Sunday, 11 January 2015

Because he's worth it, part 2

IN his last week as SNP leader, Alex Salmond was treated by his party to a stay at the five-star Gleneagles hotel.
In today’s Sunday Herald, I reveal the latest example of the SNP’s touching generosity to the now backbench MSP:  a chauffeur-driven private hire.
I am told “security” is an issue.
One party source told me Mr Salmond is finding it “hard” giving up the trappings of power.
Here is a fuller version of the article.

By Paul Hutcheon

THE SNP has been criticised after agreeing to fund a chauffeur-driven car for its former leader Alex Salmond.

Party bosses approved the perk, but Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said SNP membership subscriptions were being used to pay for the ex-First Minister’s “imperial” lifestyle.

All First Ministers, from Donald Dewar to Nicola Sturgeon, have been entitled to a car for government business.

However, it is unprecedented for a political party to continue to pick up the tab for a motor vehicle after a leader quits.

Holyrood has provided a chauffeur-driven car for group leaders when in post, but political parties have never continued the practice.

Scottish Labour did not put on a car for Jack McConnell, Iain Gray or Johann Lamont after they resigned, while the same was true for the Tories’ Annabel Goldie and the Liberal Democrats’ Tavish Scott.

At Westminster, parties do not pay for a car for former leaders, but the UK Government provides police protection for ex-Ministers who held security-sensitive posts.

An SNP source said the car was intended to take the former First Minister from “a to b” and would save the public purse money through a reduced expenses bill.

A private hire firm is being used.

It was reported last month that the former SNP leader had been using public transport for his journeys
“I love public transport but it takes me some time to get around at the moment," the backbench MSP said.

However, it is understood his journeys are split between trains and the party-funded car.

The SNP also paid for a car to ferry Salmond about during his two spells as leader.

In 2008, the party paid a firm £2,888 to ferry Salmond around during the Glasgow East by election.

The same driver received £9,484 for a chauffeur service during the 2011 Holyrood election campaign.

Carlaw said: "Considering Alex Salmond seems determined on a new career as the SNP's backseat driver, it's perhaps no surprise the SNP is splashing out on a chauffeur driven limousine to ferry him around.

"I wonder how thrilled new SNP members will be to learn that their subscriptions are being squandered on keeping Alex Salmond in the lifestyle he has clearly come to regard as his imperial right."

Scottish Labour MP Anne McGuire said: "Alex Salmond stood down months ago but he's still acting like he is First Minister. Whether it's being chauffeured about, or announcing SNP policy instead of Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister isn't just a back seat driver - he's clearly itching to get back behind the wheel of the SNP."

An SNP spokesperson said: "Security assessments for the former First Minister are a matter for Police Scotland, not the SNP.

"The former First Minister has no access to the government car service, in contrast to former Prime Ministers and a number of other UK government ministers.

"Therefore, his transportation, including to party events, has no impact at all on the public purse."

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Political transparency

SCOTTISH Labour announced its leadership result on Saturday, but curiously declined to provide turnout figures for the three sections of its notorious electoral college: parliamentarians; affiliates; and party members.

However, affiliated trade unions are starting to release their turnouts: Community's figure was 12%; 21% of ASLEF members voted; and the Unite number was a paltry 10.2%.

So, half an hour ago, I emailed Scottish Labour's spokesman:
"Can you tell me the % turnout for the members' section?"

His reply: "No."

Remember this when Labour demands transparency from others.

Democratic deficit

 --UPDATE: GMB turnout was 8.5%--

AT a glance, the Scottish Labour party provided an element of transparency in its leadership result on Saturday.

Officials released figures showing the vote %  each candidate received in the rather absurd three-part electoral college used for the contest.

The winner, Jim Murphy, cleaned up in the parliamentarian and members’ sections, while challenger Neil Findlay won the affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

However, Scottish Labour did not provide turnout figures for either the members’ section, or for the unions.

Nor were figures provided for the total number of people who voted in each part of the college.

Such a basic disclosure, I am told by party sources, could prove embarrassing.

However, some unions have embraced transparency and coughed up their turnouts. Here they are:

      1. ASLEF: 21%
2. Community: 12%
          3.  Unite: 10.2%
These numbers are abject  – around 90% Unite’s political levy payers did not vote– but at least these affiliates have provided basic information.

