One of the finest and lasting achievements of the last Labour government was devolution. It is simply impossible to imagine a Scotland without a devolved parliament, able to devise Scottish solutions to Scottish issues. However, the party that brought us devolution has never fully devolved its own structures.
Previous reviews have identified some of the issues, but even these reforms have not been fully implemented. The resignation of Johann Lamont MSP with her ‘branch office’ comment highlighted the problem again. Since then, groups within the Scottish Labour Party have called for greater autonomy, up to and including the creation of an independent Scottish Labour Party.
This is not simply a matter of party organisation. It is damaging in the current political environment in Scotland if the Scottish Labour Party is not seen to be managing its own affairs. We cannot claim to be the party of devolution if our own party organisation does not reflect our policy approach.
Kez Dugdale has shown real leadership in tackling this issue, supported by Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who instinctively gets the need to move away from the centralised state. Kez’s federal proposals mark a radical new approach to the issue. Her plan is for decisions about UK General Election selections, the management of local Constituency Labour Parties, party membership and many other things to be taken by Scottish Labour. Under a federal solution you build the party from the grass roots upwards, rather than hand down responsibilities from above.
A federal solution to Labour Party structures doesn’t split Scotland apart from the rest of the party. Like other federal structures across the world it strengthens the whole.
Sadly, there are some in the UK party who clearly don’t get it. Inexcusably, they think it’s clever politics to leak the preliminary discussions to the Murdoch press. As Kez elegantly put it: “All across the world, people want decisions taken at a local level. The days of centralised, one-size-fits-all organisations are gone. They aren’t coming back. We can either put our heads in the sand or adapt to face this new reality.”
The challenge with any federal approach is that the UK is an asymmetric state. It is for other parts of the UK to decide the degree of devolution they want for their own nations and regions. Initially, this would be federalism for devolved administrations, with the option for others to follow at a pace of their own choosing. The detail must of course be subject to consultation, but the direction of travel is clear. This is not an issue that can again be kicked into the long grass.
Change can be challenging, but Labour showed the way with devolution for nations within the UK and can do so again with new ways to engage communities across the UK. In doing so, Labour has to do the same with its own structures. Federalism is an approach whose time has come.