A welcome step towards federalism

DH cropDuncan Hothersall, Editor of Labour Hame, welcomes today’s announcement on the autonomy of Scottish Labour and looks past it to the federal future it may herald for the UK.


Today’s announcement of further autonomy for Scottish Labour may seem at first glance to be a rather dry paper-shuffling exercise. Agreeing which committee has the final say over candidate selection is not going to set any heather alight. But in it I see the tantalising first glimpse of the promise of something many have been pushing for for a long time: a federal Labour Party.

And in that possibility lies another – that Scottish Labour’s constitutional malaise, in which it finds itself unable to find coherence in a politics polarised over the question of Scottish independence, could find the answer it has been seeking. A Third Way for Scottish constitutional politics? A modern Home Rule? Have we just seen the first step towards Labour adopting a policy of a federal United Kingdom?

I hope so.

It’s inevitable that Scottish politics will eventually emerge from its obsession over where powers lie and into a serious assessment of how we should use them and who we want to place our trust in to do so. It is entirely possible that this will take a lot longer than many in Scottish Labour would like. Potentially many years longer.

Federalism is a clear, pragmatic and distinct answer, and when this period of constitutional obsession does pass, it will give the party of common cause a firm footing from which to set out its stall for narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and ensuring a child’s opportunity is not dependent on their parents’ wealth.

Earlier this year, the Labour Campaign for Federalism launched with these words:

The state we are in has to change – we must recast these islands with a new covenant of nations.

The central question too often lost in our constitutional debate is this: how do we share these islands, this common treasury? In other words, how do ancient nations live with our neighbours to ensure our common good and future prosperity?

A federal future can yet open up new opportunities for all our peoples that might soon be lost to competition and chaos. Our ambition must be to lead, as we have often done before. We must forge a new vision of statehood for the 21st century, moving past the frontiers of 19th century ideas of the nation-state.

It is time for Labour to get on the front foot – to argue for a constitution from a position of values. Equality, solidarity and community.

I hope this nascent federalism campaign group takes succour from Kezia’s words today and kicks off a proper campaign in this area. It truly feels like an idea whose time has come.


As soon as I heard Kezia set out her plans, I knew the response from our political opponents would be to belittle and minimise. The phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” has probably already been used on social media. But if the Labour movement in Scotland is to find our voice and our heart again, our foundations must be fixed first, and this step, alongside the move to acknowledge a range of views on the constitutional question, is a necessary one to secure those foundations.

Scottish Labour’s focus is to close the inequality gap and ensure opportunity for all. We must and we will hold the current Scottish Government to account for their failures. But to be able to mount a credible challenge and ask for the trust of the Scottish people to take on the mantle of government again, we must first find solid ground from which to fight.

Today’s announcement helps create that ground. It is a small step, but it is part of an emerging strategy which suggests to me that our leadership has taken a strategic view and is prepared to take on the long-term challenge of returning Scottish Labour to electability.

More power to your elbow, Kezia.

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42 thoughts on “A welcome step towards federalism

  1. The only way to do any of what she (Kezia) says is to form a brand spanking new Scottish Labour Party (no such Party currently exists or ever did ). The UK Labour Branch Office in Scotland , the UK Labour Accounting Unit in Scotland is firmly and decidedly controlled by the UK Labour Party.They call the shots as Kezia (and yourself) surely must know.

    1. oops… should read ( no such Party currently exists or ever did since Keir Hardie). Who then amalgamated with ILP and on to UK Labour Party.The Electoral Commission does not legitimize a Scottish Labour Party)

  2. Hi. Duncan,

    “Kezia Dugdale has set out her plan for more party autonomy for the Scottish Labour Party.

    She told Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News that Scottish Labour was the party of devolution, but we forgot to devolve our party properly. She intends to fix this. She called on Labour members across the UK to learn from the mistakes of Scottish Labour, not repeat them.

    Under her plan, Scottish Labour should be responsible for decisions about:

    Policy making
    Party membership
    The selection of candidates for all elections, including UK and European elections
    Election of the Scottish Labour Leader and Deputy
    Management of local Constituency Labour Parties
    There would be co-operation on staffing and finance. A process should be established involving the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the UK Labour Party and the Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) of the Scottish Labour Party to resolve the technical details.”

