Monday, 24 September 2012

At Last! My weekend blog (It's a holiday Monday)

I start with a wee foreword.

I joked yesterday on Twitter that  the first draft of this blog had been stolen. I meant simply that the original draft had been pre-empted by two other pieces that appeared yesterday morning. Its topic is the fallout from changes that took place in the personnel at the top of the Scottish Labour Party last week. The first half of my original "copy" turned out to be summarised more expertly by Paul Hutcheon in yesterday's's Sunday Herald. And then, Kate Higgins, the estimable SNP blogger, effectively ran off with the other half in her most recent Burdz Eye View blog..

Needless to say, I don't agree with everything either of them write but I commend what each of them has to say as important to be considered by partisans of my own Party.

With that to my own effort.

The topic of this blog is the way forward for the Scottish Labour Party and it has been an exceptionally difficult one to write because it is a proposition to which there is no obvious answer. It is prompted by the fact that there is a vacancy for the post of Scottish General Secretary, a position to which, I suspect, I would have little hope of appointment. But, to be honest, were I to be, and then granted dictatorial powers, (in the Roman meaning of that word) and, as a latter day Coriolanus, invested with a benign autocracy over the whole of the Party's affairs: to choose my own lieutenants; to write the policy platform myself; to select every candidate myself and to appoint the leader myself. Even with these powers I'm not sure I could turn things round. External factors and errors past may simply be too overwhelming.

That having been said,  I certainly know what I would do in that circumstance, and so do those in charge of the appointments process, That's why I won't be wasting my time by applying!

And of course and in any event you can't make bricks without straw. In May 2011 we could have had Leo McGarry as General Secretary and Josh Lyman and C.J. Cregg doubling up to do Rami Okasha's job; even then there would have been no prospect of Iain Gray being elected as First Minister of Scotland. That's just the truth of it. David Plouffe in his masterful history of the succesful 2008 Presidential Campaign "The Audacity to Win" starts and ends by emphasising that it was not he or David Axelrod who won that Campaign. It was simply that they made it possible for Barack Obama to do so.

But, let's just assume we are back in Chicago deciding whether to run. What would need done if the contest was, say, for the Scottish Parliament Elections in 2016?

I want to start with something contributed by someone else earlier this week past week which fell right at the top of "Things I wished I'd said myself". Simon Pia, formerly Iain Gray's chief spin-doctor, appearing on Scotland Tonight, observed that the problem with the Scottish Labour Party was not simply that Scottish Parliamentary Elections were second in our order of importance, for many they were actually third, after retaining control of our Council strongholds, particularly Glasgow.

Let's be honest, there are many in the Labour Party who have never loved, or even learned to love, the Scottish Parliament. That's not a majority view but it remains a significant minority view. And that hesitation of commitment has been reflected most starkly in the Party's organisational commitment to elections for that Parliament.

You see it everywhere. Simply in terms of "effort", I defy anybody not to notice a difference in the atmosphere in a Labour Committee Room on the Saturday before a General Election as opposed to a Scottish Parliament Election. In the former circumstance there will be more Posters; more leaflets; more activists;  more activity. And, frankly, there will also be more money.

But it also applies to candidate selection. In various Machiavellian ways the Leadership finds ways of installing favourite sons and daughters in safe Westminster seats to ensure we have sufficient front bench talent while the whole Party commits to making sure that marginals are contested by those best placed to win them. Nobody at the top or bottom of the Party seems to care less who gets elected or (as it turned out) not elected to the Scottish Parliament.

And to policy development. Sure at Westminster we have to undertake the day to day grind of opposition but we are also working publicly and otherwise on developing our own policy initiatives, both in the immediate term and in what might form part of our future election manifesto. Chatham House terms meetings take place with policy experts; think tanks publish reports to greater or lesser acclamation; and official and unofficial seminars and conferences take place at which the Party's Parliamentary front bench are expected to play a significant part, to teach but to learn as well.

And then, finally, for UK Elections backroom "talent" is brought in specially for the period of the campaign. For Scottish Elections, while we might get some full time staff on secondment from South of the Border, that's it. Apart from that it's just another aspect of the normal staff's day job.

Now, here's something you might think that I'd be the last person to say. If the Party has to choose an Election to prioritise then common sense says that it should be UK Elections. Labour is a devolutionist Party. We believe that the most important decisions regarding the economy should (indeed, can only) be taken on a British basis and, if we were currently in power at Holyrood, we would still face many of the same problems as the Nationalists in coping with the current state of the UK's overall financial performance. And if we lose a UK Election, we lose to the Tories. If we lose a Scottish election it is only to the SNP who (whisper it) aren't truly as bad, particularly if actual Independence remains such a remote possibility.

But does that mean we are right to treat Scottish Elections as less important? Actually the central problem the Party faces is that some, at least, believe we need to make that choice. They are wrong.

