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.