TOM HARRIS doesn’t believe that the current review of Scottish Labour has to be the final word


We’re all waiting with bated breath for the conclusions of Jim Murphy’s and Sarah Boyack’s review of party structures.

Whatever those conclusions are, we can be sure of at least a few facts in advance: every single SNP member without exception will dismiss them out of hand, Ed Miliband will say they’re great, and Labour’s hard left will complain that the review doesn’t mention the renationalisation of the railways.

For the rest of us there will undoubtedly be good bits and bad bits. Some recommendations won’t go as far as we would like, while others will be a bit too radical for some tastes.

It would be a misjudgment to believe that an extended period of soul-searching and internal review could do anything other than hurt Scottish Labour’s hopes of regrouping in time to fight the local elections next May, or even the general election and Holyrood elections in 2015 and 2016. Nevertheless, the review is important – crucially important. What it concludes and how we as a party respond to it will have a profound impact on whether Scottish Labour plays any significant role in Scotland’s politics in the future.

That’s why we must remember that the review is not the end of this process. It will make recommendations, sure. And those recommendations will need to be debated and decided upon by conference, both at UK and Scottish level.

But we in Scotland need to make it clear that we will settle for nothing less than what we believe is right for our party and our nation, irrespective of what the UK party thinks.

A key example: I don’t think I’m alone in believing that the time has come for Scottish Labour to have its own leader, someone who can draw authority from throughout the movement and represent it. Iain Gray and his predecessors were, absurdly, elected by the whole party but were leaders only of Labour’s MSPs. That is insulting nonsense and it has to stop. The review may well draw the same conclusions. But if it does not, it’s a reform that still needs to happen. How can we tell voters that Scottish Labour will stand up for Scottish interests against all comers – yes, even against a future Labour Westminster government – when our “leader” has no authority in the party beyond the confines of Holyrood?

Alongside an autonomous leader, we need an autonomous party, with the power to make our own decisions about organisation, fund-raising, staffing and spending, completely independent of the NEC and the UK leader’s office.

Now, I know that that might make life difficult for Ed Miliband, and I regret that. A wholly autonomous Scottish party with its own leader and its own organisation will be a bit untidy, lines of command will be blurred, egos bruised. But this isn’t about Ed Miliband or the UK party. It’s about Scotland first, Scottish Labour second and UK Labour third. And if decisions we make here – either at the publication of the review or further down the line – are inconvenient for the UK party, we’ll all just have to be grown up enough to deal with that.

And if the review doesn’t deliver all that we in Scotland think it should, then the Scottish Labour Party may have to take matters into its own hands. Which is where matters should have been long before now.

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.

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36 thoughts on “Time for some independent thinking

  1. Brave post Tom. And I for one support your views 100%. (well, on this anyway.)

  2. Lol it sounds a lot like you are advocating an independent Scottish Labour Party. Surely not” After all – what share of Labour’s natiional debt would an independent Scottish party have to take on?

  3. An Independent Scottish Labour Party wasn’t that tried before by Sillars, Neil and co? Whatever happened to them?

  4. I think you have hit the nail on the head – this is exactly what we need to do. We also need to realise that this isnt something we can fix overnight – if we dont win in 2016, we shouldnt be downheartened.

  5. Well said Tom. (although personally I would also like to see an autonomous Scottish Labour Party advocating the renationalisation of the railways)

    1. This cybernat will be very happy to join you in that campaign – after independence of course 🙂
      I might not go the full ClauseIV hog but utilities and transportation must be re-nationalised whatever our future constitutional arrangements are.

      Oh and Tom, I’ll wait until I read the report before dismissing it out of hand. I’m heartened to see realisation starting to dawn in some minds. A proper Labour Party answerable only to Scots and with the priorities that Tom sets out Scotland first, Scottish Labour second and UK Labour third is something I have waited a long time to see. I wish you well.

