‘The fightback starts here!’
The party review has nailed the false but damaging jibe that Scottish Labour is run by London, writes DAVID MARTIN
It has been a long hard summer for Labour and its supporters in the country. Since our devastating defeat in May’s election it has looked from the outside as if we have retreated into our bunker. The truth is some tough, serious and detailed thinking has been going on about Labour’s future in Scotland. At last this is starting to produce results.
The Scottish Labour Party has put in place the first building block for its fightback in Scotland. It decided that Iain Gray’s successor as leader will not, as now, just be leader of Labour’s MSPs but leader of the whole party in Scotland. The false but damaging jibe that Scottish Labour is run by London will finally be put to bed.
The review group recognised that for an individual to have the authority to lead Labour in Scotland all sections of the party must be involved in his/her selection and know their views will count. So the base from which a future leader can be drawn has been expanded. No longer will a candidate have to be an MSP, instead any Labour parliamentarian will be free to stand – MPs, MSPs and MEPs.
However, it will be clear that whoever becomes leader will be Labour’s candidate for First Minister of Scotland. Expanding the gene pool from which a future leader is drawn is a first but insufficient step. For too long Labour has undervalued the vital work that councillors do in the party and in their local communities. Councillors will be part of a new Political Strategy Board and will have nomination rights for party posts. And in order to ensure policy and presentational clarity the new leader will have a weekly co-ordination meeting with the leaders of the three parliamentary parties, the chair of the Scottish Executive of the party and the party’s general secretary. The aim will be to ensure that the work of Labour’s representatives is complementary and mutually reinforcing. Under the leadership of an individual elected by the whole party this should deliver a more obvious “team Labour approach” than the current ad hoc arrangements do.
The basic building block of Labour Party organisation has always been its Constituency Parties (CLPs). These are based on Westminster boundaries. The consequence has been that gearing up to fight a general election has been much easier than preparing to fight a Scottish Parliament election. Often MSPs or candidates have had to deal with two, three or even four CLPs, wasting time, effort and money on internal organisation when their time would have been more productively spent linking into their local communities.
The new organisational base for Labour in Scotland will be based on Scottish Parliamentary boundaries reflecting our determination to have an organisation fit for purpose to fight the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.
This package will be presented to the National Executive of the Labour Party and approved at National Conference later this month in Liverpool. It will then be up to Scottish Labour to get on and elect a new leader from the widest possible talent pool.
Of course these changes of themselves do not put Labour in a position to re-establish itself as Scotland’s party of choice. They are only the first step. Over the next few months a number of expert groups will complete their work and report to the review group as a whole. We will then make recommendations, over a wide range of areas, to change the party for the better. Key though will be to suggest how Labour improves its system for policy formulation and how it communicates its message.
In recent years Labour has failed to trust its membership to develop winnable policies. We have moved to a system where members are consulted but the final decision on what goes into policy documents and manifestos is made by the great and good. We need a mechanism that gives not only party members but those groups we purport to speak for an input into policy making. This would not only create a sense of ownership among party members and supporters but in my view lead to the adoption of policy grounded in the society we aspire to represent.
Having the right policies is only half the battle. Labour’s communication strategy needs a thorough overhaul both in terms of how we present our message and what we present. Labour’s manifesto for the last Scottish elections contained many good ideas but we never really got beyond the council tax U-turn, tuition fees and knife crime. Although I do not believe “new media” is the silver bullet that will change our fortunes, we have sometimes looked rather old fashioned in our communications and campaigning activities.
If Labour was as out of tune with the Scottish electorate, as some have claimed, no amount of tinkering with structures or policies would solve our problems. However, I believe our enduring values of solidarity, equality of opportunity, and fairness still chime with the people of Scotland.
Scotland needs a party that promotes these values. A party that wants to unite not divide people, a party committed to wealth creation and the fair distribution of that wealth. If Labour is to be that party it must first believe in itself and set its own agenda and not be the prisoner of someone else’s.
David Martin is a Scottish Labour Member of the European Parliament, and a member of the party’s Review Group. This post was originally published in Scotland on Sunday. Follow David on Twitter at @DavidMartinMEP.