Scottish Labour special conference report

We trekked off to Edinburgh yesterday for the Scottish Labour Party’s special conference. Moved from Glasgow because the venue couldn’t accommodate the numbers wanting to attend. It was certainly well supported with a lot of new faces and that’s a positive sign.

It is a reflection of the bizarre state of Scottish politics that the government party had a lobby outside the conference hall – a rather sad looking group calling for an end to austerity. Even stranger when, as Dave Watson in his conference blog and STULP point out, a UK coalition with the SNP could come at the price of double austerity for Scotland. This point is likely to be reinforced this week when the latest GERS figures are published.

The formal reason for the special conference was the rule amendments. The only contentious one was the change to Clause 2 (renumbered to Clause 4). Almost all delegates were happy with the thrust of the change; it was the use of the word ‘patriotic’ that caused a difficulty. Most people felt it was not only unnecessary given the wording of the amendment, but it was also divisive – something we can do without in the run up to an election.

As it turned out, the carefully selected speakers called to support the amendment rarely referred to the primary concern. It was also unclear how Community union could be seconders to an SEC amendment. Their contribution was remarkably similar to a speech given by Jim Murphy recently – you would have thought even a small union could manage the research capacity to write their own speeches!

While the general feeling amongst delegates was uncomfortable about ‘patriotic’, most didn’t want to vote it down because it is argued that you cannot amend an SEC amendment. Vince Mills reflected the concerns well in his speech. In the end more delegates voted against it than expected. Just as well the rules don’t require the normal two-thirds majority, because it would have only scraped through on that basis.

We then had one of those excruciating armchair conversations on stage. This was probably the very worse of the genre, with delegates desperately hoping it was going to end soon and put the poor guests and us out of our misery. Conversations are for small groups, they don’t work with a thousand people looking on.

Ed Miliband’s speech was a welcome attack on Tory austerity. He should leave Ed Balls behind more often! Labour doesn’t highlight the difference in spending plans enough – probably because they are concerned it undermines their efforts on economic credibility. In Scotland, this is a crucial element of the campaign and the party does seem to have woken up to this fact.

The afternoon started with Jim Murphy’s speech. Well actually with a rather unfortunate video, very unfortunate if you suffer with epilepsy! It was a frantic affair that was presumably aimed at portraying energy. However, it was more a metaphor for the campaign so far – lots of energy, lots of announcements, but short on a coherent narrative.

The speech itself was very well delivered. Neil Kinnock has much to answer for, as all party leaders now feel the need to tell their personal story – usually for far too long! There were a number of interesting announcements and at least an attempt at a wider narrative. The problem with some announcements is that we are left with more questions than answers because there is rarely a proper briefing to explain the policy. The sound bite is all that matters. None the less, credit to Jim for a polished presentation that did have Labour values running through it.

Finally, we had the launch of the final stage policy consultations. No one is going to do much with these until after the election. However, they are important in setting the direction for the 2016 manifesto.

Pre-election rally conferences are rarely the most uplifting of political events. However, this was one of the better examples of its type. A decent amount of time allocated for debates and a couple of good set piece speeches that had substance as well as presentation.

devo austerity