What really needed done (by Ian Smart, aged 53 and a day)

The electoral college is a farce that defends vested interests, says IAN SMART


So the Scottish Executive have laboured mightily and laid a curate’s egg.

There are some really good things in the report. Contrary to reports they do not include devolution of domestic policy, for we’ve got that already, but they do include devolution of Scottish Party rules; changing the basic unit of party organisation to Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies and moving the Party HQ to Edinburgh. All good, although I doubt any of these previous failings had anything other than the most marginal effect in our catastrophic defeat.

There are other proposals for better training and support for candidates which may be more significant . This however only hints at the real problem which is that, while competent candidates will always benefit from better training and support, the precondition is in the adjective competent. You simply can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear and that applies not only to candidates for individual constituencies but also to our potential candidate for First Minister.

And on this the report ducks all the important issues, not because they weren’t identified but because the need to juggle the various conflicting interest groups in the party: The MPs, the MSPs, the councillors, the unions and the feared knock-on to English party rules and practice simply made it impossible to do what was necessary.

Well, let me spell this out. There is only one acceptable vested interest for the Scottish Labour Party: the vested interest in getting elected; in getting elected to govern Scotland, not simply  to the sinecure of back bench opposition in what remains of our safe seats.

So let’s start at the very beginning: the membership.

More than 630,000 people still voted Labour in May. This is the real core vote. Nonetheless, of even those prepared to vote for us in the most adverse of circumstance, less than one per cent were eligible to participate in the selection of our candidates. So is it any surprise that so many of our candidates were not representative of Labour voters but rather only of one per cent of Labour voters, heavily skewed in favour of councillors, would-be councillors, full time public service trade union officials and the families of all three groups?

Now, I’ve got nothing against any of these people but it is hardly surprising that, in expressing their own preference for who should represent them, they favour those with similar backgrounds. The problem is that the electorate doesn’t share that prejudice. It wasn’t always like this. Look at Donald’s first cabinet.  Before Wendy, Susan, Sarah and Sam took office they all had had varied careers and lives outwith the Labour Party. Certainly Henry and Jack had local government experience but they had done other things, other major things, as well. That diversity of experience not only served to increase the competence of the administration it also contributed to getting it elected.

Since 1999, however, almost every vacancy that arose was filled by a serving councillor, the exceptions being people elected off the list only because Labour had done badly at the polls (ironically often because the electorate was unwilling to thole the undistinguished councillors that the Party wished upon them with their constituency vote).

What can be done about this? We can widen the selectorate for our candidates. We had a lot more members in 1999 and a lot better candidates as a result.

Why shouldn’t people identified by the party as solid Labour supporters be entitled to a say in who should represent them? In this age of ever more sophisticated canvas techniques we know who these people are and in this internet age it is not even expensive to communicate with them. And far from disenfranchising the unions, levy payers could automatically be entitled to a direct vote if only the unions would tell us who they were.

There is no downside to this: we get candidates chosen by a more representative group, we give Labour voters more reason to feel ownership of “their” candidate and thus to promote and actually go out and vote for them, we have some right to call on the selectorate to actually work on the campaign, and we even have the opportunity to solicit financial support.

I say there is no downside, but of course there is. Such a change would significantly reduce the prospects of some people of ever becoming a Labour candidate. Unfortunately these “some people” are disproportionately represented in the party’s current hierarchy, locally and nationally.

Then there is the issue of our candidate for First Minister. Elections are now essentially presidential contests. I might not like that but I can’t turn back the clock. No party could be elected to majority power without a credible candidate for the top job. But there is simply no reason that a credible candidate needs to be in the Scottish Parliament before the election as a necessary pre-requisite for First Ministerial office.

Donald wasn’t. Nor was Alex Salmond. Jack did the job for five years not on the basis of his couple of years experience of the Scottish Parliament chamber beforehand but rather because of his diverse experience in teaching, in local government,  in party position and in ministerial office. That all preceded his election as FM. Why has any of that changed? Various names have been floated as potential Labour First Ministers since the election but the present rules prevent many of them from even standing. Jack or Wendy couldn’t come back, because they’re not currently in the parliament; John Reid or Des Browne can’t because they don’t currently hold elected office. Most bizarrely of all, if Alistair Darling, or Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander or, dare I say it, Tom Harris were to win the post and left Westminster before the election to concentrate on winning here, they would automatically disqualify themselves from the position, even if already selected for the safest of Scottish parliamentary seats!

