Labour can start to rebuild by offering grassroots members a fresh dose of democracy, writes ANDREW McFADYEN

 

Many of the contributors to this blog have written about the loss of experienced MSPs like Andy Kerr and Pauline McNeill in last May’s Scottish election. New figures published by the Scottish Parliament show that the defeat has also left a gaping hole ‘below the surface’ in the party’s organisation.

Anyone who has been involved in recent campaigns will know that MSPs’ staff are often among the most committed local activists.

To take just one example from my own constituency, David Whitton’s office manager also served as his election agent and as CLP treasurer. This meant that in addition to his paid employment, he gave up countless hours of his own time to organise fundraisers, knock on doors, deliver leaflets and everything else that goes into an election campaign.

Like many others, he is now out of a job.

The SNP’s election victory gave them both a majority of seats and a major advantage in terms of staff and resources. According to the Scottish Parliament, nationalist MSPs now employ 213 staff – 77 more than the 136 employed by the smaller Labour Group.

Unfortunately, this gap is likely to get bigger. These statistics were provided at the end of July and the Labour figure is inflated because it includes staff employed by non-returned Members on notice of redundancy.

The erosion of Scottish Labour’s organisational capacity is the second instalment of a “double-whammy” that began with the self-inflicted harm done to Labour councillors. Jack McConnell’s disastrous decision to give way to the Liberal Democrats over PR led to a dramatic change in the composition of Scottish local government, largely at his own party’s expense. In the local government elections four years ago, the number of Labour councillors dropped from 509 to 348. In contrast, the SNP doubled their representation from 181 to 363, despite increasing their vote by just 3.8 per cent.

Those extra nationalist councillors repaid the favour by working their socks off for Alex Salmond and they have helped the SNP put down roots in communities that traditionally supported Labour. The party now faces the task of rebuilding with fewer paid staff and fewer local councillors. The only solution is to start again from the ground upwards.

This won’t be easy because many local branches in towns and villages that were once rock-solid Labour areas now exist only on paper.

One of the most powerful examples is in New Cumnock, a former pit village just down the road from Keir Hardie’s old home. There are less than a handful of elderly members remaining and the local party is going the same way as the coal industry.

For a long time, the consequences of social change and smaller membership were masked by greater professionalisation, but the party desperately now needs to reinvigorate itself.

I have written elsewhere that Labour would reach out to more people in Scotland as an independent party with its own leader and a positive attitude towards strengthening the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Whatever conclusion is reached on these constitutional issues, a good place to start would be a healthy dose of internal democracy, so that everyone in the party can feel a sense of ownership and participation in important decisions.

After all, Labour was formed to give working people a voice.

Andrew McFadyen is a former senior media adviser to the Scottish Labour Party. He is writing a PhD thesis on the creation of the Scottish Parliament.