JOHN MACKAY thinks some of Labour’s Holyrood candidates and MSPs were second rate – and thinks he knows the solution


Much is being made of the fact the current review of Labour In Scotland is consulting ordinary party members. All well and good. But rather than speak to ourselves it would be better if Labour were talking to Scottish voters and asking them why they didn’t vote for us in May.

When the party eventually gets round to doing so, it will find it was rejected for three simple reasons: firstly, the poor overall quality of our MSPs, candidates and leader; secondly, a lack of credible and distinct policies; thirdly, an incompetent election campaign that was indicative of how the party has gone about its business at Holyrood for over a decade.

Of course, these three reasons are inevitably interlinked but it is undoubtedly the quality of our MSPs, prospective MSPs and the Scottish leader that is the most important. After all, it follows that with higher quality MSPs we will have an improved choice of leader, a more effective front bench, better policies and smarter run campaigns.

Forget asking Labour members what they want in a consultation; what members want is an authoritative leader they trust, candidates they respect and a message they’re inspired by. Then they’ll happily give up their free time to do the campaigning that is still absolutely necessary to win elections.

There is plenty of talk in the party that we lost a lot of ‘good people’ in May. That is as may be, but it is an unfortunate fact that many of these good people were not very good MSPs. Scottish Labour therefore has to come up with a solution as to how we as a party get the brightest and best people available to us as candidates for the next Scottish election.

Too many of our MSPs come from the same, narrow background – ex-trade unionists, ex-party staff, ex-councillors and ex-Scottish Executive members. I have nothing against any of these groups but they can hardly be said to be representative of the wider Scottish public. This must change and the party has to start the process of renewal by selecting a group of candidates for the 2016 election that are more talented than those they replaced and are more representative of the communities they seek to represent.

How then does Labour find talented potential MSPs?  By quite simply making every effort we can to attract candidates with as broad a range of life experiences as possible and who are in touch with the needs of their local communities. The days of candidature being a reward for narrow party loyalty and time-served has to end.  To do this we will have to be bold. And if we can’t be bold in the wake of our worst electoral performance in Scotland for 80 years, then when will we be?

The party must look outwith its own membership and change its selection procedures.  In my opinion this can only be done by holding primaries for the Scottish parliamentary elections that are open to non-members to both contest and vote in. There are bright and motivated people out there who are Labour supporters, but not members, and they desperately need to be encouraged to stand for the party.

It is likely some of the talent Scottish Labour is looking for are currently members but aren’t part of one of the cliques that dominate the party.  Open primaries will also benefit them as they can put themselves forward for selection, knowing they will have a better chance in a vote of the wider public than in the stitch-ups that currently masquerade as selection ballots.

The other benefit of open primaries is that it shows the Scottish public that we are taking the business of representing them seriously again. By involving as many people as possible in our selection process we send a message that Labour is first and foremost concerned about local communities and not the party.

The prospect of open primaries is unlikely to be popular with all. I must admit I am a recent convert and it was only the scale and nature of the defeat in May that turned me on to the idea. There may be other mechanisms whereby we can include candidates who are not party members but they wouldn’t stand a chance of being selected in a members-only vote. That is why I believe open primaries are the best available option.

That said I would be interested to hear of alternate methods whereby we could cast our net wider in candidate selection. Perhaps open primaries aren’t the ideal way to get the best and brightest talent available to us. One thing is for sure though: there needs to be change because we do not dare put the same sort of candidates before the Scottish electorate again that we did this year.

John Mackay was Labour’s candidate in Caithness, Sutherland and (Easter) Ross in last year’s General Election and this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Follow him on Twitter at @john_mackay.

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13 thoughts on “Primary education

  1. And there is your Scottish Party clause 4 moment, and it desperately needs one! Will the party have the guts to go for it though?

  2. I’ve been a convert to this idea for a while, I must admit.

    First came across it in articles by Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, who put the case extremely well. Their idea of ‘piggybacking’ the necessary forms on other things sent out (Polling cards for local elections, etc) should also help to keep costs down – cost being the one major argument against.

    Giving people outside the usual narrow clique a say in selection also gives the people more incentive to get to know (And thus to vote for) the candidate they helped select. That’s no bad thing, either.

    Applying it to sitting MPs/MSPs also means a bad MP with tenure can be challenged/gotten rid of and gives real incentive to sitting MPs/MSPs to represent their community properly. THAT idea I think I love most of all…

  3. “How then does Labour find talented potential MSPs?”

    We could ask Douglas Alexander or Tom Harris to take over the whole show.

    I don’t think any of the Labour MSPs are up to it, except maybe Kezia Dugdale.

  4. Neil – Thanks for the kind words. Not sure about the Clause 4 comparison but something radical has to be done.

    Elliot – I’ll gloss over sharing common ground with Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell! Glad you are already a fan of the system. We also have to have a think about how we select and rank our list candidates. The system we had in the Highlands & Islands and the North East that ensured incumbent list MSPs were zipped and unchallenged for the top places was appalling and reflected badly on the party.

    Sean – Agreed that some MPs need to find their way to Holyrood. I’m not sure if multi-term MPs will be that keen but some of the new intake that went to Westminster last year should be in the Scottish parliament. Take Gregg McClymont for example; what is he doing being wasted on the backbenches in the House of Commons when he’d be our star performer amongst the current crop of MSPs in Edinburgh?

    1. I’m always more interested in whether someone is correct than in whether they are technically Left or Right. I’m not sure the old tribal Left-Right thinking even has much true meaning any more, honestly – if it ever did.