Four and a half years before his election as president, Barack Obama was a State Senator in Illinois – essentially a turbo regional councillor. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, before his fall, was front runner to be president of France without even living in France! The credibility of a candidate for First Minister depends on their perceived ability to do the job. Certainly that credibility could be achieved in the Holyrood chamber but it could just as easily come from having served (not necessarily currently) at Westminster; or at the top of a public company; or at the leadership of a major local authority; or even in the media.

And the candidate does not need to be chosen now. Fixed term parliaments mean that we know when the next election will be. The next US presidential elections are in November 2012 and yet the Republicans are still months away from having a candidate. If someone had suggested it would have been advantageous to have had that person in place in the spring of 2009 they would have been regarded (quite rightly) as off their head. Even more so if it were put to the Democrats that the best time to choose their candidate for November 2016 was in April 2012.

Obviously there is a need for day-to-day opposition but the person who does that does not need to be the candidate in four and a half years’ time. One Nicola Sturgeon performed perfectly competently in that very opposition role. Iain Gray is doing it now. And I repeat, fixed term parliaments mean that May 2016  can only ever be the date on which Labour will require a candidate for First Minister. It goes without saying that the position at Westminster is quite different when the government of the day can (normally) opt to call an election at any time.

So, again, why doesn’t the party get this? Well, once again vested interest is at work. The proposal for an immediate election serves the interests of those currently eligible to stand and, once again, they have a disproportionate influence in the party’s deliberations.

And the final vested interest standing before electoral success? The method of selecting the leader.

The electoral college is a disaster waiting to happen. Ed Miliband was not the choice of either the membership or of the parliamentarians as leader of the Labour Party . We (just) got away with this because the front runner had, despite manifest initial advantages, so obviously stumbled, because Ed came very close (particularly) among the membership, but mainly because of the bizarre family circumstance of the election itself.

We won’t always be so lucky. There is every prospect of the winner of a contest to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party being won by someone declared and revealed publicly by the party itself to have been rejected for the role by a clear majority of the membership or (despite being from the Holyrood group) a clear majority of the Holyrood group. In certain circumstances, if the Westminster MPs and the unions line up behind the same candidate, we could see someone being chosen without the majority support of either the membership or the Holyrood group!

What possible credibility could such a candidate have?

And anyway, the Scottish electoral college is a farce. Why do elected members have a disproportionate vote? In theory because they have been elected and have more knowledge of the candidates. But, first of all, some of the list MSPs haven’t been elected other than by accident of Labour’s catastrophic loss. For some at least their only merit is that they were prepared to put their names forward for the thankless position of list candidate at a time when no one believed that to be a matter of any importance in Labour’s departed heartlands. Secondly, how does someone who has been in the parliament for a couple of months have a better view of the candidates than those who lost their seats in May, having worked with these people for 12 years? Thirdly, how much more do Westminster MPs really know about the Holyrood group members than is known by committed party activists and councillors (or even people who just read the newspapers regularly)?

But since everybody is aware of these anomalies and even those with a self interest in them have some sense of the absurd, that’s not the real reason we are persisting with the college. The real reason  is that it gives the unions the illusion of power. I say, quite consciously, the “illusion” because in reality they could only ever really use that power at the price of bringing down the whole institution.

Either we will get a result where all three sections vote the same way, or at least in which the winner carries the membership, or we will end up, in reality, with a contest without a meaningful result in terms of producing a credible leader of anything. Even of the opposition.

But the unions fear the end of the college will signal a decline in their influence and ultimately bring about a similar change for the UK leadership. So again that means no change. Even if the obvious change might simply be to give all levy payers a vote alongside members in one big “one supporter one vote” contest. That however, while it might just be acceptable to the unions, would not be acceptable to the potential candidates among the MSPs or to some of the existing party members as they give the same vote to everyone irrespective of the level of their contribution of effort or cash. I needn’t point out that the logic of this would currently give activists more votes than simple card carriers and those who give additional financial donations more votes than those simply paying the basic sub.

