We now have an interim report from Labour’s review team about the organisation of their party in Scotland. This review was triggered following the debacle of their result in the Holyrood elections in May, and has been carried out by Sarah Boyack MSP and Jim Murphy MP. Boyack was a minister in the Dewar and McLeish cabinets, though rather fell from favour under Jack McConnell. Murphy was UK Secretary of State for Scotland until May 2010, and is now shadow defence secretary. There’s coverage from BBC News here and the Scotsman here, with commentary from David Martin MEP here and Eddie Barnes here. There’s also discussion of it on LabourHame here. If there’s a formal report document from the review, it’s not available online, but there is a Labour press statement, available here.
The status of the review’s recommendations is not altogether clear. The Labour Party’s website describes this as the ‘first stage’ recommendations, which suggests there is more to come – but also explains how the proposals are to be agreed. (They have already received approval from the Scottish Executive Committee, and go to the overall party conference and a special Scottish one.) But presumably there is more to come if there is to be a ‘second stage’ of the recommendations.
There seem to be five key elements to the proposed changes:
- A ‘new political base’ in Edinburgh
- A Scottish-based ‘political strategy board’, to meet weekly and co-ordinate with a variety of other organisations
- The ‘full devolution’ of all questions concerning Scottish matters to the Scottish party
- A new ‘Scottish leader’, to lead that party at all levels, to be chosen from among Labour’s Scottish MPs, MEPs and MSPs
- And the basing of local party structures on Holyrood rather than Westminster seats.
Labour and the Conservatives are grappling with a similar problem, that of how to restructure their party to cope with the challenge of the SNP in what is now clearly a very separate political arena. Although there many similarities (notably the single elected leader for the party as a whole in Scotland), Labour’s proposals are more significant than the Conservatives’ Sanderson review, now adopted by the party. Partly this is because Labour’s proposals have a more far-reaching effect, especially given the limited autonomy the Scottish party presently has. Partly this is because the Conservatives are smaller and so more peripheral in Scottish politics; being in a weak position, they can afford to take risks because they won’t be materially worse off if things go wrong. Labour, being larger and aspiring to return to its historic pre-eminence in Scotland, has lost more already, and has much to lose if these changes don’t work. Moreover, whatever problems Labour have in Scottish politics, their reputation is not regarded as ‘toxic’.
What’s most important about the Review’s proposals is the way they indicates a shift in the focus of Labour’s activities. While the single elected leader is important here, the key issue is moving to basing local branches on Holyrood rather than Westminster constituency boundaries. This shows plainly which arena of politics the party considers to be most important – even though presently it has more MPs than MSPs. The thinking is clearly that it can afford to let Westminster seats play second-fiddle to competition for Holyrood, and that the Scottish rather than UK Parliament is the key institution in Scottish politics. Paradoxically, that may well comfort the SNP, as showing the primacy of Scottish institutions and concerns has been one of their achievements over the last four years. Equally, though, it’s necessary for Labour to be able to compete effectively with the SNP at Scottish elections.
The difficult issue will be determining what are the ‘Scottish issues’ for which the Scottish party will have full responsibility, though. Are these to be determined simply by the current constitutional settlement? That’s what Jim Murphy says, at any rate. If so, that will mean the Scottish party has a free hand on health or education policy, but not when it comes to non-devolved issues like social security, even if these have distinct Scottish aspects. And what about constitutional and financial issues? One would expect the Scottish party to play a major role in formulating UK-level policy on such matters, but that could mean that Labour gets the worst of both worlds. If policy were still being made at UK level, it couldn’t be claimed as innately ‘Scottish’ (a window of vulnerability to the SNP) – but unless there’s some mechanism to ensure that it responds to the concerns of all parts of the UK, the organised Scottish tail could well wag the UK dog, and leave Wales and England out of the picture. So Labour could well find its policies about ‘the Union’ are driven by its Scottish section, while not being able to claim those as relating directly by Scottish concerns.
With the changes that the Conservatives have now endorsed as well as those proposed by Murdo Fraser, it’s clear that Scottish party politics are now starting to reconfigure themselves to accord with political reality. The question for both unionist parties is whether those changes will in fact be sufficient to achieve their goal of being able to beat the SNP. The game line for such matters has moved a long way, and it’s open whether Labour’s proposals will enable them to reach it.
UPDATE, 13 September: Today’s Scotsman has a report of reaction to the review – it appears that many MPs are not happy about it. The report is available here.