesto. To remit to the NPF simply kicks the issue into the long grass.

Debating Westminster issues

Many members will recall the 2003 SLP conference dominated by the war in Iraq. With the support of the SEC the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) claimed that SLP rules debar motions on ‘reserved’ Westminster issues. This meant that conference had to refer back the CAC report to force even a closed doors debate. It makes no 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.

SUPPORT the constitutional amendment to SO 3(c)

insert after ‘topic’ – “(including devolved, reserved, European and international issues)”

The SEC is likely to propose a session in conference for reserved issues called ‘Scotland in Britain’. This is an improvement on the current position, at least giving delegates an opportunity to make a contribution. However, there will be no motions or other means of measuring the views of conference. As with the 2003 Iraq debate, the outcome will simply be a mountain of flip charts sent to London.

We can submit contemporary motions on Scottish Parliament issues – so why not allow conference to send a clear message to the NPF on reserved issues.

Coalition Accountability

The Labour Party has been in coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament since 1999. In 2003 the coalition agreement was particularly controversial with PR for local government. The issue is how do we make sure that the party supports the partnership proposals that have been adopted?

Last year a number of CLPs submitted constitutional amendments providing for a special conference before a coalition deal is agreed. That would ensure a proper debate and collective ownership when hard decisions have to be made.

For a number of technical reasons these amendments where rejected by the CAC. It is likely that the SEC will propose to conference a role for the Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The membership of this body is not defined in the Scottish Party rules although the intention is that Scotland continues to adopt the UK practice of a small number of members of the SEC and the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party (SPLP) meeting as the JPC.

Whilst this is an improvement on the current position, the problem with the JPC is that its members are not directly accountable to a ‘constituency’ within the party. The objections to a special conference relate to the practicalities of managing a fluid negotiating process through the format of a large conference in the tight statutory timetable (28 days) for the election of a First Minister.

A better way forward might be to use the SEC together with a committee of the SPLP for this task. This is already the mechanism in Clause 15 of the SLP Rules for deciding which issues from the party programme go into the manifesto. SEC members are all elected and accountable to a party ‘constituency’. If there was a particularly controversial issue the SEC has the power to summon a special conference (Clause 7) to seek a mandate from the wider party. Incidentally, a majority of affiliated party organisations also have the power to requisition a special conference – an important difference between Scottish and UK party rules.

This would require a rule change as follows:

Clause 15: Party Programme
Add: “(c) In the event that the Scottish Parliament Labour Party 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 joint meeting of the Scottish Executive Committee and a committee of the Scottish Parliament Labour Party. The Scottish Executive Committee will define the attitude of the party to the principle issues covered by the proposed coalition agreement”.

It is important to emphasise that the constitutional decision to enter into coalition remains with the SPLP. This amendment simply ensures that they are left in no doubt as to the attitude of the party to that decision.

If party organisations wish to support this amendment they may submit it in lieu of a contemporary resolution on the orange form in the conference pack no later than 12 Noon, 23 February 2005.

Constitutional Issues

Much has been said about the legality of rule changes – mostly as a smokescreen to discourage these amendments. The constitutional position is clear. Any changes to the SLP rules have to be approved by SLP conference and then by the National Executive Committee.

Conclusion

These proposals seek to steer a middle way between those who want a conference that is little more than a rally and those that would prefer to return to the 1970’s. They make a modest contribution towards re-empowering the party as a strong membership based campaigning organisation.

Conference Fringe

If you are attending Scottish conference there will be a fringe meeting on Friday 4 March in the Glamis Room, Queens Hotel, 160 Nethergate, Dundee starting at 12:30pm.
February 2005