You couldn’t make the level of obduracy here. WE GOT GUBBED! This is not the time for the defence of vested interest or it will simply be a vested interest in a worthless institution.

I finish (more or less) where I started: the only acceptable vested interest the Scottish Labour Party has is the vested interest in getting elected. Regrettably, Saturday’s report makes only a marginal contribution to that prospect being realised.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.

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6 thoughts on “What really needed done (by Ian Smart, aged 53 and a day)

  1. “Why shouldn’t people identified by the party as solid Labour supporters be entitled to a say in who should represent them?”
    Because they are not party members. If these solid supporters want a say in who candidates should be, then they must join the Labour Party.

    I’m not sure about “the unions fear the end of the college will signal a decline in their influence” I would be more worried about Unions ending financial support if they have little influence in the Party. I would rather be closer to and supporting trade unions, not moving away from them.

  2. I know that I am far from being alone in demanding internal IQ tests for potential conveners, councillors, MPs and MSPs. The most widely promoted suggestion has been a minimum IQ of 95, but I feel that 100 should be the benchmark. Anyone failing should have no chance of serious promotion within the party even if he/she has been a member for 40 years and is always out in all kinds of weather as a hard working and loyal activist. Please excuse my harsh tone, but we have had more than our fair share of dumbos making a fool of Labour when they get anywhere near shouting distance of a microphone, and they are simply vote losers. Ian smart is right and we all know it, but no-one else is prepared to say what the others are thinking.

  3. Well done, Ian. Simply the most sense talked on this site in the past few months. Also Nigel Ranter’s point re IQ tests addresses an issue that all parties would do well to examine.

  4. Any Party that thinks that it is acceptable for the raison d’etre of the party to be “to get elected’; is heading for a smash.

    The electorate want parties that exist to achieve worthy and desirable AIMS, that have a VISION and IDEALS, that have HONESTY OF PURPOSE and INTEGRITY (all of one piece) in short that have a SOUL.

    If a Party needs a ‘soul trasplant’ then it is existentially’dead,still walking’

    Sticking patchwork reforms on ‘the walking dead’ is pointless self=delusion.

    John McTernan is in The Scotsman says that Labour has to face up to reality.
    My posts have been limit-testing to see how much hard reality you can face. Not much.

    Mostly I see a desire to shelter in cosy group think along the lines of ‘SNP nasty, if they support it, we oppose. Negativityy rules. OK. Lets all be in furious agreement, no real debate and no real change’

    To repeat previous posts, Labour need to face up to a complete re-birth of the Party in Scotland as a whole-hearted pro-independence,’standup for Scottish interests. constructive, positive and proactive advocate of sound new policies for an independent Scotland. There then needs to be a recasting of how to conceptualise, present and operate in terms of the internationalist orientation of the Labour psyche, post-independence.

  5. ‘ This is not the time for the defence of vested interest or it will simply be a vested interest in a worthless institution.’

    A welcome statement from an old hand. I had hoped when the Scottish Parliament was set up that young Scottish Labour activists would gradually and naturally become more independent from the UK party and see the Scottish Parliament as their natural home. Well, not so far but Ian gives a good indication here as to why it hasn’t happened. He could have written the above sentence with the word ‘worthless’ replaced by ‘vested interest’.

    It’s a great shame, both for the Labour Party in Scotland (and for Scotland as a whole) that over the years they became fixated on two main objectives –

    1) To send the best candidates South where they could contribute to the ‘great affairs’ of the world with, I suppose, reflected glory for the party here.

    2) Maintaining the (and it gives me no satisfaction to say this – labour supporters have been/are an important part of the Scottish community) shameful vested interest that has gone on for so long.

    But this sentence – ‘the only acceptable vested interest the Scottish Labour Party has is the vested interest in getting elected.’ doesn’t sound too encouraging.

    I have never voted for the Labour Party but there is no reason why I should not do so if I see that it represents and argues in Scotland’s interests. Why would I want somebody to represent me who would appear to be keen to argue that we are in hock to the rest of the UK to the tune of, make up a number of billions and multiply by a factor of your choice. With people like that to represent me who needs? – word of your own choice.

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