  6. Agreed. And if the Scottish Labour Party had been established at the same time as the Scottish Parliament, with comensurate powers and responsibilities, I think the Scottish Parliament might well have attracted several who set their sights on Westminster instead. The Scottish Party would have been more democratic, encouraged and enabled to think creatively both in terms of strategy and of policy. And it is just possible that such a Party would not have lost its sense and reality of being an integral part of Scottish civic and community life. In which case, the result of the last Scottish election would have been different. Thes, of course, are ifs. Tom is right. The review – like devolution itself – must be a continuing process, not a consultancy report with a settled outcome. And both the Scottish Party and the UK party must accept profound, long overdie, changes.

  7. We are not too far away from one another Tom. Now that’s quite something! I’d disagree with you on renationalisation of the railways, as would many in Scotland. I also think renationalisation of other public utilities like gas and electricity is a go-er as well. It is outrageous that in recent weeks we have seen 18% price hikes in gas, and around 10% regards electricity. Scotland has abundant energy resources of all types and we have huge numbers now experiencing fuel poverty. That is not on.

    1. The energy companies all put their prices up last December as well, mostly by around 10%, except for EDF, who held off till March. Some of them waited till after Christmas, as a concession to human decency, and all of them apologised through their spokespeople,but the damage was done, with no intention of ever undoing it. It’s traditional now that they hike prices in winter – contributing to the circa 35,000 “excess mortalities” we suffer every year during those months – but now they’re doing it in the summer too, hoping no one will notice, just so they can do it in the winter again.

      These utilities must be re-nationalised, and whichever party has the balls to do it (not just promise to do it) will win a lot of loyal voters, people who’ll remember the service rendered and stick by them for many years to come. Labour might be put at a slight disadvantage by the fact that Gordon Brown’s brother is head of communications for EDF Energy, but other than that ye’ll be fine! lol

  8. Good post, and I agree with a lot of it. However is anyone thinking about how having a fully autonomous Scottish Labour Party will impact the West Lothian Question? It would be even less credibly for a Labour UK government to use Scottish MP’s votes to govern England.

    I know, I know, this is a regressive though and we need to put Scotland’s interests first. But the organisational changes would have to be put through a UK conference, no?

    1. Good piece from Tom. And Greg’s West Lothian point is a fair one. I’ll write at more length and hopefully it’ll pop up on Labourhame soon, but for now it’s worth bearing in mind that at present most of the funding assumptions in devolved policy areas extend from decisions taken at Westminster. At the same time, increased devolution would certainly lead to renewed calls from some to limit Scots MP’s voting rights in the UK parliament. The solution may be to limit us to voting on the first and last stages of legislation (which will invariably affect Scotland), leaving non-Scots MPs to vote on the committee stages (which iron out detail for England and Wales and on the whole don’t affect Scotland).

  9. Indy nearly touched on an important point. Election campaigns cost money and if this new, autonomous party is to campaign in the same way that the Labour Party does in Scotland today it looks like it would need an income in the region of two million pounds a year. That’s a lot of money. The first reaction might be to look to the trades unions. The STUC must have well over half a million members who pay into political funds. Looking good, then? No, not entirely.

    Unison’s rules prohibit donations to parties other than Labour and Manx Labour, and this party won’t be either of those. If that is a common state of affairs the STUC won’t be much help after all unless union rules get amended, which will go either to a vote at conference or a membership ballot. Even then, things might be quite complicated as Unison’s “Reviewing the Political Funds” consultation paper makes clear (in chapter 6). And this without considering whether monies would be allocated by union political funds on a needs basis or instead from whatever remained after prior committments were met.

    One last thought. Shouldn’t Labour in Scotland, the party of devolution and not federalism or independence, be eating its own dog food? Make devolution work inside the Labour Party and you’ll be able to apply any lessons you learn to making devolution work inside the UK.

  10. Surely renationalisation of public transport and the utilities would be both a vote-winner and consonant with Labour principles. People on low or fixed incomes (i.e. me are finding the rapidly escalating costs in these areas very hard to cope with. It’s arguable that the Labour Party started to lose its way from the day that it allowed the chancer Blair to pursuade it to ditch Clause 4. Perhaps its time to grow a spine, ladies and gentlemen. I think a big part of your elctoral difficulty is that you ape the Tories, as they aped you whilst in opposition. I’d like a party to vote for that isn’t directed by wealthy Londoners with dodgy friends. There is a party in Scotland that passes that test. It’s not yours.