    Duncan it seems to me this is just minor tweaks to the Scottish Labour sections administration processes, let me ask you say at the Scottish Labour sections upcoming conference the issue of Trident is discussed and a motion to scrap it is put to the vote and delegates vote yes to scrapping Trident. So now it follows that this would be the Scottish Labour sections policy on Trident, and lets say that the Labour Party UK have a policy on renewing Trident how do you square that? and let’s say instead of having one Labour MP in Scotland that you had 20 MPs in Scotland and there was a vote in Westminter to renew Trident and Labour Party UK position was to vote yes for the renewal of Trident then how would the Labour Party MPs in Scotland vote would the vote Yes or no for renewal of Trident?

    This is the dilemma for the Scottish Labour section as a section of the Labour Party UK there can only be one party policy the reality is that the Scottish Labour section is as it says on the tin a section it is not a party as the Labour Party UK is the only party and it will only have one policy on Trident. To have any real policies the Scottish Labour section must breakaway and become a new Scottish Independent Labour Party these administrative tweaks at processes is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

    1. Hi Will. The Liberal Democrats have a functioning federal structure. You, and people like you, have continued to decry them as a London party despite this, so I have no doubt that when these changes go through in the Labour Party you will continue your shrill dismissal in defiance of the facts.

      You are merely living up to the stereotype I described in my article. You’re an opponent of Labour, constantly seeking opportunities to criticise. Of course this is one. Of course you’ll continue to say Scottish Labour is run from London despite that being demonstrably untrue.

      You’re pointless. A shrill voice echoing a tired hatred. Go and find a better hobby.

      1. Duncan, thank you for your kind words that I am currently digesting although I noticed that there is something missing on my plate oh what can that be maybe its the question that you never answered regarding Trident please could you enlighten me with an answer?

    2. Yes,the Scottish Labour Party will have to be fully and demonstrably autonomous.It will have to become a separate party from the English Labour Party,but that doesn’t mean it would have to “break away”.The two separate parties could continue to co operate closely during the change and thereafter.The Labour movement is a worldwide one.The Scottish Labour Party would be part of that movement in these islands,in Europe and in the world.Whats the alternative? To compete with the Tories for a share of half of Scotlands votes?

    3. Firstly you need to remove your bias. As far as YOU are concerned, you would only be happy with a separate party.

      I have a fundamentally different position. If you have ever lived in a federal, or a touching upon federal state, you will know that there are provincial or regional parties (the SNP would fit neatly into such a definition) and they can have interest, regional-wide policies and programmes, but they are fundamentally insular and unnecessarily competitive towards other parts of the state – even when they have no desire to break up the state. I have never supported such parties and never will. I don’t like the boundaries they set up.

      Then there are the other type of party – the ones who seek a mandate over the whole State, not just regionally. These are the parties I like: the ones that are able to generate localised ideas and solutions, but then pan back the camera a bit to see how this will all impact generally. They have the spread and the talent to analyse how things are done well in one part, and can monitor and implement their application in another part. These are the more sophisticated parties. They are where my votes go.

      So a UK Labour Party, galvinizing local ideas, but using the huge strength and depth of talent of being the biggest party in the UK brings, is an exciting concept to my mind.

      Each to their own I suppose.

    4. There are other dilemmas, and arguably more important ones. What happens, hard as might be to imagine, if Scottish Labour win 25 MPs — these MPs would not count towards the UK Labour Party’s total in terms of allowing it to be the governing party in the House of Commons.

      This, the real dilemma is that if Scottish Labour is truly independent then its success does not translate to UK Labour success in terms of the breakdown of seats in the commons.

      If Labour does, as has been suggested, rearrange matters without creating a distinct and fully independent Scottish Labour Party, then it can count on being accused of making only token adjustments to the administration of its branch office in Scotland.

