Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Spotting the difference

There have been two vaguely similar stories (here and here) about internal devolution within the Labour Party in recent days.  Wales, we are told is “on course to win greater autonomy”, whereas Scotland is heading for “full autonomy”.  The addition of one small word, “full”, is significant, and it’s tempting to see this as simply the Labour Party’s traditional approach of treating Scotland with rather more respect than Wales.  Perhaps if Welsh voters had done to Labour here what Scottish voters did to it there, Welsh Labour, or what was left of it, might also be on the road to "full" autonomy.  Or at least, that might be the terminology in use, because I suspect that this is as much about presentation as substance.
Some of the proposed changes for the two nations look similar – for instance over internal organisation, candidate selection, and representation on the NEC.  The one thing specifically mentioned in relation to Scotland but not in relation to Wales is the question of policy-making.  In Scotland, the newly “fully autonomous” Labour Party will be free to set its own policy not only on matters in the purview of the Scottish Parliament, but also on wider UK and international issues.  Although, to be fair, they’ve claimed in the past that they already have that freedom, so there’s at least a question mark over what’s changing.
But how meaningful is that right in practice?  One of the other changes seems to be giving the Welsh and Scottish branches of the Labour Party an input into the UK manifesto – but if there is still a UK manifesto, what is the point of there being different policies in different nations? 
The most obvious current example is Trident renewal.  As I understand it the current position is that the UK (i.e. in the new scenario that means the EnglishandWelsh) Labour Party is in favour of renewal, whilst the Scottish Labour Party is against.  (The Welsh Labour Party isn’t allowed to have a view of its own either way – a situation which seems destined not to change under the new arrangements).  But if there is a single UK manifesto, will any Scottish Labour MPs be elected on the basis of the UK manifesto or the Scottish autonomously-decided policy?  If the former, then there is no point in having the right to disagree – and if the latter, then there is no longer a single UK manifesto.  The way things are at present, in all probability it won’t matter: with only one Labour MP from Scotland it’s neither here nor there what he thinks, and he doesn’t look likely to have any companions for some time to come.
It looks to me as though this manifesto issue is either something that they haven’t really thought through, or else something which they think that they can just muddle through when the time comes.  Or maybe it’s both of those; in that sense it would only be mirroring the Labour Party’s whole approach to devolution in the first place. 
Given the Labour Party’s residual popularity in Wales (compared to either England or Scotland), one might think that trying to isolate that from the Labour Party in England would be a rational way forward, but that simply isn’t the way they work.  It’s much more likely that they’ll only come round to that way of thinking when it really is too late, as has happened in Scotland.  That might just be wishful thinking on my part of course; but for a party which was founded with the aim of trying to change the course of history, they do seem to have developed an unfortunate tendency to wait until history overwhelms them.

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