At the very least, these tiny turnouts should spell the end for the electoral college in all Labour leadership contests.

But shouldn't Scottish Labour now provide all turnout figures?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Murphy's Holyrood options

As Jim Murphy announces his reshuffle and plans to rewrite his party’s constitution, the significant matter of how and when he will get to Holyrood remains unresolved.

On Sunday, he said he was not attracted to a dual mandate, which all but ruled him out of standing for Westminster in 2015.

He repeated that he will be a Holyrood candidate in 2016, but left the door open to entering the Scottish Parliament before then. His exact plans will be announced in the “New Year”.

Speaking to his allies, several options have emerged.

 1. The most obvious option is to get selected in a Labour first-past the post-seat for the 2016 election. 
A trio of MSPs – John Pentland, Ken Macintosh and Hugh Henry – had been tipped to make way, but all three have stated their intention to stand again. KM in particular does not see himself as part of Murphy’s chess game.
However, u-turns are an accepted part of political life and nobody would be hugely surprised if one of the three made way. At least one other FPTP MSP is likely to retire ahead of the 2016 poll, so Murphy will have options. 
The bottom line is, if Murphy wants to get selected in an existing seat, his party will deliver.
This option would mean him taking a year out of elected politics: you only have to be a parliamentarian to get elected Scottish Labour leader; there is no rule that says you must continue to be one after winning.

     2.   A related option is to stand in a constituency and on a regional List at the same time in 2016. However, the ‘protected places’ given to existing List MSPs is an obstacle.
If an incumbent List MSP passes a trigger ballot, nobody else can get a higher ranking.
Johann Lamont tried to scrap this rule, which is said to protect deadwood MSPs, but she bottled reform. I am told Murphy will scrap protected places and allow all members – perhaps even MPs – to go for top billing on the Lists.
      Of course, a rule change would also mean Murphy coming top of whichever List ballot interested him.
    3.   A riskier option is persuading an MSP to stand down soon and timing a by-election to coincide with the next general election.
 However, the opinion polls are problematic. Labour is not a shoo-in in any part of Scotland just now, and Murphy could not be certain of avoiding a humiliation.
The SNP and the wider Yes movement would pile bodies into the seat and Murphy’s Holyrood bid would turn into a soap opera.
       Far better, an ally of his said to me, for Murphy to improve his party's reputation over the next 12 months and stand in 2016 when the gap between Labour and the SNP is narrower.
      Oh, and as has already been stated, an MSP standing down before 2016 would take a financial hit. MSPs love their parties, but not as much as their wallets.

    4.  The most bonkers suggestion I’ve heard floated is for Murphy to try to become a List MSP before 2016. 
 The idea explored is a) get an existing List MSP to stand down b) persuade the other candidates who were on the same List in 2016, but who were were unsuccessful, to waive their right to take a place at Holyrood c)somehow ensure Murphy gets the vacant slot.
I’m no legal eagle, but I’m sure this barmy pub chat option has no basis in law. A party can’t retrospectively change its candidate list from a previous election.
However, the fact it has even been suggested shows how keen Murphy is to get to Holyrood.

So, the safest bet is 2. Option 3 is highly risky. Number 4 is just nuts.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Murphy's memory

THE Scottish Labour leadership contest has put a focus on the bizarre system used for the election.

Equal weight is given to three different sized parts of an unwieldy “electoral college”:  parliamentarians; party members; and affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

In practice, the college means the vote of one MSP is equal to the votes of 168 party members.

However, leadership frontrunner Jim Murphy has made the bold claim that this will be the “last time” the college is used in Scotland.

At a lunch last week with Sunday journalists, he was asked whether the party Review he and leadership rival Sarah Boyack conducted in 2011 had recommended ending the college.

His reply: “And the Scottish Labour party’s agreed to it, but it just wasn’t implemented in time."

He added: "The Review didn't come up with the detail, but the idea was for it to be implemented."

I think Murphy has got this wrong: the Murphy-Boyack review did NOT back the abolition of the college.

I understand there was a recommendation to tweak the college by reducing the votes of parliamentarians, trade unions and members to 30% each, and giving councillors the remaining 10%.

According to a piece in the Times in 2011, the proposal was axed by the party's governing body.

As one senior party source told me: “There is no mention whatsoever in the 2011 Review of ending the electoral college, certainly not one of the recommendations.”

The insider added: “No change has been approved.”

