National (UK) Policy Forum report

The National (UK) Policy Forum gathered this weekend (17-18 Feb) in Leeds. Representing the Scottish Labour Party is always a challenge at these events because devolution means that we only have a direct interest in a few reserved matters. The Scottish Policy Forum process will start this Autumn to develop policy on developed matters.

The main purpose of the weekend was to look at the draft consultation papers, which will shortly go out for views from members.

Being the Labour Party, we love a constitutional row, and the NPF managed to spend more than an hour squabbling over how the vacant chair’s post should be elected. In essence, the NPF was only given a few days notice of the election and the NEC Officers ruled that there has to be at least 7 days notice. So the election is deferred. It wasn’t an edifying sight with some pretty uncomradely behaviour. It is beyond me why this couldn’t have been resolved beforehand. Some proper rules and standing orders for the NPF in the UK rule book might help.

Jeremy eventually got to address the meeting. He pointed to us having largest party membership in Europe as a strength and a resource of knowledge to help develop our policy offer for the next election. He didn’t duck Brexit, clearly setting out Labour’s position that any deal must protect jobs and workers rights. His focus was on key Labour issues like homelessness, linking that to the English council elections and the funding of local government. An issue we are also facing in Scotland.

He used the collapse of Carrillion to make the case for greater public ownership and against outsourcing in the public sector. Confirming a real Living Wage of £10 per hour. Investment in English housing, education etc would also give Scotland’s Parliament the resources to end austerity. The speech didn’t break much new ground, but was well received by delegates keen to get onto the substantive business of the NPF.

I went to the ‘Future of work’ session, which is mostly reserved. The draft consultation is largely based on the 20 point plan on employment rights published before the 2017 manifesto. Barry Gardiner, the Shadow Trade minister identified the implications of dodgy trade deals, including a race to the bottom in workers rights and deregulation. I highlighted the impact of such deals on devolved issues, drawing on the work in Scotland on procurement and Fair Work. I felt the paper could say more about the inadequacies of the Taylor review and the U.K. Government’s response. We are well past the stage of nudging bad employers into fair work practices. The paper also says nothing about how Labour should respond to the ageing workforce.

In the second breakout session I went to the work, pensions and inequality discussion. The focus of this consultation is tackling in-work poverty and working age inequalities. The last Labour government did a lot to address child and pensioner poverty, so this focus is welcome. My contribution focused on making the case for tackling inequality, something we as socialists take for granted, but is not well understood more widely. I also think we need to do more work on understanding the interaction between wages and benefits in tackling in work poverty for working families. Finally, a plea for a clear policy on occupational pensions. We need to reform the system and bring greater value into pension provision that is being ripped off by investment managers.

The final plenary session on Saturday was on health inequalities, although inevitably it was largely about the dire state of the English NHS. John Ashworth gave a very clear exposition of the problems and the direction of travel for Labour’s response. He specifically rejected a Royal Commission as a trap. If you want properly funded and publicly delivered NHS, you need to vote in a Labour government.

Sunday started with Katy Clark giving us an overview of the party democracy review. The focus for the NPF is the third stage of the review that ends on 28 June on how the party makes policy. There was a recognition that the NPF process does bring together all parts of the party and gives an opportunity to develop policy over a longer time period. However, the Party doesn’t use technology well and members who do know about the process, don’t often get feedback on the ideas they have submitted. We also have to recognise that the Party has to have a narrative on the issues of the day that can’t wait for the conclusion of a two year process. That inevitably means that NPF members can feel marginalised. Policy Commissions have a range of practical difficulties, for example, I am on a policy commission that is 90% devolved. There was a call for more regional events and better moderation of the Your Britain website.

The third breakout session I attended was on a Greener Britain. Other than energy generation, most of these issues are devolved. But as the shadow minister Alan Whitehead pointed out, we need to join up all aspects of this policy. For example, if we don’t decarbonise energy generation, we will be powering electric cars with dirty energy. Alan is also strong on linking industrial policy to environmental policy, something that the Scottish Government could be better at. BiFab being an example of crisis management, rather than linking up into a long term policy for a just transition. Large scale incineration is clearly a concern in several parts of England and somewhat dominated the discussion. The UK government is particularly weak on recycling and air pollution.

