Posts Tagged Labour

Wither Internal Democracy

Should a party’s annual conference make binding policy, and what role should an ordinary party member have in those decisions? Scotland’s main political parties appear to have come to very different answers to this question, which I will try to sum up below. Please bear in mind that I have only got direct experience of my own party in this respect, and will be happy to correct any factual errors below.

At one end, the Scottish Conservatives adopt an approach to policy-making which does not include any notion of internal democracy. There are no votes on policy matters at conference, even token ones, although early in the Cameron era his Built To Last document was submitted to a vote. Instead, the leadership determines policy: typically just the leader plus his or her kitchen cabinet. In this sense therefore, the Tory system is relatively close to that used by the Workers’ Party of Korea, who rarely bother with the rubber-stamp assembly beloved of other notionally leftwing personality cults. It’s at least honest, and to be fair, since 1998 the Tories have also let the membership choose their leaders from a shortlist of two by one member, one vote. This is clearly progress over the old approach – where MPs only got a vote – or the even older version – a leader “emerged” from the “magic circle”: i.e. it was carved up out of sight in a way that must have been great fun for those who regard politics as a full contact bloodsport.

Next along this sliding scale: Labour. Their procedures used to be highly democratic, including the formal setting of policy through motions such as the composites beloved of union bigwigs and loathed by the Millbank Tendency. This is all basically over now, with the leadership now setting all policy, not even the Blairite National Policy Forum. Some of the changes are relatively recent: until 2007 branch parties and trade unions could bring policy motions for a vote, even if the results would then be ignored by Labour Ministers. Having mentioned leadership above, personally I also deplore the way Labour allows people to join several “socialist societies” and unions and get several votes for a new leader, not to mention the way MPs both sift the candidates then get massively disproportional say in the outcome.

Then the Lib Dems. They have picked a particularly bizarre point on the spectrum from Stalinist control through to radical democracy. As I understand it, their conference is open to all members, all of whom can vote and bring forward motions. The problem is they mean nothing, especially when Lib Dem Ministers have got some selling out to do. This week the issue was so-called “free schools”, discussed here previously by Jeff. As the Lib Dem proponent of the motion said, “Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.” Danny Alexander, described by one Twitter wag as tree-promoter turned economics expert, then declared it would make no difference to policy. The same used to apply to Scottish Lib Dem conference when they were in government here. The membership said that GM crop trials should stop. Ross Finnie pressed on regardless. Curious. Not particularly liberal nor notably democratic.

Although it was put to me that this blogpost was designed to make Greens look good, the brief research I’ve done does show the SNP joining us at the actually democratic end of this spectrum. I must admit I know less about the SNP’s procedures, but I do know that, like the Greens, their conference does formally set policy, with members and branches free to bring motions. I also can’t find an instance of the leadership simply over-ruling them, although Mr Cochrane, the Last Black-Hearted Unionist, has got one. The party’s leadership procedures are posted online in their entirety, and seem pretty hard to fault. Like us, it’s one member, one vote, no special treatment for MPs or interest groups.

The open question is not one of principle, though – obviously it’s hard to make a principled objection to internal democracy. But are parties with actually democratic procedures more likely to survive internal tensions and evolve, or can that internal democracy make it harder to respond to changing circumstances? Does Labour’s “democratic centralism” actually help them more than they pay in demoralised activists, unable even to slow a swing to the right? Those decisions surely weren’t taken simply for self-interest: Peter Mandelson or someone else must have concluded that the open expression of democracy was more damaging than the alternative. My sense is that that move was wrong both strategically and in principle, but I don’t have any evidence for that view.

And is going into government something which ought to change a party’s approach? Did the Lib Dems stick to the policy set by conference except where it restricted Lib Dem Ministers’ activity? Will Labour return to a more democratic approach now they’re in opposition across the country? Have the SNP really managed to keep internal democracy while running the Scottish Government? There seems little point letting the membership set policy only when you’re in opposition, rather than when you might be able to make real change.

As a press officer for a democratic party, I certainly see one downside of the radically democratic approach, not that I’d change it. Any radical new policy development the party makes can’t be unveiled dramatically in March or April of an election year. It must instead be decided in public at our autumn conference. If only there was a way we could agree any policy changes democratically but still keep them under our hats until we could publicise them as effectively as possible.

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Advice for the Labour at heart

If they trusted him, WWTD would be the new motto of the Labour party:  What Would Tony Do?

Yeah, maybe not.  But as more information seeps into the public domain about the premiership of Tony Blair (I’ve just finished Mandelson’s memoir – which paints a particularly bad picture of Gordon Brown) Labour are once again at a turning point.  They are out of office – a situation not unknown to them – and, once again, they are considering a lurch to the left.  The problem for them here is twofold:  historically (1983) this was a disaster and the country is not where they think they need to go.  So a lurch to the left would probably have a similar disastrous outcome to that of 1983.

