Bust of James Keir Hardie, photo by Ben Gait

Labour Pains

Published: 6 November 2015
Throughout most of its history, Labour has been a unitary party with authority located in London-based institutions corresponding, in this instance, to the organisation of the UK state. All this altered with devolution from which has stemmed a constitutional distinction between devolved powers (under the remit of the devolved bodies) and reserved ones (left to Westminster). 
Inevitably this led to an alteration in Labour’s internal arrangements as responsibility over devolved policy delegated to the Scottish party.  But Scottish Labour was left vulnerable to SNP charges that it remained under the UK party’s thumb for three main reasons.  Firstly on devolved matters it was inhibited, by unwritten understandings, from publicising its differences with UK policy (as, during the Blair government, over healthcare). Secondly,   power over organisational matters still lay under London’s jurisdiction, as became embarrassingly clear in the much-disputed Falkirk selection when the Scottish party was left hapless as a bystander.  Thirdly, it was restrained, by rule and convention, from articulating a distinctive voice on reserved issues, such as foreign policy (e.g. Iraq) and defence. 
But Labour’s constitutional parameters have had to be redrawn in wake of its crushing defeat by the SNP. The Scottish contingent in the   PLP is reduced to solitary survivor and the balance of power within the Scottish party has swung decisively in favour of its Scotland-based institutions. As a result the pressure for greater autonomy for the Scottish party has become irresistible with Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale urging that her party be given complete control over all policy-making, over candidate selection in every election and over the management of local constituency parties.
What, in practice, will this mean if implemented? Though their scope is shortly to be extended by the Scotland Act, complete control by the Scottish party over of devolved issues is not contentious within the party. Precisely what will happen with the transfer of full responsibility over Westminster selections to Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee is anyone’s guess but will be more interesting.  But most attention has centred on reserved policy.
The reason for this is the Scottish conference’s recent vote in Perth against Trident renewal - opening a gap with the UK party which remains in favour. This is a highly sensitive issue since Corbyn is a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons in the teeth of opposition from the bulk of his frontbench. 
In fact the Perth decision was not as clear-cut as presented since the actual resolution stated that rejection was contingent on firm commitments ‘to trade unions representing defence workers on the retention of defence workers jobs’ a point upon which Unite Scotland insisted. 
For whatever reason, Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle ignored this and immediately riposted by emphasising that defence policy was a matter to be settled at  national level. In fact, nobody in the Scottish party disputed this – it was merely asserting the right to decide freely, through its own institutions, what it believed that policy should be and give Scottish Labour a vocal and distinctive collective voice.  
For Dugdale such a voice is vital if Scottish Labour is to stem the nationalist tide:  ‘I got a very clear message when we lost all our seats in May that people wanted to see the end of the Labour Party in Scotland being run in Westminster.’ 
There are those in Westminster disturbed by the pluralist implications of what Dugdale calls her ‘federal solution.’ It could mean is that the Scottish (presumably too the Welsh and maybe other bodies) adopting and campaigning for policies other than those acceptable to the UK party, sustained by the collective weight of their organisations.  
Some centralists will see this as disruptive and it will undoubtedly raise new issues of conflict resolution. But it may represent the new type of consensuses-seeking party that Corbyn claims to want.

Picture: Ben Gait

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