And finally, it was the Brexit plenary. Keir Starmer set out Labour’s current position in opposing a hard Tory Brexit, which is not an attempt to refight the referendum, based on his six tests. In particular, no deregulation or undermining workers rights. He also understood the devolution issues, with a particular focus on Northern Ireland.

Francis O’Grady emphasised the importance of finding a solution that brings people together, given the close referendum result. She focused on the trade impact on jobs as well as employment standards. All options should be on the table including the single market and the customs union. CETA type options leaves us open to corporate interests in rigged courts. Rebecca Long-Bailey focused on the economic implications, including jobs and skills. Barry Gardiner emphasised the risks of dodgy trade deals.

Firming up Labour’s position on Brexit has practical and political challenges. Practical in the sense that the Tories are struggling to develop a coherent government negotiating position, and therefore scrutiny is challenging. Political, in the sense that Labour has to find a balance between respecting the referendum result and protecting the country from the consequences of a hard Brexit. While like most NPF members I support a soft Brexit, I believe that more policy work needs to be done on how the options for our future relations with the EU impact on our manifesto commitments.

This was my first full NPF meeting. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of the contributions from delegates and the work that had been done by the policy commissions. Even in policy areas which are devolved, it was useful to hear how these issues are being addressed in England.

I hope this report gives a flavour of the discussions and members will be able to engage in detail with the consultation papers shortly. If I can help facilitate local discussions with affiliates or CLPs, please feel free to get in touch.
Dave Watson
d.watson@unison.co.uk

SLP rule changes

This year’s Scottish Labour Party conference has agreed substantial changes to the Scottish Labour Party’s rule book.

The current rule book is a slim volume. It would fit into your bag or coat, so you can discuss the finer points of Clause 10(b)(2) with your pals down at the pub on a Friday night. That joy is going to be a bit trickier in future, because the new rule book is a substantial beast, more suited as a door wedge than a light read. A proper grown up rule book – it even has appendices!

So why?

This all goes back to 2015 and a joint agreement between Kez and Jeremy that the Scottish Labour Party would become more autonomous. A joint SEC/NEC working party worked up the details and that was followed by a consultation across the Scottish Labour Party. The last UK Labour Party conference agreed to changes in their rule book and today conference incorporated those changes into our own rule book. The opportunity has been taken to tidy up a few out of date provisions and omissions at the same time.

The main changes are:

Clarifying that conference can debate reserved or devolved matters. Any differences between Scottish and UK Labour policy will be resolved at the Joint Policy Committee and the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party will represent the positions taken at this conference on reserved matters.

A new Clause 16 devolves the selection of candidates for Westminster elections. The procedural rules will be set out by the SEC in an appendix.

In practice local government devolved some years ago, but the rule changes were not fully implemented. Clause 15 now covers the rules for Labour Groups and again the detailed rules with be in an appendix, together with procedural rules for candidate selections. And yes, that includes the rules that require any coalition agreements to be approved by the SEC.

The SEC also takes full responsibility for the organisation and management of CLPs and other units of party organisation in Scotland. Again there will be detailed rules for these in appendices.

The remaining changes are tidying up and confirming practices that have been in place for some time, but not confirmed in the rule book. Sadly, I still don’t qualify as a youth delegate!

These rule changes mark a significant journey in creating a more autonomous and democratic Scottish Labour Party. As the party of devolution we have not always moved as quickly as we should have done to keep our own organisation in line with political devolution. That has now changed.

Scotland needs economic as well as political power

While political structures are important, what really matters is the distribution of wealth and power.

The Scottish Labour Party conference tomorrow will debate a motion on federalism that takes Labour much further than it has ever gone before in devolving political power away from London. The Scottish Government may soon fire the starting pistol for another referendum on independence. Both of these developments are obviously important, but they mean little if we don’t also address economic structures.