      The watchword needs to be ‘does it work?’ not ‘which tribe came up with it?’ IMO. Though I realise that would still be considered heresy in some quarters! 😀

      I definitely agree with you on the list ranking system, too. Anything as inherently corrupt as ‘the leaders pick their favourites’ is so open to abuse it’s ridiculous.

  5. Sean, Alexander and Harris are at Westminster, some hundreds of miles south of Scotland. I have some difficulty in seeing how your model would work. If Labour MSPs are not “up to it “, then the electorate will punish Labour, thats democracy.
    Salmond running the SNP from Westminster may be used as an example. Two seconds thought will surely dispel that notion. Its just not the same.

  6. John- you are factually incorrect that sitting MSPs are unchallenged. They have to be to be re-selected and local parties are entitled to vote for an open selection of they choose to do so. To be fair to them your sitting MSPs in the Highlands work exceptionally hard and aren’t inexeperienced enough to make a twit of themselves on twitter! Do you really think the people of Caithness will turn out in force for primaries and how do you think it will be funded and who will run it? Maybe with suggestions like this- you aqre correct about the auality of sonme of our candidates…

  7. Jason – There should be a free vote amongst members for list candidates in each region. It should not have been up to CLP’s to in effect deselect the list MSPs. It is an indefensible system. And the list MSPs themselves should have insisted on it being an open ballot. It is pure self-interest not to.

    If List MSPs have worked hard, or even better, if they have worked effectively, then they should have nothing to fear from an open ballot as they will presumably do well in it.

    You read my twitter? I do not take it seriously and most of what I put on there is nonsense. And I continually remind people of that. Anyone who takes at face value what is posted on twitter has very little doing.

    My suggestion for primaries is of course aimed primarily at the parts of Scotland where in theory Labour elects most of its MSPs. But thanks for your concerns about the people of Caithness. Of course in the Highlands we have our own problems and despite all the hard work you talk of we have gone from four MSPs down to two.

    As for my own qualities, well I actually thought we did quite well in CSR at the two elections in the past year. To increase the vote in both both ballots in a constituency where we have one councillor, absolutely no presence and where I haven’t lived for 17 years isn’t a bad effort.

  8. I find it disappointing that John MacKay repeats the lazy line that the current group of Labour MSP’s are of poor quality. How does he come to this conclusion? How many of the new intake has he spoken to? Is he so perceptive that he can assess the quality of a person based on a few months work? Many of the new intake have only had one or two opportunities to speak in parliament but apparently according to John this is enough for him to determine that we are all piss poor! Unlike John I think we actually have a number of very telented new MSP’s – people like Drew Smith,Graeme Pearson and Jenny Marra will without doubt make a real impact and I look forward to them and many others playing big role in Labour’s future.
    I don’t know John MacKay, as far as I know have never met him – however it appears he has a real high opinion of himself, whilst dismissing people he has never met and knows very little about – ever so slightly arrogant me thinks.

    1. Neil, I’m not a member but I do almost always vote Labour, and in Holyrood elections almost always reluctantly, in spite of what seems like an array of feeble candidates to vote for. You may be perfectly good, but if people like you take this kind of comment as a personal attack to be repudiated rather than trying to work out why people make it and how to change their minds, as John is doing, then Labour will never win back the votes it needs at Holyrood. It’s not just about being adequate, it’s about being better than the opposition and Labour at the moment just seems to a non-political person like me to be much less talented and visionary, in other words much less attractive as a voting option, than any other party at Holyrood. Open primaries could change my mind about that.

  9. Neil – As you rightly say, you don’t know me. If you did you would know I don’t have a high opinion of myself. I’m just an ordinary Labour member who is concerned about the party in Scotland.

    I didn’t comment on the new intake of MSPs so I don’t know how you came to the conclusion I judged you all as ‘piss poor’.

    I would expect you to stick up for yourself and your colleagues. I am actually looking forward to seeing how Jenny Marra and Graeme Pearson perform in the next five years. They have the sort of backgrounds that I wish more of our MSPs had.

  10. John, all party members and elected representatives are concerned about the future of the party, indeed ever since the dawning of the “new Labour experiment” I have been concerned about the direction of the party.
    You did say that the overall quality of MSP’s is poor and that “too many of our MSPs come from the same, narrow background – ex-trade unionists, ex-party staff, ex-councillors and ex-Scottish Executive members.” Well I am an ex bricklayer,who left school at 16 returned to education in my mid twenties then retrained as a secondary school teacher in my 30’s. As a Labour Councillor I fall in to one of your categories of “the unrepresentative.” I don’t know if this makes me (and people like me) someone who should be weeded out in the process you describe but I have to say that my experience of 8 years as a Councillor representing people at the grassroots level, developing local projects and being active in my community is already proving invaluable as I apply the skills and knowledge I have gained to my new role as an MSP. I know many of my colleagues have similar life experiences and in my view parliament will be all the better for it.
    I do however agree with some of the main points you raise – we have to have people who are in touch with the communities they represent (whatever their background) and most importantly we need policies that offer a real, radical alternatives that inspire the electorate to vote for us. If we get these things right we can win again and soon.

  11. Reading with interest but I find myself wondering a few things, I agree that the Labour leader is important and primaries are interesting but :

    a) Who’s going to pay for the ‘primaries’?

    b) Can we get the Scottish parliament to pay for the primaries?

    c) Would the Scottish Labour leader be chosen in primaries too?

    d) Would the Labour party in the rest of the UK have to give its agreement?

    e) What about allowing primaries in England for the UK Labour leader?

    f) How would the members react if they didn’t agree with the choice?

    Just some questions. Thanks.

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