Monday, 17 November 2014

College craziness

THE ballot process begins today to select a new leader of the Scottish Labour party.

Although the party’s “electoral college” is being replaced for UK contests, the old 1980s system remains in Scotland.

As one Labour contact put it to me recently: “If Martians were to land in Glasgow tomorrow, you’d be hard pressed explaining the logic of this system to them”.

There are three parts of the college, all given equal weight: one third of the votes goes to affiliated trade unions and socialist societies; one third to parliamentarians; and the final chunk to ordinary party members.

Much of the scrutiny is concentrated on the affiliate section.

All individuals who pay a union’s political levy – Unison has a slightly different system – will be issued with a leadership ballot paper.

The problem is that not everyone who pays into a union political fund will be a Labour supporter, far less a member.

In an attempt to close this loophole, all levy payers get a form with their ballot paper which they must sign for their vote to count.

It reads: “I support the principles and values of the Labour Party, am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it and pay a political subscription that issued this ballot paper.”

However, given that it is a secret ballot, it is impossible to enforce this ‘honesty box’ system. Anyone who receives a ballot could sign the eligibility form and vote in the contest. This section could accurately be described as no-member-one-vote.

Trade union participation in previous elections is also far from a great advert for democracy.

In UK Labour’s 2010 leadership contest, 2.7m ballots were sent to members of affiliated unions.

Of these, 234,000 were returned –  a miserable 8.7% turnout.

Another 15% of the 234,000 ballots were deemed to be spoilt, meaning the turnout in terms of valid votes cast was closer to 7%.

Perhaps a bigger injustice is the weight of vote given to Scottish Labour’s MSPs, MPs and MEPs (councillors are excluded). 

The votes of these 80 or so parliamentarians are of equal value to the near 13,500 party members who pay subs.

Put another way, the vote of an MP is the equivalent of the votes of 168 members.

In the 2011 Scottish Labour leadership contest, Ken Macintosh MSP won around 53% of votes cast by party members.

The eventual winner, Johann Lamont, won fewer than 40% of party members, but still won the contest after the first round of voting.

According to a well-placed party source, such a system raises the obvious question: “Why should anyone join the Scottish Labour party?”

If you do sign up, your vote in leadership contests is deemed 168 times less worthy than a ballot cast by a parliamentarian. 

And folk who are not even party members can easily participate in the same contest.

As the SNP outstrips Scottish Labour in membership by six-to-one, addressing this anomaly may be a top-order issue for any new leader.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Feedback always welcome

I wrote a blog on Thursday about the First Minister, in his last full week in office, treating himself to a lovely stay at the 5-star Gleneagles hotel.

No public money was involved. Instead, it was SNP cash that ensured the departing leader got a roaring send-off.

The feedback has been interesting. Here are some extracts:
"Your piece is pathetic, petty journalism. Alex Salmond has done more for Scotland than any other politician dead or alive. Go get a life!"
And another:      

"I believe a child may have inadvertently got to your computer and then accessed your blog and subsequently published a 'blog post' on your behalf leaving the impression that it was actually you who wrote this childish 'opinion' piece. If it is supposed to be a commentary on people in Government staying at expensive hotels, being chauffeur driven everywhere and suchlike, perhaps it would be a journalistic scoop to seek out a story from a different parliament in London......

And finally:

"Why the bitching Paul about Alex Salmond As FM of Scotland he was always entitled to accommodation befitting his station. So what if he is staying at Gleneagles he deserves the best for the effort he put into trying to free Scotland. Why don't you put your journalistic nose to investigate the expenses claimed by WestMinster MPs or are you too friendly with them?"

In this age of Scottish democratic renewal, it is good to know there is such a strong appetite for scrutinising politicians.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Because he's worth it

AS the First Minister nears the end of his seven and a half year term in office, he must be wondering what the future holds.
Should he stand for Westminster? Could he step up his commitment to renewable energy by securing the odd directorship or two?

In his final full week in post, he will be able to mull over his options in style, as he has treated himself to a stay at one of his favourite hotels: Gleneagles.

I am told he arrived on Monday and will stay for the SNP party conference, which begins tomorrow in Perth.

Before the cynics pounce, and point to his great love of expensive hotels, they should consider his limited options.

Cost-effective accommodation in Perth? Come off it. He’s a historic figure.

Bute House? You know, the Georgian masterpiece he calls home.

Clearly this would be unsuitable. Bute House to Perth is a long drive for a chauffeur.

As for who is funding the First Minister’s vital overnight stays, three options present themselves: the public wallet; the party wallet, or, most improbably, his own wallet.

According to a spokesman for the Scottish Government, the taxpayer is not picking up the bill.
“These costs are not being met by the Scottish Government,” an official in the press office said.

However, a spokesman for the SNP has cleared up the mystery and confirmed the source of the largesse:
“Yes, the SNP is paying for this.”

Much has been made of the 80,000 plus membership the SNP has attracted since ending up on the losing side in the referendum.

A loyal bunch, the new recruits will no doubt agree that the First Minister deserves an inspiring environment from which to write his final farewell speech.

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.