The UK constitutional convention called for in the motion to the Scottish Labour Party conference is the brain child of Jon Trickett MP. He was in Glasgow last Friday, addressing trade unions on how he wants to take the convention forward, drawing his inspiration from the constitutional convention that drove the devolution agenda in Scotland, rather the more usual government commission. He said:

“In my mind, our socialism requires three things:

  1. a federal solution for Britain which breaks up the centralised power of the British Westminster elite and hands decision making about local matters to local people;
  2. redistribution of wealth and power so that we can rebuild a socially just country based on a strong economy in every region and nation and not just in a few affluent areas;
    3. the cooperation and solidarity between all the parts of the country which will mean the pooling of common resources to make sure that there is more equity.

So this is why the Labour Party is committed to a constitutional convention. It’s because the political structures aren’t working any more. Instead, they have been a primary factor in the long-term decline of areas outside of London and the South.”

However, his key point comes in this paragraph:

“Political reform is necessary. But it is not sufficient to solve our problems. As I’ve said, it does not change the economic structures which have allowed our regions and nations to be left behind. We cannot solve this problem with just more devolution of political power on its own because we also need fundamental change to the way our economy works.”

The Red Paper Collective has expanded on these themes in their latest publication on Progressive Federalism. Jon’s introductory chapter builds on his theme of addressing economic power. My chapter ‘Scotland is not our local’ makes the case for double devolution of power from Westminster to local communities, something Jon Trickett reinforced in his Glasgow speech. John Foster shows just how little economic power resides in Scotland. Even the small foothold we had has largely disappeared since 2005 as the table below shows.

scot company takeovers

Other authors show how much more we could achieve if we focused on taking democratic control of our economy, developing a real industrial strategy, including energy and renewables. Using taxation powers to build a better education system and other public services. And finally, using the powers that should be devolved post-Brexit as an opportunity for radical reform.

The bottom line is when we focus simply on political structures, we are missing the bigger picture. Unless we challenge the economic structures that control Scotland’s economy – political structures; independence, federalism or unionism, will count for very little. That’s why a wider look at power through a constitutional convention is a meaningful initiative.
You can discuss these issues at the Revitalise/Red Paper conference fringe meeting on Saturday 25th February at The Royal George Hotel, Perth, starting at 12:30pm.

SEC report – January 2017

The Scottish Executive Committee met last Saturday (Jan 17) in Stirling. There was a good turnout of local government candidates at the training day in the same venue.

Alex Rowley gave the Leader’s report in Kezia’s absence. He focused on the parliamentary response to the SNP’s local government budget cuts and the launch of the framework manifesto. A number of members referenced the support some groups needed to sharpen up local campaigns with reference to the ‘Scrap the Debt’ campaign and other ideas in the STULP ‘Workforce Agenda’.

Parliamentary debates continued to dominated by Brexit, with only three Bills introduced since the election. There was a welcome for the common stance on the constitution in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Glasgow. Difference over substance is to be expected, that’s what devolution brings, but we should avoid mixed messages on use of language.

Mary Fee MSP, on behalf of the parliamentary group, highlighted the NHS campaign that is challenging the poor management of the service under the SNP. The Tories making an even worse mess in England, isn’t a credible excuse. Campaigns on bus re-regulation and Scotrail had also been effective.

Local government representatives highlighted the 4.8% cut in their budget allocation and the pressures that was placing on local budget setting. The minister was setting deadlines without parliamentary approval.

The General Secretary reported on fundraising and financial plans. 78% of council selections had been completed. In practice this is better than past years given low take up areas. It was agreed to waive 12 month rule, although with appropriate checks and balances.

Scottish Labour has made a submission to the Westminster boundary review, based on local consensus responses. The current proposals are based on existing wards which will change. So the second stage is likely to bring more changes.

Future Community Leaders Programme was agreed. 125 applications had been received and 20 will be selected in each year of the 3 year programme. The candidates selected cover a range of ages, experience, gender etc.

A complaint had been received regarding the use of email addresses in SEC elections. It was reluctantly recognised that the rules could not be changed at this stage, but any breach of the rules by candidates or their supporters would be dealt with by the Constitutional Committee.

The conference programme was discussed. Tom Watson, Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn would all be speaking. Contemporary motions would be considered throughout conference rather than just on Sunday. Votes will be handled electronically so it is important that delegates register by the deadline.

