Labour can start to rebuild by offering grassroots members a fresh dose of democracy, writes ANDREW McFADYEN


Many of the contributors to this blog have written about the loss of experienced MSPs like Andy Kerr and Pauline McNeill in last May’s Scottish election. New figures published by the Scottish Parliament show that the defeat has also left a gaping hole ‘below the surface’ in the party’s organisation.

Anyone who has been involved in recent campaigns will know that MSPs’ staff are often among the most committed local activists.

To take just one example from my own constituency, David Whitton’s office manager also served as his election agent and as CLP treasurer. This meant that in addition to his paid employment, he gave up countless hours of his own time to organise fundraisers, knock on doors, deliver leaflets and everything else that goes into an election campaign.

Like many others, he is now out of a job.

The SNP’s election victory gave them both a majority of seats and a major advantage in terms of staff and resources. According to the Scottish Parliament, nationalist MSPs now employ 213 staff – 77 more than the 136 employed by the smaller Labour Group.

Unfortunately, this gap is likely to get bigger. These statistics were provided at the end of July and the Labour figure is inflated because it includes staff employed by non-returned Members on notice of redundancy.

The erosion of Scottish Labour’s organisational capacity is the second instalment of a “double-whammy” that began with the self-inflicted harm done to Labour councillors. Jack McConnell’s disastrous decision to give way to the Liberal Democrats over PR led to a dramatic change in the composition of Scottish local government, largely at his own party’s expense. In the local government elections four years ago, the number of Labour councillors dropped from 509 to 348. In contrast, the SNP doubled their representation from 181 to 363, despite increasing their vote by just 3.8 per cent.

Those extra nationalist councillors repaid the favour by working their socks off for Alex Salmond and they have helped the SNP put down roots in communities that traditionally supported Labour. The party now faces the task of rebuilding with fewer paid staff and fewer local councillors. The only solution is to start again from the ground upwards.

This won’t be easy because many local branches in towns and villages that were once rock-solid Labour areas now exist only on paper.

One of the most powerful examples is in New Cumnock, a former pit village just down the road from Keir Hardie’s old home. There are less than a handful of elderly members remaining and the local party is going the same way as the coal industry.

For a long time, the consequences of social change and smaller membership were masked by greater professionalisation, but the party desperately now needs to reinvigorate itself.

I have written elsewhere that Labour would reach out to more people in Scotland as an independent party with its own leader and a positive attitude towards strengthening the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Whatever conclusion is reached on these constitutional issues, a good place to start would be a healthy dose of internal democracy, so that everyone in the party can feel a sense of ownership and participation in important decisions.

After all, Labour was formed to give working people a voice.

Andrew McFadyen is a former senior media adviser to the Scottish Labour Party. He is writing a PhD thesis on the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

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14 thoughts on “Outnumbered

  1. While I agree that a fresh dose of democracy and a major reorganisation are needed, the sideswipe at PR is pointless revisionism. The idea that any representation ought be anything but proportional is ludicrous. I’m glad to see everyone’s vote count in council elections. Labour should be proud of delivering PR, not backbiting about it.

    1. Indeed – the drop in councillors mirrored a drop in our share of the vote. Its simply indefensible to say that if a party experiences a drop in support, it should not also have a drop in representation.

      The biggest issue, I think, is that we didnt do enough to get those vital 2nd preferences.

      1. Labour’s share of the vote dropped and so the party would have lost seats anyway, but not nearly so many. Personally, my main objection to STV is that it has broken the direct link between councillors and their wards.

        1. In what way has it broken the direct link between a councillor and their ward? As a community councillor, I can tell you that SOME councillors can still have a very direct connection with the issues and people in their ward – while others are distant. Its the councillor who chooses how to relate to their larger ward, not the system.

  2. This is the most honest assessment of Labour’s predicament I’ve seen in years. The SNP’s appeal to ambition and youth contrast starkly with our elderly members and representatives unwillingness to embrace change.

  3. Do we reckon that this is something the Murphy/Boyack review will look at and provide recommendations for?

  4. Givenv the resounding No to even the mild mannered AV in favour of FPTP Jack acted like a turkey voting for an early Xmas. The truth is that for decades the Party has existed on handfuls of activists and many activeless members. I always remember the former Leader of my Council after a well attended Branch AGM saying ot a member “A Councillors nightmare – an active Branch!” Nuff said.

  5. The real problem is that too many of our people were not on the regional lists. If it was going to be a major blow if we lost the likes of Andy Kerr etc, then they should have had that back up. If they still won their consituency, then the next person down the list could have been elected.

    Likewise, we must look at getting our list MSPs to be selected for winnable constituencies within their region to enable them to build a local profile to help gain seats in 2016.

  6. The problem is John- stopping people standing on the list if they were constituency MSPs is what your “democratically elected SEC” voted for. Democracy in action, dominated by trade union officials, but also the CLP reps on the SEC were elected by the members and they voted against common sense.

    One of the things this article misses our is the fact that Labour MPs still have far more staff than the SNP. We have almost the same number of councillors as the SNP and prior to 2007 we had roughly the same number of MSPs. The SNP still appeared to outcampaign is in many communities. Yes, local parties in some areas have become too heavily reliant on MPs and MSPs staff but at the other extreme some cases MPs and MSPs dont even want their staff involved. There may have been a reduction in staffing at local MSPs offices, but Im not convinced this resource was that well used for the party in the first place (obviously with the caveat that MSPs staff cant do party work and do so in their own time etc).

    1. I know that this policy was voted by the SEC. What I am saying is if it was so disastorous to lose all these MSPs – why did we have that policy?

      I also happen to think that if these staff members and resources were as useful as have been portrayed, some of these MSPs might still be in parliament.

  7. Andrew mentions New Cumnock, the village my father grew up in.He left school aged 13 to earn a wage in the pits. He was one of many. When the mining industry in East Ayrshire finally died in the 1980s, New Cumnock lost one third of its population. Like many of the small towns and villages in this area , it lost much of its industry (not just mining) in a short period of time. The labour party had dominated politics in that area for 100 years but people need a reason to keep voting for a party. Its not just aging party members that are labours problem. Its the perception that when labour was in office, it was more interested in the city of London and the well being of non-doms than the people who had put them into office, whose areas were being ravaged by decades of unemployment and drugs. How labour can turn that loss of trust around I have no idea.

  8. “Jack McConnell’s disastrous decision to give way to the Liberal Democrats over PR led to a dramatic change in the composition of Scottish local government, largely at his own party’s expense.”

    It was disastrous for Labour, but good for Scotland.

    1. What was disastrous was Labour not realising the system had changed and not campaigning effectively enough for vital 2nd preference votes.

  9. I was an initial sceptic of STV but I eventually came to the conclusion that it was a good thing, Labour needs to be less tribal in certain council areas and pick more 2nd prefs etc.

    Labour is vulnerable to the SNP in places like Lanarkshire and Ayrshire next year so a strategy has to be formulated.

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