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 The opportunity has been taken to tidy up a few out of date provisions and omissions at the same time.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.

Renewing the Scottish Labour Party

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.