Ignoring the UK level issue at the moment and turning attention to Scotland, the situation is less critical in terms of policy programme but more so in terms of personality.  At least with the leadership contest for the UK party, Labour have an opportunity to fill the power vacuum left at the top of the tree.  In Scotland, that vacuum remains and, undoubtedly, needs to be dealt with.

Prior to their defeat in May, Labour effectively had three leaders in Scotland.  The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as leader of Labour party, was constitutionally at least, leader of (what is known by name only) as Scottish Labour.  In order not to elevate the SNP First Minister to his level, the Prime Minister appointed Jim Murphy as Secretary of State for Scotland to deal with him for the UK Government – effectively becoming de facto leader of Scottish Labour in the process.  And finally, of least importance to the internal workings of the Labour Party but probably most prominent when it came to devolved politics, we have Iain Gray, leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, to give his full title.  That was prior to the election.

Now we have a situation where Labour don’t have a leader at UK level (which removes them from the equation).  They also don’t have a Secretary of State for Scotland – being out of power, they have a Shadow Sec State, which is simply not as powerful.  I can’t see the First Minister calling Jim Murphy all that often now.  Iain Gray is still in position of course, but here’s the issue:  his remit only stretches as far as his MSPs.  Of course they can work out policy for the Scottish Parliament in devolved areas (although I think – but I’m not sure – that if it differs substantially from UK Labour policy, it has to be ratified by their NEC) but that’s it.  He has no control over Labour’s substantial group of Scottish MPs.

I think it is fair to say that Iain Gray has not exactly set the heather alight as leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament.  That’s not a criticism as such, merely an observation.  Time and again at FMQs he has barely grazed the First Minister (though on one or two occasions he has landed a punch, albeit one which tends to have been fairly easily parried).  And outside of Holyrood he has tended to be overshadowed by his Westminster colleagues.  And even in the four months that Labour have been out of power, he has not really come forward and owned the Labour agenda in Scotland.

I called this post “advice” for a reason… but I know those who are Labour-minded will not like it.  Iain Gray and Scottish Labour have to assert their independence (although they probably shouldn’t use the word independence).  Eleven years after devolution began it is time that the party north of the border – and its leader – took responsibility for their own actions and stopped deferring to the UK party.  I think if they do so – if they really are allowed to separate, or at least become a more “federally” organised party, like the Lib Dems – then they will be much better equipped to present themselves as a party which is in direct competition to the SNP in fighting for particularly Scottish interests.  I realise that Scottish MPs are unlikely to accept a ‘mere’ MSP as their leader, but this is a fight that Scottish Labour MSPs have to take on – and win.  Otherwise I really can’t see how the public will view them as anything other than proxies for UK Labour.

That, I think is the biggest challenge for Labour before next May’s Scottish Parliament election – make the Scottish party more Scottish internally, and reap the rewards of it electorally.  It won’t be easy, but that which is necessary for success never is.

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Coalition: sense or sensitivity?

Looking forward to May 2011 and the Scottish Parliamentary election, I think the smart money is probably on a minority Labour administration (assuming current poll figures and mentalities within the ‘Scottish’ Labour party – and also a backlash to the lack of a referendum, though I seem to be in the minority in thinking this). Nevertheless, here’s a concept I’m floating, in the main because it seems so crazy: a Labour-SNP administration.

It’s crazy right? I mean, at the grassroots level they hate each other. Their campaigns are aimed at drawing votes from the other, most often in negative slogans and attacks on policies; their representatives have engaged in such Punch-and-Judy politics (see, Foulkes, G. who could not even bring himself to congratulate Nicola Sturgeon on her marriage) that you can’t even imagine them sitting next to each other in the canteen never mind around a government table; and, well, they won’t even engage with each other (see budget negotiations 2008, 2009, 2010). They also have the added distraction that at the moment their combined parliamentary representation would total 93 of the 129 seats in Holyrood – 28 more than required for a minimum-winning coalition. A coalition of these two parties on this scale would be utter madness.

But… it’s not like we’ve not seen this before. Remember the 2005 German Federal election? No?  I forget you’re not all geeks like me. Well, it resulted in the first Chancellorship of Angela Merkel. The two largest parties – Merkel’s (Christian Democratic) CDU/ CSU (226) and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s (Social Democratic) SDP (222) – won 448 of the 614 seats in the Bundestag.  Neither an SDP-Green-PDS (left) nor CDU/CSU-FDP (liberal) coalition was workable, so after some negotiation, the two largest parties formed a coalition which lasted until the 2009 election.

Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn JonesAlso, in Wales – which I guess is a more similar case – Labour and Plaid Cymru decided on coalition in 2007, despite reservations among their respective memberships and similar tension to that between the SNP and Labour at the grassroots level. Combined, they have a total of 41 of the 60 seats in the National Assembly and have worked together to establish the All-Wales Convention as part of the coalition agreement, as well as leading the charge for a referendum on expanding the powers of the Assembly.

