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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.