    1. There is a party in Scotland that passes that test. It’s not yours.

      So, will the SNP government be moving to re-regulate the buses? If not, why do you think that might be?

      1. No – because there is no money. Surely that is obvous. If there wasn’t enough money to do it in 2007 there sure as hell isn’t enough money to do it now.

        1. As I pointed out in my reply to Richard Lucas, there is no cost to re-regulation of the buses, or at least, no significant cost. I think we all know the real reason why the SNP don’t want to annoy Stagecoach, don’t we?

          1. Of course there is a cost to re-regulation of the buses. Or if you think there is not perhaps you could explain how it could be done in a cost neutral way?

  11. There’s no money now, but it can’t be bad to have aspirations towards creating a better society. Buses are probably the least of it – but housing, health, education all urgently need attention. Going into an election saying ‘we can’t do a damn thing ‘cos there’s no money’ hardly seems a recipe for success. The two major UK parties have the handicap that one of them was on duty when the economy broke, and the other has made mess of trying to fix it. Some Gov’t spending on needed projects would be a good solid Keynesian response, or is the Labour party all monetarist now?

    1. There’s no money now

      Why do nationalists find it so hard to criticise their party leadership for anything? (If only Labour members were so restrained…). Do you have any notion of how much it would cost to re-regulate the bus industry in Scotland, Richard? Or even to introduce the modest level of reregulation that Labour introduced for the industry in England? Here’s a clue: nothing. So again I ask: what possible reason do you think the SNP might have for not wishing to annoy the owners of Stagecoach by regulating the bus industry?

      1. That is absolute nonsense. If it was as easy as you say Scottish Labour would have put in a definite commitment to their manifesto instead of “Scottish Labour will make certain our communities are served by better bus ervices through strengthening regulation.”

        That is it. One line – which makes no definite commitment.

        You do realise there was a reason for that – or are you suggesting that Labour were bought off too?

  12. I think Labour needs to be more ‘federalist’ like the SLDs were until they started watering their federalism down but how exactly I’m not sure.

    There certainly needs to be a different relationship with the UK party giving the leader proper responsibilities.

    Labour should at the very least support at least a couple of significant extra powers for Scotland which do not necessarily damage the union but it needs to end the anti independence rhetoric for the time being as it is counter productive.

    Some creative thinking definitely required here.

  13. ”there is no cost to re-regulation of the buses, or at least, no significant cost.”

    Where do you get that idea from, I thought the cost was the problem.

    1. How could it cost the public purse to regulate busses? Now, has you argued that it might cause fares to increase, you might have a point (although I would disagree with it).

      Perhaps the real stumbling block is the closeness between certain bus owners and certain political parties.

      Since Tom was a minister for Transport, I suspect he has a much better idea on the cost (or lack) of the regulation introduced in England than you or I. And as for saying “why dont Labour say it will do the same” – well, its something I want the party to sign up to. If nothing else, it will emabarrass the **** out of the SNP.

      1. Scotland spends 20 per cent more on subsidising bus transport than in England and twice as much on concessionary transport.

        If Labour are arguing that they want the same system in Scotland as exists in England we will be going backward not forward.

        Maybe you should spell out what you mean by bus re-regulation because all I have to go on is Charlie Gordon’s bill which – as much as I might agree with all of its objectives – just was not affordable.

        1. Theres a difference between subsidy (which we had not talked about) and regulation (which we have).

          No doubt I didnt make myself clear.

          I am talking about regulating Scottish busses to match the (limited)system of regulation in England.

          I am not talking about the subsidy of Scottish busses matching the (limited) subsidy of busses in England.

          Just to make that clear to you.

          1. You haven’t made yourself clear at all though. In what way would you amend existing legislation – which was brought in by Labour – and in what way would that improve the level of service?

            Because Charlie Gordon’s bill was talking about things like extending the concessionary travel scheme to different groups and to different types of transport – that would have a significant cost. How could you do that without increasing the subsidy?

