Where Next for Scottish Labour? March 2008

Scottish Labour Party Conference – March 2008 Revitalise Fringe Discussion Paper


This discussion paper is intended to stimulate discussion at the Revitalise Scottish Labour fringe meeting at the 2008 Scottish Labour Party conference. The Revitalise network seeks to stimulate debate and action on ways to re-empower the party – building a strong campaigning organisation that respects its members by giving them a meaningful role.

The Story So Far

In 2002/3 at a number of events groups of Labour Party members in Scotland argued that our annual conference and decision making processes required some revitalisation. The view was expressed that party conferences are increasing seen as sterile rallies with little opportunity to develop policy. This was leading to disillusionment and cynicism which impacts on party membership and our ability to campaign effectively.

In October 2003 a discussion paper was circulated to stimulate debate over ways we could revitalise Scottish Labour Party conference and this resulted in The Next Steps paper published in December 2003. In October 2004 the first Revitalise conference was held in Glasgow and identified three main areas of concern:

  • Debating reserved Westminster issues at SLP conference
  • The Partnership in Power process for developing the Scottish Parliament manifesto
  • The accountability of the Scottish Parliament Labour Party when negotiating a coalition agreement.

By the 2006 conference a new process for dealing with coalition agreements was agreed together with new arrangements to debate reserved matters. There was also a general recognition that the policy process had been much more open and inclusive with better outcomes, although not faultless.

There have also been a number of contributions to the debate on party democracy at UK level, most notably the LabOUR Commission report. But also from groups including Compass, Save the Labour Party and the Campaign for Socialism. Whilst these UK reform contributions are important they rarely reflect the Scottish dimension.

2007 Election

It could be argued that the outcome of the May 2007 elections confirms many of the concerns raised by Revitalise over recent years. A declining activist base disenchanted by the command and control party model was simply not there to fight an effective election campaign.

Some initial reaction to the result on May 3 focussed on Labour’s late poll recovery and the fact that the election outcome for the SNP in terms of seats was a consequence of them gathering in the opposition vote. However, this response does not reflect the gravity of the result with Labour losing the popular vote in a national election in Scotland for the first time since 1959. The problems with the election campaign have been covered elsewhere. Whilst UK issues like the war in Iraq, cash for honours and Trident did not help, we also have to recognise the shortfalls in Scotland.

In this context the Party in Scotland cannot continue with the same political and organisational approach. This is vital for the Party internally and for our external campaigning.

Where Next?

The Scottish Labour Party needs to adopt a radical political message that resonates with our natural supporters rather than at best leaving them apathetic or at worst hostile. It should reflect the real life experience and attitudes of people living in Scotland. The Party at UK level also needs to recognise the consequences of devolution in both political and organisational terms.

Throughout the campaign there was a majority for our policies on most issues but we trailed on voter perceptions. We therefore need a political message that focuses on promoting the vision and values of the Scottish Labour Party and not just a list of policies. Voters need to recognise our values and identify them with Scottish Labour. Then our specific measures need to be consistent with those values.

As a political strategy we need to face up to the fact that we are now an opposition party in the Scottish Parliament and we need to act as if we are a party in opposition. Freed up from the responsibilities of Scottish government the party at all levels can think and act politically.

As outlined above much has been written on the need to revitalise the structures of the Labour Party ranging from those who would create an even more centralised model based on the old American Democratic Party to those who hanker after a past mythical nirvana of party democracy. Between these opposing visions there is a broad consensus that party structures need to evolve to create a firm organisational base for electoral success. However, the Scottish Labour Party is constrained by UK rules in developing solutions that meet the needs of a country the size of Scotland. As the Party that delivered on devolution we need to recognise that party structures must be devolved as well.

A new political strategy could mean a different role for the Scottish Policy Forum as a genuine forum for debating ideas and promoting policy development – not simply to develop a manifesto. This also requires a significant culture change within the Party. We need a Party that values debate and is less tribal and more inclusive in seeking views. This requires a strategic approach to policy development that seeks to shift public opinion and build long term support for Scottish Labour values and policies. SPF members need to actively participate in political education and debate with their sections.

Scottish Labour Party Conference remains the sovereign decision making body in all areas of devolved policy but it could be a more effective platform for policy and organisational development. There should be more time allowed for debate at conference instead of the emphasis on ‘keynote’ speakers and other top down communication.

The task facing the Scottish Labour Party is substantial. We have lost support and have to respond on a much reduced organisational base. However, this can also be seen as an opportunity to learn from the experience and develop a new political strategy that reconnects the Party with its natural support and builds a Party fit for campaigning in the 21st century.

Discussion Points

  • Do we have an agreed narrative of where the Scottish Labour Party has gone wrong in political and organisational terms?
  • What are the key elements of a new political strategy?
  • What organisation changes do we need to adopt?
  • What structural changes are required?
    * Scottish Policy Forum and the policy process
    * SLP conference
    * Others
  • Should the Scottish Labour Party be more autonomous? If so what particular responsibilities should shift from the UK to Scotland?
  • Is the Revitalise network helpful in facilitating debate on these issues? In view of the further changes proposed at this conference Is the job done or is there a need to develop a new programme and organisation?

March 2008