Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Holding power to account

MOST of the attention at this week’s SNP conference in Perth will be on Nicola Sturgeon’s coronation as SNP leader.

By the weekend, she will have succeeded Alex Salmond as the Nationalists’ head honcho, and by the following Wednesday she will be First Minister.

Although the gathering is shaping up to be a New Labour-style rally, internal matters outside the public eye are likely to be significant.

Elections to the SNP’s governing National Executive Committee (NEC)  tend only to interest political trainspotters, but party sources say this year’s internal poll is the most important in years.

This has nothing to do with independence, a second referendum or political tactics, but everything to do with governance.

In a nutshell, some senior Nationalists have concerns about the effect of Sturgeon leading the party and her husband Peter Murrell being SNP chief executive at the same time.

Murrell is deemed to be an SNP star, but the folk who have spoken to me believe there must be distance between the posts of party leader and chief executive.

Insiders believe it is inevitable that a married couple in this situation will privately chew the fat on crucial party matters – finance, strategy, personnel –  which could create problems for the SNP’s democratic structures.

In this context, it is said that the SNP needs an NEC of heavy hitters who can ensure the Sturgeon-Murrell relationship does not turn into a problem, rather than electing a band of loyalists.

Sturgeon has many strengths, but I understand she does not respond well to being challenged. In internal party matters, she is also believed to be a centraliser who trusts only a handful of confidantes. 

The role of the NEC, sources say, should be to give a voice to members and act as a check on the power of the leadership.

One final bit of insider intrigue is that SNP MSP and Salmond ally Joan McAlpine is standing for the NEC. 

Joan is a controversial newspaper columnist and her candidacy will no doubt gauge her popularity inside the SNP.

The NEC election results are announced on Saturday.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Labour pains

Johann Lamont’s acrimonious departure as Scottish Labour leader will make her party’s relationship with UK Labour a key issue in the contest for a successor.

In her exit interview with the Daily Record, she described Scottish Labour as a “branch office” and claimed the UK party removed her general secretary Ian Price.

Former First Minister Jack McConnell has also entered the fray, telling the BBC that the creation of the Scottish Labour leader post should have meant that “the leader of the Scottish Labour party had authority over the party organisation".

He said, if Lamont’s accusation is well-founded, then “rules have been broken”.

So, where does the truth lie?

Although Lamont became the first leader of Scottish Labour in 2011, organisational devolution (in strict rule book terms) did not follow.

Price, like all “Scottish Labour” staffers working out of the Bath Street headquarters, was employed by UK Labour and line managed by UK General Secretary Iain McNicol.

A copy of the job description for post of Scottish general secretary – helpfully provided by a Labour contact – makes clear who had control.

The “specific responsibilities” included:

-          Helping implement the (UK Labour) National Executive Committee’s “corporate aims”
-          Day to day management of all “Labour Party staff in Scotland”. Not, of course, the non-existent Scottish Labour employees
-          “Liaison with the General Secretary, and, other staff members and the NEC about all aspects of Party work in Scotland.”
-          “Undertaking any other reasonable tasks (including duties outside Scotland) as may be required by the General Secretary.”
-          “The General Secretary-Scotland will demonstrate a flexible approach to work, presenting a quarterly report to the General Secretary and Scottish Labour Leader on the implementation and fulfilment of the Scottish Review.”

Against this backdrop, it seems odd that anyone in Scottish Labour could be surprised about the line of command. It was spelled out in black and white.

The key point in the autonomy versus control debate is money. 

Scottish Labour does not receive an abundance of direct donations and relies of cash transfers from UK Labour to operate. If Scottish Labour spent what it pulled in, the party would probably fold.

Given that UK Labour pays the bills, it seems inevitable that the parent party would expect some sort of influence.

If Scottish Labour wants organisational autonomy, its next leader should look to at the root financial cause of the dependence.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

TTIP's staunch supporter - Alex Salmond

Part of the Yes campaign’s claim that a No vote will lead to the end of the NHS revolves around something called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

This inelegantly-named trade deal between the EU and the US will, say its backers, boost economic growth by increasing the “market access” of American firms into all member states, including the UK.

TTIP’s detractors in the Yes campaign say the logic of the agreement could result in rapacious, profit-making firms (I paraphrase) taking over functions currently provided by the NHS.

The anti-TTIP argument blends in nicely to the wider Yes view that various forces are plotting the long term privatisation of the NHS.

However, there is only one problem with this view, namely that the Yes campaign’s two most senior figures are on the record as supporting TTIP.