          2. You havnt grasped the difference between regulation and subsidy. The concessionary fares scheme is nothing to do with regulation, but is in fact a subsidy to operators to permit a social policy to be carried out (ie free travel for pensioners, etc).

            Regulation generally refers to setting of maximum fares and minimum schedules. Subsidy (and even concessionary fare schemes) dont. You can still have subsidy in a de-regulated system. That subsidy can go up, or down, and the operator will either walk away or not.

            Regulation would involve an authority saying, to say Stagecoach, “if you want to run your busses you must charge no more than X pence per mile and run at least Y busses per hour on these routes”. Other requirements are also includeded, for isntance inter-operability of tickets from other operators. The effect would be to reduce profits, and perhaps require a certain element of cross-subsidy within the operator, which is why its always been fought against by bus companies, especially Stagecoach.

  14. ”The solution may be to limit us to voting on the first and last stages of legislation (which will invariably affect Scotland), leaving non-Scots MPs to vote on the committee stages (which iron out detail for England and Wales and on the whole don’t affect Scotland).”

    Would it not be simpler if Scottish MPs just didn’t vote on matters which are devolved? It is a (righteous) cause of anger in England that Scottish (unionist) MPs vote on matters which will not affect their constituents. I agree with that anger.

    1. Observer, it might be simpler for Scottish MPs not to vote on ‘devolved’ issues at all, but did you actually read what I wrote? There is very little legislation which doesn’t affect Scotland at all, including the stuff where the micro-policy is devolved. To put it simply, the UK government matches how much it has to spend (via tax) with what it’s going to spend it on – Education, Health and other ‘devolved’ areas are key to this – Scotland’s settlement extends from these decisions. That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between the first and last stages of a bill, and the middle stages. Surely you would prefer that while Scotland has an important interest in such decisions our MPs should be allowed to represent that interest?

  15. Maybe – here is a suggestion – John or somebody else should write a post setting out exactly what you mean by bus regulation, how it can be done in a cost neutral way, how it would enhance services – and maybe also touch on why no specific proposals on this were in Labour’s manifesto.

  16. “You havnt grasped the difference between regulation and subsidy. The concessionary fares scheme is nothing to do with regulation.”

    Tell that to Charlie Gordon. His proposed private members bill was called the “Regulation of Bus Services Bill” and included proposals to “Authorise free bus travel for anyone in receipt of the lower rate of Disability Living Allowance, and their carer or escort” and to “Extend the current concessionary scheme to include community transport organisations, which operate bus services in predominantly rural areas where there are no commercial services, improving public transport access for older and disabled people and encouraging increased bus travel”.

    It also aimed to “Amend the procedures specified in the 2001 Transport Scotland Act, to make it easier, quicker and less expensive for Councils to respond to market failure in local bus markets by developing the statutory Quality Bus partnerships and Bus Contracts provided for in the 2001 Act.” But did not say how exactly this could be done.

    So if it is the latter point that you think is the most important Labour needs to spell out exactly what amendments they want to see put in place. Reading through the public consultation document it is as clear as mud. Also, if specific amendments are being proposed why were they not included in Labour’s manifesto? There was one line which referred to strengthening regulation but that was it.

    As I said maybe if some specific proposals could be put out there people could consider them but we are just shadow boxing now because no-one knows what you really mean by re-regulation.

    1. I think I made myself pretty clear. Maximum fare structures and minimum scheduling in return for the licence to operate. It seems to work pretty well in London, and would be needed if we were to have this Scottish Oyster card that has been talked about.

      I didnt bring up Charlie Gordon’s bill – as you say it was mostly about extending the concessionary fares scheme, which whilst I would support such a move, is not what regulation of the busses is about.

      Of course I think its the latter that Labour needs to spell out – and I do realise it wasnt in/clear in the last manifesto. Thats what this site is about, sorting out where we stand for the NEXT election – not re-fighting the last. Thats why I say we need to have a bus regulation policy thats clear and simple. And why it wont cost money. The concessionary fares scheme is something different.

        1. Indy – this site is about giving ordinary Labour members a chance to promote their own agenda and ideas, not necessarily the Labour Party’s.

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