The Constitution Committee will meet to agree the necessary rule book amendments following the changes agreed at UK conference.

What next for Labour?

As the UK Labour Party conference comes to a conclusion, it’s time for everyone in the Party to remember the words of Keir Hardie; “Unity should be the first object of all of us who desire socialism.”

The one fact that has to be recognised is that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership ballot emphatically. He won in all three parts of the selectorate and he won on a higher rate of participation. His victory was all the more remarkable given the vitriolic campaign against him in the media. Even normally progressive papers like the Guardian use value based language like ‘moderates’ to badge his opponents. I am usually the last to attack the BBC, but as the Media Reform Coalition report shows, it is justified on this occasion. Twice as much airtime was given to critical voices and BBC reporters regularly use pejorative language when describing Jeremy and his supporters.

After the ‘coup’ failed, it was always unclear to me why the plotters continued with a leadership challenge. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, “it was to take the shine of the incumbent”, it failed dismally. Rawnsley, himself a Corbyn critic, explains why. Most party members, including myself, were appalled by the behaviour of the PLP at a time when we should have been attacking the Tories. Whatever the reservations about aspects of Jeremy’s leadership, we were not going to reward bad behaviour.

There has been a lot of coverage of the role of Momentum, but much less about Progress. I am not a member of either, but I accept that Momentum is at least an open and transparent movement, something that cannot be said for Progress. Again, the BBC did not cover itself with glory with its botched documentary.

On the issue of ‘The Purge’, I have to say that I have seen no examples in Scotland of members who were suspended without due cause. However, when you look at the voting numbers there does appear to be cause for concern, particular at the turnout of registered supporters. There must be greater transparency over this matter and the application of the rules of natural justice. Suspension letters that I did see were not of the standard we would expect in any walk of life.

Research amongst party members undertaken by Queen Mary University has highlighted some interesting views. They found that party members, old and new, shared a common vision of what the Labour Party should stand for. They also found that Party members have been longing for someone like Jeremy, long before he was on a ballot paper.

Newer members are more likely to feel politicians are estranged from them, but the big difference is over their view of leadership. Fewer than half (42.5%) of old members said they had been driven to join because they believed in the party leadership. More than three quarters (76.5%) of the post-May 2015 members said this had been a driving factor. Rising to 82% among those who joined during the 2015 leadership election and to virtually everyone who joined afterwards.

party-members
As far as Scottish Labour is concerned, the most important part of conference was passing the rule changes that give significant autonomy to the party in Scotland. The SEC will be responsible for the procedures and selection of all UK parliamentary candidates in Scotland and for the management of constituency Labour parties in Scotland. Scottish Labour will also have full control over policymaking, including for the first time in reserved policy areas.

These are very big changes. It’s not an independent party because members clearly rejected that option – rightly in my view. For those who think they are minor, just look at how certain sections of the UK party hierarchy resisted them!

A frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament, nominated by the Scottish Labour leader, will also directly represent the Scottish Labour Party on the NEC. This was not part of the joint SEC/NEC working group’s proposals, but it does regularise an arrangement that has been in place for several years and is therefore consistent with the tidying up elements of the rule changes. Personally, I am not convinced that there needs to be a seat on the NEC, given the new levels of autonomy, but I am equally unconvinced about direct elections with limited accountability. The measure only became contentious due to Kezia Dugdale’s unwise intervention in the leadership ballot – Carwyn Jones used better judgment.

So where do we go next? I thought Owen Jones struck the correct note in his ‘critical friends’ approach. Members will expect the PLP to accept Jeremy’s mandate, recognising that you can express dissent without damaging the Party. If Labour’s right wing had an obvious route to power they wouldn’t be in such a parlous state. Equally, mandatory reselection is not the way forward – the current rules are perfectly adequate. Jeremy now needs to set out a coherent vision on the big issues of the day and communicate it effectively.

As Gary Younge says; “Principle and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive, and neither side owns a monopoly on either. Political parties do need to win elections, but they are more likely to do so if they stand for something more than just power”.

That’s a circle the Labour Party has joined up before and can do so again.