      Moreover, the electoral commission will need to be satisfied that the Scottish Branch office has enough In common with UK Labour to merit being formally regarded as an “Accounting Unit” which isn’t exactly a great prize. Otherwise, they will deem the Scottish Branch office to be a party in its own right with the implications alluded to above, amongst others.

      Over the longer term, you would expect any move towards devolution within the Labour Party to lead to an increase in calls for full independence — that seems to be the dynamic you unleash with devolution and its a genie that is almost impossible to put back in the bottle. Graver still, for Labour and the Unionists, we might expect Scottish Labour Party members to be more vocal in their support for Scottish independence itself.

      It’s quite contradictory and potentially thorny, I would say, to argue for independence within the Labour Party on one hand whilst arguing against it for Scotland on the other. Meanwhile it is slowly but surely dawning on everyone that EVEL more or less makes it officially impossible for a Scottish MP to hold the office of PM and many other offices since he or she would be excluded from fully supporting policy in a range of areas deemed to be out of bounds henceforth.

      Wouldn’t everything be easier, from West Lothian to Barnett, not to mention the convulsions of Labour and so many other matters, to simply move towards a real federal solution to the UK in respect of Scotland? It might be the one thing left that would stall the move towards Scottish independence which given the Tories’ present course looks more likely than ever.

  3. How many times have we been told the “Scottish” Labour Party is to become autonomous? Too many times to count. And each and every time it has become obvious no such thing has happened. It was all a branding exercise in the end.

    In reality, the “Scottish” Labour party can never be truly autonomous as it legally has to fight general elections under the UK party manifesto or face prosecution under electoral law. If it fights under a different manifesto, it would have to declare itself a different party and would be legally barred from accepting funds from the UK party as it would effectively be a competitor.

    So they can call themselves “Scottish” Labour and create as many job titles as they like, however, ultimately, London will still call the shots. To become truly autonomous, they would have to break completely from the UK party. Some within the party advocate it. However, the financial hit they would take from not having access to UK party funds would be almost (if not totally) untenable.

    1. But the Scottish Labour Party CAN become a fully autonomous party.It CAN fund itself.Sure,it might mean members digging a bit deeper and doing more work on a voluntary basis,but that’s not an entirely bad thing.Once autonomous it COULD come up with its own policies.It COULD work in close co operation with other parties,most notably the English Labour Party..The Electoral Commission wouldn’t have a problem with any of this.It wouldn’t break any of their rules.The Greens do it.Labour already do it with the SDLP.The SNP do it with Plaid Cymru.Scottish Labour MPs would vote in Westminster according to Scottish Labour policy.That might mean they couldn’t support English Labour on Trident renewal,but they’d almost certainly support English Labour in the fight against austerity.TheScottish Labour Party has to shape its own future,not just be a hostage to fortune.

  4. Duncan do you not recognise the irony of your own prose? You’re telling us all that the Labour party in Scotland has to become fully Independent in Scotland in order to keep Scotland from ever becoming fully Independent.

    It is beyond hypocrisy. It is beyond sophistry. It is absolute and undeniable denial of all reality.

    You are in effect telling us that the only way to challenge the concept of Independence is to become Independent.

    Jesus H Christ Labour has 2 choices in Scotland. Lie down and die or support Independence. This straddling over the gaping growing chasm is only going to result in one inevitable outcome. A one way trip to the bottom of the chasm with a torn and aching groin.

      1. Duncan,
        Lets do a bit of roll playing.
        Imagine yourself out canvassing, you chap a door, you make the usual introduction “I am a member of the Labour party and we are going round the area looking to identify where our support is and we hope we can rely on your support at the Scottish elections……”.
        You know the script Duncan.
        Householder – “I’m not sure. I have voted Labour in past as did my father and his father before him but I’m not sure any longer what what Labour’s policy is”?
        Duncan – “What are you not sure about?
        Householder – There are quite a few policies I am confused about such a Trident, but the main one is about the the Labour Party itself. and in particular the relationship of the Labour Party in Scotland with the Labour Party in the UK. How can it be right for the Labour Party in Scotland to be autonomous from the party down south but its not OK for the Scotland to be autonomous from rUK?”
        Duncan – “………………………………..”

