The statement by the UK and Scottish leaders of the Labour Party over the weekend looks like yet another in a long line of poorly thought-through changes. The problem that it seeks to address is clear enough, and that is that Labour in Scotland is perceived as being subordinate to Labour in London. I can’t put that any better than a former leader of the party in Scotland, who said that the Scottish party was being treated like a “branch office”. At a time when even many of those Scots not yet convinced by the arguments for independence are seeking a strengthening of the Scottish dimension in politics, this has been a major handicap.
The solution proposed is that the Labour Party will become more of a federal party, with the party in Scotland free to determine its own policies. It sounds like a simple and obvious solution, but it raises more questions than it resolves. It’s easy to see how the Scottish party could hold different views on devolved issues discussed in the Scottish parliament. Having English MPs in Westminster saying one thing whilst Scottish MSPs in Edinburgh say the opposite may not be an overly elegant approach, but it could probably be made to work.
The problem arises however with any Labour MPs who are elected in Scotland. Currently, with only one of them and no immediate prospect of that changing, it’s probably not an issue. But since the intention of the proposed change is, I assume, to secure the election of more Labour MPs from Scotland, we should at least consider the theoretical possibility that the electoral results might be as the party desires.
So would Labour candidates standing for election in Scotland be standing on the Westminster party’s manifesto or the Scottish one? In the first case, they could find themselves saying the opposite of their own party’s members in the Scottish Parliament; and in the other, how could they then be whipped into supporting the Westminster leadership’s programme?
The proposal may yet, of course, come to nothing. It certainly seems as though many of the Labour party’s centralists are up in arms at the idea and will do what they can to block it – although making such a proposal and then not following it through is probably just about the worst possible outcome for Scottish Labour.
A federal party can work in organisational terms; but I find it hard to see how it can work in policy terms if the policies ever diverge to any significant extent. Perhaps what the Labour party needs isn’t a federal structure, but a sister party with a much looser relationship. It’s something that works for them with the SDLP in the north of Ireland. The SDLP is a completely autonomous party, Irish nationalist in outlook, which shares some of the values espoused by Labour and can work with them in loose alliance on some UK wide issues. I wonder how such an arrangement might be arrived at in Scotland?