Of course, the college has been phased out for future UK leadership elections.

One-member-one-vote was approved this year at a special UK conference, but the reform did not extend to Scottish contests as the rules are devolved.

The bottom line is that the Scottish party has not scrapped the college and its own conference would have to approve of changes to the franchise.

However, when I put this to Murphy last week, he repeated his line:

“The Scottish Labour party already agreed to make these changes."

He added: “The unions voted for it north and south of the border”.

Murphy may have to revisit this view and, if he crowned leader on Saturday, his first meeting of the party’s Scottish Executive should be interesting.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Generation game

A by-product of the indyref is that promises made by the pro-Union parties are being put under the microscope.

The Vow, published in the Daily Record and which committed its signatories to “extensive” new powers for Holyrood, has now taken shape in the form of the Smith Commission report.

However, it was not just the pro-Union side that made commitments during the campaign.

For years, the SNP answered the charge that a referendum would turn into a neverendum by saying that a plebiscite was a one-off event.

Or, more precisely, a “once-in-a-generation” event.

A newspaper cuttings search shows how this promise has been gradually altered and watered down.

In April 2007, days before the SNP defeated Scottish Labour in that month’s Holyrood election, Alex Salmond left himself little wriggle room:
"In my view it's a once in a generation thing. 
"There was a referendum on devolution in 1979 and then the next referendum on devolution was in 1997 and that seems to me to be the overwhelming likelihood." 
In other words, the gap between two independence polls would be 18 years.

In 2008, by which time the SNP was running the Government, the then deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon echoed her leader’s position: “My view is a referendum is a once-in-a-generation event.

Four years later, after SNP MSP Sandra White said a second referendum could quickly follow the first, Salmond’s spokesman held the line:
"As the First Minister has made clear on many occasions, the referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

By February 2014, the position began to shift.

In an article on an independence event in Dundee, the Daily Record reported Sturgeon defining “generation” as around 15 years, down from the original 18.

Salmond also said the 1979-1997 analogy was now the "sort of time period" in which a second referendums take place.

The terminology was tweaked again in June, with Salmond telling a daily newspaper: "A referendum on the constitution is once in a political generation."

He repeated “political generation” – a phrase without any fixed meaning – several times and moved further away from his 2007 formulation on the Marr show by adding that it was “just my opinion”.

Post-referendum, where stands the original commitment?

As he announced his intention to quit as First Minister, Salmond did not mention a “political generation”, but referred to the result as moving the “base camp” of independence closer to the summit.

Sturgeon has also moved beyond the‘g’ word, instead repeating a new line that she is not “planning” another referendum.

In these fevered political times, it may be an idea to hold the feet of both sides to the fire.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Labour leadership row: party responds

I've blogged recently on the controversy surrounding the running of the Scottish Labour leadership contest involving Jim Murphy, Sarah Boyack and Neil Findlay.

The ballot packs sent to members only included the nominations each candidate received from parliamentarians - endorsements that heavily favoured Murphy. No trade union or constituency party nominations were listed.

Critics believe the document gives the impression that Murphy has way more support than the other candidates.

Findlay has asked his party for clarification, as has Unite official Pat Rafferty.

Acting General Secretary Fiona Stanton has now explained the position in an email to party members. Here is an extract:

"There have been a couple of issues raised about the content of the Candidates Booklet circulated with the Ballot Packs which were despatched this week. I wanted to contact you all to explain the logistics and the issues involved.
The candidate booklets contain the candidates statements, contact details and also detail the nominations made by parliamentarians but they do not include details of the supporting nominations made separately by Councillors, CLPs and Affiliates. Unfortunately, the timing meant it was impossible to include supporting nominations in the Candidates booklet. Although the timetable is as close as possible to that in 2011, there was significantly less time for producing the candidates booklet between having validly nominated candidates and the ballots being despatched.
In order to be able to get them printed and with ERS in time for despatching the ballots, the candidate booklet went to print on Wednesday 5th November. This was the day after the deadline for MPs, MSPs and MEP nominations and we included everything we could on candidates at that stage- not just the words they had provided but also their contact details from the website, and their nominations from parliamentary colleagues.  The deadline for supporting nominations from Councillors, CLPs and Affiliates was Friday 14 November at 2pm. There was unfortunately no way those could go in the booklet as it went to print 9 days earlier."