        Duncan I was tempted to fill the dots in myself but in the spirit of constructive dialogue I thought you should have first go.

        1. I prefer eating rolls to playing them, but each to their own.

          First off, that’s not what I say on the door step. I ask about people’s concerns and priorities, in the local area and nationally. I don’t ask “if we can rely on your support”, I ask open questions about what people think. Your script seems very much stuck in the past.

          As for the answer to your question, I have never argued that “it’s not OK for Scotland to be autonomous from rUK”. I’ve argued that it’s not in our *interests*. And therein lies the heart of our disagreement. I look at these issues in terms of what gives the best outcome for the most people. You, and many like you, merely bang bang bang away on the drum of independence and rarely even listen to the voices which say that rationally we’re better pooling and sharing resources.

          Anyway, if anyone on the doorstep did express such an in-depth knowledge of Labour I’d assume they were already pretty clued up on politics and just ask them to give their take on it. You learn a lot on the doors.

          1. Hi Duncan, I am prefere a baguette with a big dollop of Independence spread on it, on a lighter note it I have drawn the conclusion that you will eventually come around to supporting Scotland’s Independence just look at Gordon Brown since his off the record agreement with Cameron on delivering the VOW tha has not been delivered and EVEL he has felt betrayed and has changed his mood music on Scotland’s Independence. As for the Scottish Labour section I can see their tortoise steps towards a complete breakaway from the Labour Party UK speeding up hare-like and inevitable to a new Scottish Independent Labour Party. I predict that a prominent Labour supporters in Scotland will within a year from now announce their support for Scotland’s Independence the initials of their names are GB, DH, KD stranger things have happend wait and see.

          2. OK. Thanks for the speeling lesson.
            With regard to knocking doors; I admit my script may sound a bit old fashioned, its probably something to do with the length of time I’ve been using it. I have to point out though, that I have never experienced the reaction my old fashioned style has had especially in these last couple of years. Its quite reassuring.
            But with regard to the main point, you have not addressed my question, which is; why is it OK for the Scottish Labour Party to be autonomous but not the country. You don’t need to have, as you put it, an in depth knowledge of Labour to understand the contradiction of a Scottish unionist party seeking autonomy from their UK head office. The Scottish electorate are not as daft as you make them out Duncan. You say you learn a lot on the doors but I’m not sure your taking it all in. Try comparing effort and effect.
            Or, and this might be helpful Duncan, try doing a risk assessment on Scottish Labour. I’ll get you started; what are the risks to Labour, associated with the Scottish parliament elections next year?
            To work this out Duncan you have to multiple probability by severity. So on a scale of 1 to 5 (where 1 is unlikely they will be wiped out and 5 is a certainty they will be) what are Labours chances next May? Then you figure on the severity (where 1 is little or no effect on political relevance and 5 is permanent irrelevance)of such an occurrence. After that you take these two variants and by multiplying the two numbers together you get a measurement of the risk the Labour Party are exposed to. If the score comes to more than 4 (as with a normal RA) you have to put ‘control measures’ in place. After that, you run the RA again to calculate any ‘residual risk’. You keep repeating the exercise until you get the score to under 4.
            Good luck.

      2. Federalism is not autonomy. In the case of political parties, it is just another organisational structure. It is still ONE organisation with a “head office” above the “branch offices”. The “branch office” will always be subject to being vetoed by the “head office”. Scottish Labour can never be truly autonomous until it breaks completely from London. That is simple reality.

      3. Indeed. And if you look up Devolution you will notice it is a completely separate and different ideology.

        As different as Blairism is to Socialism.

    1. That’s not really what Duncan’s saying though,is it? He’s talking about a federal structure for the Labour Party in the UK.That federal structure would have to comply with Electoral Commission rules obviously,which would mean the various Labour parties would have to be arranged so they could demonstrate they comply with EC rules at the time.It should be noted that EC rules are not set in stone.They have to remain relevant to a developing constitutional landscape.This isn’t really that complicated.All it requires is a will to move forward

      1. Do Electoral Commission rules allow one political Party, however organised, to stand GE candidates in different geographic locals, on exactly opposite policies?
        How could a Labour Party stand in Cumbria on a pro-Trident ticket, yet in Glasgow on an anti-Trident ticket?
        It seems like electoral fraud to me.

