Why Scottish Labour’s structure matters politically

The structure and rules of an organisation can say much about its culture and vision. This is particularly true of the Scottish Labour Party.

In my article in the latest Citizen and in my contributions to both recent Scottish Labour grassroots events, organisation was just one of four points on my Scottish Labour ‘to do’ list. However, as Johann has now resigned, citing some of these reasons, I think I am justified in saying a bit more on this issue.

When you open the rule book of any organisation you expect to get a feel for the purpose of the entity. What it exists for, its mission and through the dry stuff of structures and standing orders, how it does its business. That also tells you something about its culture, it’s engagement with its members and so on.

When you open the rule book of the Scottish Labour Party you get very little sense of this. It is an untidy miss mash of provisions, some out of date, some contradictory, but very little coherence. Much of this is down to the complex and difficult links with the UK Labour Party rule book that has never adjusted to devolution. I have probably written more papers on the Scottish Labour Party rules than everyone else put together, so I admit to a certain level of frustration. Successive General Secretary’s, and I have been through a few, have said to me, ‘in practice does it matter because we generally do what we need to do anyway?”

Well, I would suggest that recent events demonstrates that it does matter, on a political level as well as on a organisational one.

It matters organisationally because while the Labour Party is rightly credited with legislating for devolution, it has never really adjusted its internal workings to match political devolution. The 2011 review resulted in some important changes, but even those haven’t been completed and the consequential issues have not been addressed.

The Falkirk debacle illustrates the problem well. It was dealt with badly, by a remote London HQ because it was viewed as a Westminster selection issue. It was also a constituency management issue, but the rules have never addressed the consequences of reorganising constituencies on Scottish Parliament boundaries. The result was that the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party was left as an observer on the biggest political story of the day.

Another long standing issue has been the management of staff who work in Scottish Labour HQ. They are NEC employees and struggle to manage a relationship between their line manager in London and their day to day responsibilities to the SEC and Leader in Scotland. Ian Price, a decent and competent official, is the latest victim of that matrix.

Politically it matters because as Johann says today:

And just as the SNP must embrace that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, the Labour Party must recognise that the Scottish party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London. Scotland has chosen to remain in partnership with our neighbours in the UK. But Scotland is distinct and colleagues must recognise that. There is a danger of Scottish politics being between two sets of dinosaurs … the Nationalists who can’t accept they were rejected by the people, and some colleagues at Westminster who think nothing has changed.”

Just how out of touch was brought home to many of us in the trade union movement at last week’s STUC ‘Decent Work, Dignified Lives’ conference. Most of civil society was represented and the First Minister readily accepted an invitation to speak. It was the Holyrood recess and the conference subject readily lent itself to a Westminster Labour spokesperson. The response, we can’t attend because it clashes with Scottish Questions at Westminster. Bluntly, no one in Scotland, outwith the Westminster bubble, gives a toss about Scottish Questions. It sadly reflects misplaced priorities.

Johann’s resignation interview also refers to the culture of political spin, even against comrades in the party. To that I would add the old style negative campaign techniques that have not served us well. The polls show that the main reason for voting Yes, by a mile, was “dissatisfaction with Westminster politics”. While this may be a bit of a catch all, it does represent a widespread view that the ‘Westminster Bubble’ is remote and out of touch and a way of doing politics that we need to move away from.

Internal devolution is also reflected in the Labour response to political devolution and the Smith Commission. Labour’s Devolution Commission was the inevitable compromise with a reluctant Westminster establishment that has never fully adjusted to devolution. In the spirit of the current Scottish political environment it looks even more timid than it did at the time.

Of course none of this should distract us from the need to get the politics right. Powers, internal and external are only useful if they are used for a purpose. The Red Paper Collective and others have set out a new approach. Neil Findlay’s article in the Morning Star and his speech today sets out clearly how the New Labour coalition was let down by much of what happened in government. He also didn’t miss the SNP’s contradictions and failure to seriously address social justice.

That renewed purpose has to create a vision of clear red water between Scottish Labour and its political opponents. The idea that we can win from the right is dangerously absurd. That vision has to be illustrated by radical, yet practical policies that make a real difference to the lives of people in Scotland.