So from the two examples above we can see that a) dominant parties in particular systems can work together and b) Labour can work with nationalists. And a Labour-SNP (or SNP-Labour) coalition would have its advantages. For a start, they could combine to offer a much stronger, united, Scottish voice against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster. Whatever else they are, Labour are pro-devolution (of sorts), and would like the Scottish Parliament to have more powers while the SNP… well, a gradual increase in powers is better than nothing for them. Also, for Labour, this may be their only chance to have meaningful power in the UK for the foreseeable future (opposition beckons at Westminster for a long-ish time while the Welsh Assembly hardly has the levers of power Labour are used to). And both parties are “social democrats” (in loose terms James – don’t batter me for that definition!) so their policy formulations are not too dissimilar.

I know. I know. It’s crazy talk.  This is politics we’re talking about.  The negatives of such a deal would always outweigh the positives. And I guess one thing I should have mentioned about the German case is that the SDP got slaughtered at the next election. So there’s always a big loser. But in so many ways this makes sense. It’s just a shame that ‘sense’ does not always dictate how politics works.

NB – This post was written before James’ post (and, indeed, before the Sunday polls came out) but after Hamish Macdonnell’s Cal Merc piece (which I never read until James’ post cited it).  It was also written before yesterday’s debate on the dropping of the referendum bill, which doesn’t quite render the idea irrelevant, but means it is moving in that direction. It probably also directly answers/ comments on Andrew BOD’s comment on James’ post.

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Is Labour minority now the most likely outcome?

Graphic based on Mail on Sunday pollThe Holyrood electoral system was explicitly designed to make one-party majority virtually impossible, some say to “dish the Nats”. Sure enough, eight years of stable but unambitious coalition have been followed by three years of stable minority administration.

The polls suggest Parliament has settled into a relatively constant formation, with two large parties competing for first place, two medium sized parties competing for third place, then Greens and sometimes others. The most obvious coalition shapes are a large party plus a medium party, given the unlikelihood of the grand coalition.

To narrow that down still further, the Tory brand has never been properly decontaminated in Scotland, despite the odd sensible young buck on their Holyrood benches, and neither Labour nor the SNP could formally go into coalition with them here. You can’t point and shout at London cuts implemented by your Deputy First Minister’s Ministers at Westminster.

This also means the Tories’ partners down south are also off the table come May next year, at least as far as Ministerial office goes. To my mind, this leaves a limited range of options for the next Scottish Government. They are, starting with the most likely (based on current polling):

  1. Labour minority. They’ve seen how it’s worked for the SNP, and they quite like the idea of not having to share office, even if they’d share power with Parliament.
  2. Labour supported by another party more informally. The Confidence and Supply model might allow them to be propped up by the Lib Dems, or potentially by Green MSPs.
  3. SNP minority supported through Confidence and Supply. It’s hard to see them coming out ahead of Labour in May, semi-irrelevant though that is for making a majority.
  4. Either an SNP or a Labour formal coalition with the Greens. Again, looking at the numbers, it’s even less likely for the SNP and Green votes to make 65, so that alone puts Labour as the most likely partner. On the pro-side for either large party, we’re not contaminated by Westminster. However, the actual policy differences would be stark, starker than the (non-constitutional) differences between the two largest parties themselves.

Today’s poll in the Mail on Sunday is just another straw in the wind, but it is clearly blowing against the SNP and also the Lib Dems. I haven’t seen a non-SNP-commissioned poll which had them close to Labour at the top, and it’s been a while since the Lib Dems were as close to the Tories as they used to be. This one is also current, conducted this week, unlike the last one to get attention, which was from early August.

Voting intention

Labour: 39%/36%/55 (+9)
SNP: 29%/26%/35 (-12)
Tory: 16%/15%/18 (+1)
Lib Dem: 11%/12%/16 (0)
Green: na/6%/4 (+2)
Other: 5%/5%/0

(note, I used Weber Shandwick’s predictor, and am not sure if it reflects the new boundaries. Either way, the result was one more Green MSP than John Curtice estimated for the Mail on Sunday)

Again, the SNP couldn’t form a two-party majority with anyone except Labour, and SNP plus Green plus either Lib Dem or Tory isn’t a majority either. Conversely, Labour would only ever need any one of the three largest parties to win any given vote, and given how well Bruce Crawford’s dealt with the need to find Labour or two others, that would look pretty tempting.

This would be a radically changed Holyrood after May. A massive swath of the SNP back benches would be out after one term, and the fight for first and second place would be very clear. Salmond would surely be gone as leader, too, despite the desperate counter-polling, which would almost certainly lead to a mouthwatering contest.

Labour’s substantial lead over the SNP in voting intention would put them 20 seats ahead, yet the Lib Dems’ constituency strengths mean they wouldn’t fall much behind the Tories. The gap for third would still be very clear, though, at least in votes. As Malc suggests, if you back the Coalition, why vote Lib Dem instead of Tory? The Green Group would double in size but no longer hold the balance of power. One wee thought – an extra one percent on the Green list vote from the Lib Dems, and we’re up three more to seven. It’s going to be a hard-fought eight months.

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