        1. That should also read, that they would be standing on an official “Party Mandate” ticket, rather than personal opinion ( which to me would be allowed).

  5. Sorry Duncan, unlike you I see nothing to get excited about. I don’t believe for one minute the Labour Party, north or south has slithered out of its old “Westminsterknowsbest” skin, and emerged in a beautiful new “weareallsoveriegn” form.
    Although Federalism would be the answer to most Scots wishes(as expressed in years of polling), in England, they are totally INDIFFERANT.
    English people appear satisfied with EVEL. There is little demand for an “English” Labour party, outside Crudas and Denham.
    What would be the constituent parts of the Federation. Would it be symmetrical or asymmetrical? Would there be an elected or appointed UK Senate?
    Sorry to be negative, but it walks, talks and mostly resembles BULLSH*TE !
    This is actually something I would have voted for in the Referendum, but as you MUST be aware, it was not proposed by Labour, Lib Dem etc—in fact the Lib Dems ONLY talk about federalism BEFORE elections. When they are in a constitutional position to actually propose it, they don’t. I would expect Labour ( north or south ) to be exactly the same.

    1. But this is the whole point.Labour has to adapt so it doesn’t end up like the Libdems.The Scottish Labour Party can’t force federalism on the English Labour Party,but I think once the Welsh and Scottish parties become autonomous,it will become obvious that the English regions of Labour would benefit from autonomy too.Perhaps not full autonomy like the Scottish and Welsh parties,but certainly a large degree of autonomy..I think a federal structure to the Labour Parties would breathe new life into Labour.However,it isn’t a silver bullet.This new,federal party would have to come up with a vision for a modern Britain that voters can get inspired by.I personally think that’s going to be a vision of a much more federal Britain,but that’s a matter for debate.

      1. Seems to me, this boat has sailed. Your “debate is too little, and far too late.
        Osborne with his “Northern Powerhouse” theme, no matter how fanciful, is already marginalising Labour in its last English heartlands.
        Labour has little vision for the constitutional future of the UK, that is part of its traditions or could carry most of the Party with it. Federalism certainly has little traction within Labour down south, never mind in Scotland. Labour is more paralysed by its right/left split, and by the time that is resolved the next election (or more) will be lost.
        The world is moving on, Labour is at a standstill.

  6. Labour cannot be both the party of Devolution and the party of Federalism as the ideologies are non compatible.

    So is Labour abandoning its belief in Devolution in yet another fundamental U turn of another core ideology?

    First socialism now Devolution.

    And you ask people for trust? Seriously?

    1. In a comment at half eleven last night you urged Scottish Labour to take a fundamental U turn and endorse independence. Clearly were we to do so you would just argue that made us untrustworthy. It’s not difficult to spot that your only consistent point here, time after time, is “Laaabour baaad”.

  7. You, and many like you, merely bang bang bang away on the drum of independence and rarely even listen to the voices which say that rationally we’re better pooling and sharing resources.

    What resources are pooled and shared in the UK Duncan? Oil revenues? VAT? council tax?

    What share of Oil revenues VAT and Council tax is shared with Scotland Duncan?

    1. All taxation of oil is pooled and shared across the UK, and all VAT is pooled and shared across the UK, to my knowledge. Council Tax is raised and spent in local areas across the UK.

      Which part of that do you object to?

      1. No it isn’t. Scotland gets the Barnett derived block grant as its so called pooled share of resource and all it has to do in return is give up its entire GDP & GNP in exchange.

        I wonder why the UK doesn’t do the same deal with the EU? Wouldn’t that no be the way to “pool and share” resources in Europe?

      2. I noticed of course that you failed to tell me what share of VAT and Oil revenues come directly to Scotland.

        Let me tell you then. Its ZERO! Yes ZERO! We give it all to the treasury we don’t see any of it come back.

