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." 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

More Labour woes...

THE row over the running of the Scottish Labour leadership contest is now getting serious.

Pat Rafferty, the top Scottish official in Unite the Union - Labour's biggest donor - has written to UK party general secretary Iain McNicol about the ballot process.

A press release containing his letter has just been circulated. Here it is:

As you know, the trade unions and affiliated organisations will play a vital role in the election of the new leader and deputy for Scotland. So you can imagine my surprise when I looked at the candidate election booklet to find that my unions’ nomination, along with all the other trade unions had been omitted from the publicity material. This strikes me as a gross error of judgement.”

The letter goes on to say:

“To intentionally or otherwise exclude the nominations of the trades unions feels disrespectful to all trade union members in Scotland and the role they will play in rejuvenating the party here.”

In the Unite press statement, Rafferty also said:

“It’s extremely disappointing that as an integral part of the Labour Party our nominations have been excluded from the publicity material for the elections sent to all members. We are urgently seeking clarification from the Labour Party to find out why this has happened and if needs be will join other unions and affiliated organisations in making a formal complaint."

"Unless the party deals with this situation urgently then they will stand accused of trying to skew this election for their favoured candidates.”

Row over Labour leadership contest deepens

YESTERDAY I blogged on the internal row raging inside the Scottish Labour party over the running of its leadership contest.

A key issue is the candidates' booklet sent to party members. It contains a list of nominations for all the candidates, but only endorsements from parliamentarians.

These nominations favour Jim Murphy more than Neil Findlay or Sarah Boyack. Trade union and CLP endorsements have not been included.

Here is Mr Findlay's press release, which he has just put out. Italics are mine:

"Neil Findlay MSP is to seek clarification from the Labour Party over the information being provided to members with their Leadership ballot papers.
 The booklet detailing the candidate statement it contains only a list of nominations from Parliamentarians. It makes no mention of supporting nominations from Constituency Labour Parties, trade Unions or socialist societies.
 Many CLP’s and trade unions held special events in order to make a nomination.   Over the last 24 hours I have been made aware of a deep frustration from local Labour Party branches and affiliated organisations that their nominations for the leadership campaign have been excluded from the candidates booklet.
 I view all parts of our Labour Party as equal so I am surprised that Only MPs and MSPs nominations have been included. It is insulting given the effort and expense members, CLP’s Trade Union’s and socialistsocieties went to organise special meetings and consultation events, only to be ignored as seemingly inconsequential.
 I am contacting the Labour Party today to find out why this has happened and what they can do to fix this."

Friday, 21 November 2014

Scottish Labour tensions, part 54

A big row is brewing over the running of the Scottish Labour leadership contest -  a controversy that has reached UK party general secretary Iain McNicol.

To recap, three candidates – Jim Murphy MP and MSPs Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack – are facing off in the party’s rather odd electoral college.

The college is split into three equal sized chunks and gives the same weight of vote to a) affiliated trade unions/socialist societies b) parliamentarians and c) ordinary party members.

The source of the tension is that the Scottish party’s Procedures Committee has decided that the vote of the parliamentarian section (80 strong) should not be private.

Put simply, each vote cast by an MSP, MP and MEP will be published.

In the 2011 Scottish Labour leadership election, all sections of the college were governed by secret ballots. What does this change mean in practice?

A majority of parliamentarians have declared for one of three candidates, with most plumping for the frontrunner Murphy.

Others have kept quiet, such as big hitters like Johann Lamont, Margaret Curran, Anas Sarwar and Gordon.

The party rethink means there will be no hiding place for any of the elected members, some of whom I am told are "absolutely furious.”

One insider said the decision benefits Murphy.

MPs and MSPs who may have been tempted to cast a private ballot for Findlay may now think twice.

Why? If Murphy wins, casting a public vote against him may not be the greatest career move.

Another issue is the ballot paper sent to party members this week.

A booklet containing each candidate’s pitch and nominations was also included in the pack.

However, the nominations in the pack related only to parliamentarians, the bulk of whom are backing Murphy.

Trade union and constituency party nominations – a large number of which have gone to Findlay – were not included.

Ordinary party members reading the nominations are left with the impression that Murphy has way more nominations than his rival.

My insider said: “Folk are seething. It's a shambles."

It is understood trade union general secretaries have complained directly to McNicol.

A Scottish Labour spokesman told me the decision to publish the votes of MSPs, MPs and MEPs was to “encourage transparency”.

As of 19.30 this evening, no candidate has put in a formal complaint. Yet.

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.