Here is what First Minister Alex Salmond said about the agreement to the Brookings Institution in Washington DC in April 2013. This was long before the SNP decided to bang the NHS drum in the referendum:

 "Despite all of the current difficulties in the Eurozone, we saw a reminder of that just two months ago - with the announcement of the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the USA. Estimates show that once this is established, the European economy will get a stimulus of half a per cent of its GDP.
"For Scotland, given that the USA is our largest individual trading partner outside the UK – our trade with the EU as a bloc is greater - the agreement will be especially good news."

Two months earlier, deputy First Minister used remarkably similar language to praise TTIP. Here is what she said to the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

“Earlier this month, the European Union and the USA announced that they would work to establish a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The announcement was a reminder of the massive opportunities that European Union membership brings. President Barroso predicted that when the agreement is up and running, the European economy will get a stimulus of half a per cent of its GDP.  For Scotland, for whom the USA is our largest trading partner outside the EU, such a partnership will be especially good news.”
Yet, little over a year later, TTIP has gone from being “especially good news” for Scotland to a referendum bogey-man. If the First Minister raises this issue during tomorrow's TV debate, perhaps he should be reminded of his earlier comments.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

A campaign of openness?

The Yes campaign argues that independence would give us the chance to leave behind the bad practices of Westminster and embrace a brave, new Scotland.

A key principle, surely, is openness. After its first meeting, Yes Scotland's advisory board promised a "campaign of quality and openness".

I interviewed Yes chief executive Blair Jenkins last week and tested this commitment. How much does he get paid as chief executive?

Other companies reveal their CEO earnings, so I assumed Jenkins  - a public figure - would be relaxed about providing answers, or at least a rough indication.

Below is the transcript of the exchange.

To be clear, I would ask Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall the same question, but interview requests have so far been met with silence.

PH: How much do you actually get paid as chief executive?

BJ: I’m not talking about that, either.

PH:  Why not, in the interests of transparency?

BJ: I’m not on the public payroll

PH:  Sure, but there’s nothing to stop you from saying what you get.

BJ: Well, if you get people from the other campaign to specify.

PH: The Yes side is supposed to be ’different’. You are ‘different’ to the other side. Why not just say how much you earn? Is it six figures?

BJ: It’s not appropriate. It’s not information in my gift to disclose.

PH: [Other] organisations reveal the salaries of their CEOs.

BJ: Well, here’s the other thing, no-one has asked me that. Not a single person has asked me that in two years. People would assume that I am doing a responsible job and getting well-paid for it.

PH: Why can’t you just say how much you earn?

BJ: It’s not relevant in this debate.

PH: Folk who make donations to Yes might want to know how much the figurehead earns.

BJ: Lots of people have donated and [no-one] has asked me.

PH: Why so shy?

BJ: I’ve answered your question. Lots of people have donated and no-one has asked me. You are the only person who has. It has never come up as an issue. It’s not an issue.

PH: It’s an issue in the sense that I’ve raised it. Why not, in the interests of transparency, just answer the question?

BJ: For the reasons I’ve just given.

PH: Being?

BJ: It’s not relevant.


Monday, 7 July 2014

Is Kez the Chosen One?

I recently blogged about the possibility of Johann Lamont standing down as Scottish Labour leader before the 2016 Holyrood election.
Four replacements were spoken of internally: deputy leader Anas Sarwar; shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy; Lothians List MSP Kez Dugdale; and, bizarrely, Glasgow Lister Drew Smith.
Since then, Euan McColm has used his Scotland on Sunday column to write about a potential Murphy leadership, while a fascinating Better Nation blog gave a thorough run-down of all the likely contenders.
According to several well-placed party sources, there is no doubt that Lamont’s “people” have been boosting Dugdale’s profile
Lamont’s “people” – by that, I mean her closest supporters– have made this move for reasons of survival.
If Murphy took over, the current leader’s “people” would be cast into the political wilderness.
If it was Sarwar, they would (metaphorically) be thrown under his bus.
You don’t need to be an expert in Labour Kremlinology to see what has been going on.
Not only was Kez, 32, promoted to Education in the last shadow cabinet reshuffle, but she was also given a prized BBC Question Time slot earlier this year.
I also understand some of Johann’s “people” wanted Kez to do First Minister’s Questions in March, when Lamont was absent. In the end, Jackie Baillie stepped up.
Kez has also been given a prime-time Daily Record column, which is not something that happens by chance. Her weekly musings are a terrific opportunity to introduce herself to Labour voters.
Of course, the generous help Kez has received has not gone unnoticed.
It’s not just the Labour group at Westminster that is marked by tensions.