        According to UK Government derived sources we give them in excess of 56 Billion in revenues they give us back about 24 billion via Barnett.

        That’s not pooling and sharing from a Scottish perspective Duncan that’s hemorrhaging.

        1. That is a ludicrous and economically illiterate argument, fuelled by a central falsehood.

          Scotland is in deficit. It spends more than it takes in in taxes.

          Therefore *every penny* of VAT and oil revenues raised in Scotland is spent in Scotland – and more.

          Just stop for a moment and think it through.

  8. Duncan, I have a few questions that I would appreciate your expert view on they are the following below:-

    Under this federalism set-up will the Scottish Labour section stand on the Labour Party UK manifesto at the next general election?

    In otherwards if the Scottish Labour section policy is to scrap Trident and the Labour Party UK is to renew Trident which policy will go into the Labour Party manifesto?

    If you are not in a position to give me an answer to these tricky questions that’s fine I will assume that you don’t know.

    1. In federal parties the federal manifesto is agreed between all parties. That’s how it works in the Lib Dems, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t work in Labour.

      1. The entire UK is in massive debt. Therefore, the only thing that is being “pooled and shared” is … debt. Scotland’s debt is historically less than the UK’s (though subject to natural fluctuation) and, as most of Scotland’s deficit is its “share” of repayments on UK national debt, it can be argued that if we had been independent since 1979 (simply because it is an iconic date) our national debt would either be a fraction of what we have to shoulder within the UK or non-existant.

      2. My comment above was in reply to Mr Hothersall’s comment of 27/10/15 7:25am comment. I must have clicked the wrong reply button. Age doesn’t come itself as they say.

      3. Federal manifestos may be agreed between all parties but some are more equal than others. I’m sure, as things stand, “Scottish” Labour grandees have a say in the UK Labour manifesto. Its just that the much larger “non-Scottish” part of the party has a MUCH larger say. Federalism won’t change that. Only a complete break from UK Labour will give “Scottish” Labour any meaningful autonomy. Otherwise it will simply remain a “branch office” that can be over-ruled or even re-organised when “head office” sees fit.

  9. I have no instinctive response to the proposal to federalise the labour party’s structures. I am willing to hear debate on the benefits for the party. I can see that it is reasonable that politicians elected to Hollywood would control policy in devolved matters. That makes sense from the point of view of democratic legitimacy.

    What concerns me is the way in which the proposals are being presented. I understand we can’t ignore the reality of our current standing with the Scottish electorate, but nor should we be entirely governed by the difficulty of our current circumstance.

    I worry that we are opportunistically seeking a quick fix to one of the party’s biggest problem with a significant bloc of voters; that we in some way aren’t “Scottish” enough. My fear is, we won’t win back or convert many voters for whom being Scottish enough is a litmus test by federalising the structure of the Labour Party…they want independence and aren’t changing their minds any time soon.

    This change in presentational emphasis comes across as a forced reaction to the undeniable rise of identity politics by trying to capitalise the Scottish in Scottish Labour. I worry about that. It’s a game at which the Labour Party will always lose. I fear we are getting dragged onto hostile terrain. We should not forget that a perception of insincerity and opportunism is also an electoral problem the party faces, particularly in Scotland, and particularly again in regard to its Scottishness. Kezia’s recent equivocations on the party’s commitment to the Union will have done nothing to alleviate these problems.

    As with the current Scotland Bill, EVEL, human rights reform, my opinion is that constitutional change is happening too quickly, and with little demonstrable ability of parties on all sides to avoid the attempt at short term political point scoring. With the constitution. The Smith Commission stunned me. Its pace, its lack of inclusiveness, its lack of public engagement, its closed deliberations. This call to federalism from Jeremy and Kevin is redolent of that reactionary constitutional tinkering of which, in my opinion at the moment in the UK, we have far too much.

    What we need in the Labour Party is a clear understanding of what we want to achieve within devolved politics. That takes time, unfortunately probably too much time before holyrood 2016. Before that, the country needs a proper constitutional convention, taking a reasonable period to consult and report. Labour hamming up its “Scottishness” doesn’t get us anywhere, in my opinion.

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