It should not be beyond an organisation with such deep roots as the Scottish Labour Party to fight two major campaigns over five years. In 1974 we fought two General Elections in one year!

But of course it is not as simple as that. For of course, nobody, will ever be given the powers of benign autocracy I refer to above. Political Parties are living breathing organisms and the day one does defer to an all-powerful, all-knowing, leader is a day we'd all be very worried about. Even if it wasn't our own Party. So the best any Party can hope for is a modus vivendi between its leading figures and factional interests. And agreement on common objectives, the single most important of which must surely be to win elections.

The thing that Labour hasn't got its head round is that a devolved Parliament must mean a devolved Party. But the thing that those shouting that Scotland must be "in charge" within that devolved settlement haven't got their heads round is that this approach actually runs contrary to where we stand on the Constitutional position of the Country itself. If we want to be both Scottish and British in terms of our Government, then logically we should want to be Scottish and British in terms of our Party!

So that's where we need to start in filling the position of General Secretary. We do not need somebody whose first loyalty is to Johann, or her successor, any more than we need somebody whose first loyalty is to Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander (or Gordon Matheson). It may sound trite but it is nonetheless true that we actually need somebody whose first loyalty is to the Labour Party. And that means they must be their own person: nobody's placeman or woman and somebody who is a big and confident enough figure to have the option of walking away if they are not listened to. Whose very job is not to favour one interest but to treat all with equal respect and be accepted by all as a neutral referee. Not a pawn but a player.

And as to who get's Rami's job? Nobody. The Party's job is, first and last, to organise. We do not need a "Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy". That's the job of Johann and Paul Sinclair at Holyrood and Ed and a whole phalanx of support troops at Westminster. What we need is a Scottish Organiser to go out there and put a rocket up the complacent, self serving and, too often minute in number Constituency Parties. No matter what the MP, MSP or would be MSP might think. And to do that immediately and with the unconditional support of the Leadership, Westminster and Holyrood.

A good start would be to suggest that in any constituency where there is, say, fewer than 400 members, the Candidate will simply be appointed by the Scottish Executive, If you don't want that you've got till January 2014 to sort it.

And then finally, for it seems to me that the money available would easily fund three jobs out of two, I'd make a third appointment. "Official intellectual stirrer up in chief" or , I don't know, "Head of external liason" if it needs a pompous official title. This person's job would just be to go out there and network. To speak to the research departments at the various professional bodies: The EIS;  The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland; the Royal Colleges; the Law Society etc...; and to the charities and special interest groups; Citizen's Advice; SCVO (there's always a place for a lost sheep); Children First; CPAG; Age Concern; Alzheimer's Scotland.........and to the business organisations......and to the Universities...........and, yes certainly and importantly the Trade Unions and to......stir them up. To tell them we're looking for ideas and invite them to provide offer them the record if desired  and with nothing off the table between them and our front bench team. To eat a lot of lunches and drink a lot of coffees. To agitate, in the proper sense of that word. And to head hunt for those whose ideas might be useful to encourage. Post Devolution in house policy development has been a disaster and since 2007 we've not even had the civil service. If we want to get back to being the rational voice of liberal civic society (as we were for ten years) then that's going to need to be a two way process. And it's not happening now.

So these are some of the things I would do if this was my call. Which it's not. In practice, none of this will happen. There are already candidates getting lined up for the two vacancies and there will probably be a factional trade off in their appointment. I'm sure somebody will be found to write a manifesto but otherwise the Party retains a heartfelt anti-intellectualism: "If someone wants input to policy they can go along to a Branch meeting". Anyway, new ideas inevitably imply the old ideas were wrong and that's not a concession this leadership is prepared to make. We still haven't moved beyond blaming the electorate and that evil Svengali, Alex Salmond, for our defeat. Strategy beyond that is that the SNP will either bottle or decisively lose a referendum and that will be enough to return us as a default option. Indeed, various dead beat councillors are already eyeing up the SNP Constituencies they believe they might inherit in that circumstance. Nothing is being done to disabuse them of that presumption because I suspect it's a view shared at the very top. Indeed, it appears to me to be the only hope held at the very top.

So, no matter how you slice and dice this you come back to David Plouffe's wise observation. Back room staff don't win elections, they only make it possible for viable candidates to do so. Until we face up to that everything else is academic.

So, as my various SNP readers keep getting annoyed about my predictions that Eck has no intention of holding a Referendum, here's something to cheer you up. No matter what happens on the Constitution between now and 2016, I currently see no reason that you will not be comfortably re-elected at that time. Unless, of course, there's a Tory revival!


  1. ...I'm left wondering why you're still Labour.

  2. SNP,no referendum?? Are you in a state hospital? Do you take medication? if not ye should. And burdzeyeview is NOT an SNP blogger....orshould I say ''Richard and Judy''