The Scottish Labour Party consultation paper ‘Renewing Our Party’ has attracted some commentary that on occasions has bordered on the hysterical and certainly doesn’t reflect what the paper actually says. So let me attempt a calmer look at the issues.
The section in the paper that some have focused on says this:
“Other than the status quo, there are a number of broad approaches to reform. At one end of the spectrum is further devolution from the UK party and at the other, the creation of an independent Scottish Labour Party. In between is a ‘federal-type’ option where members belong to the Scottish Labour Party first and foremost, and agreement is reached over which matters and procedures are best shared on a UK basis.”
In any objective analysis of reform, this paragraph is simply a statement of the obvious. Just because you identify the range of options, doesn’t mean that the writers, or the Scottish Labour leadership are proposing them. Particularly the outlying options.
A few comrades have suggested that we should leave well alone and the status quo is fine. Reference has been made to previous reviews, without understanding that a number of the recommendations adopted from those reviews have not actually been fully implemented. At the very least, the hopelessly outdated UK and Scottish Labour rule books need to reflect agreed devolution measures.
However, this is not simply an issue for the self confessed rules anoraks – it’s political as well. Anyone who lived through the Falkirk debacle should understand that it is simply not acceptable to have the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party having to say ‘not me guv – someone from London will come up and sort this out’. That was precisely the invidious position Johann Lamont was left in because issues such as who was responsible for CLP management were left unresolved. And it wasn’t the only example that underpinned the ‘branch office’ comment on her resignation.
At the other extreme there are those who argue that an independent Scottish Labour Party is required to give the Party a distinctive status and bury any perception that Scottish Labour receives its instructions from ‘London’. My own view is that this solution is an over reaction to the problem. Most of Scottish Labour’s mistakes have been home grown and it is too easy to blame others. In addition, most party members share the sentiment in the joint statement by Kezia and Jeremy, repeated in the paper: “Like the UK itself, the Labour Party is also a family of nations. We benefit from the solidarity that comes from working together as a movement across the whole of the UK.”
That leaves us with a ‘federal-type’ solution. The UK is an asymmetric state, so pure federalism has its challenges, but as with devolution, solutions can be found that recognise the current constitutional position. The paper sets out a number of practical considerations that need to be addressed.
CLP management is in my view a no brainer. Any reform has to pass what I would call the ‘Falkirk Test’ – ensuring that similar issues in future are dealt with in Scotland.
The Scottish Labour Party already has responsibility for Holyrood and local government candidate selection, even if the rule books need updating. This should be extended to the other elections. It may be that Scotland would follow a similar process, but that would be for the Scottish Party to decide. Any issues arising out of the selection process have to be dealt with in Scotland.
Sharing services on a UK basis is a practical solution to the administration of the Party. The Party should be focusing on the strategic political and organisational issues, not duplicating administrative functions or wasting time managing them. That includes staffing administration, but we do have to develop a clearer approach to the accountability of the Scottish General Secretary and his staff than the current position.
Finally, that leaves policy. Again policy on all devolved issues is already the responsibility of the Scottish Labour Party. The U.K. Manifesto is a problem for all Scottish parties that operate across the UK. There may be differences of approach on reserved matters that reflect Scottish views and you can’t totally ignore devolved matters. Not least because many voters don’t have a full understanding of which services are devolved. This means we need to have a manifesto in UK and European elections that reflects the complete picture. It also needs to have a proper internal democratic process – not cobbled together by officials and the leadership.
The difficult bit is what do you do if there is a different view on a reserved issue across the UK. Our sister parties in federal states would wonder why we think this is a problem – they manage this regularly. Having a different position doesn’t happen often, but when it does you can use a mechanism like the current NPF to resolve them. That requires compromise and some times you just have to agree to differ – it’s called politics! Parties enter into coalition arrangements on a similar basis, but everyone understands what their preferred position is, even if it isn’t achievable at any particular point in time.
I would therefore urge all comrades to read the consultation paper carefully, after all it’s only a couple of pages. The status quo isn’t an option, even for the most ardent unionist and neither is this somehow giving in to nationalism. Subsidiarity is a cumbersome word, but it means that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical level. It’s an idea that has growing political resonance across the UK and in our debates over centralism and the role of local democracy in Scotland. Labour is the party of devolution and our structures needs to reflect our policy.