Special Scottish Labour conference report

Johanna Baxter

Donald Dewar presided over the creation of our Scottish Parliament and he was so proud of it – I will always remember the joy he had on July 1st 1999 at seeing it finally come to fruition. So it was both poignant and appropriate that the Vice-Chair of the party’s Scottish Executive Committee, Victoria Jamieson, opened Saturday’s Special Scottish Labour conference with a reference to Donald and the statute of him that stood just outside the conference hall at the top of Glasgow’s Buchannan Street.

If you listened to Alex Salmond you’d think the Labour Party only exists “down south”. “London Labour” might be a cute little piece of alliteration that makes an easy headline but it belies both history and reality. It was the Labour Party that created the Scottish Parliament over which he now presides. And, whilst we may have suffered terribly in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, it’s the Labour Party now that will lead the campaign to protect that devolution settlement. It is right that we examined the reasons for our defeat but it was also right that, in that process, we reminded ourselves of the significant role we have played in advancing the rights of the Scottish people.

Over the past few months the Scottish Review group have consulted members about the changes they think are necessary for us to win back the trust of the Scottish people. Hundreds of members made submissions to that consultation and the Review group published their initials submissions on the 10th September 2011. Those initial recommendations came before the NEC on the 20th September. At that meeting we agreed to put a specific rule change to annual conference, as part of Refounding Labour, which would create for the first time an elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, with the Scottish Executive Committee having primary responsibility over the procedures for electing the Leader of the Scottish Party (where the intention was to change the rules to widen the eligibility criteria to allow MPs & MEPs to contest the position). That proposed rule change was adopted by conference.

It was agreed that all other proposals arising from the Scottish Review would be considered at a special meeting of the NEC’s Organisation Sub-Committee in October. At that meeting we looked at the implications of the other interim Review recommendations – the recommendation to devolve those areas of our rule book dealing with local government and Scottish Parliamentary selections to the Scottish Party and to begin the process of restructuring local parties in Scotland on the basis of Scottish Parliament, rather than, Westminster seats. It was agreed that these further proposals would allow us to deliver the devolution within the party that we have lacked since the Scottish Parliament was created and I was proud to support them. It was those recommendations that over 700 members came together on Saturday to discuss.

As with so much in our Scottish Labour Party this was a family affair. The speeches, the hall and the day were full with humour and humility, passion and patriotism, decisiveness and determination.

The Leader of Galsgow City Council talked of his pride in his city, the cultural capital and the first council in Scotland to deliver a living wage to its employees, whilst spelling out his determination – and the hunger of the Labour Group -, to retain the faith of their electorate. The needs of the people of Glasgow would never come second to nation-building under his watch he committed.

In her speech Margaret Curran MP made clear that whilst Scotland is faced with two governments who are not listening and do not appear to care about the jobs crisis facing the country, our Scottish Labour party will fight for the people of Scotland, whatever community they may be in. “Because whilst we review and rebuild, and place ourselves at the forefront of political debate, we do so remembering that the right to govern isn’t the divine right of one party but a decision which rests with the people of Scotland.”

The room fell silent as the Labour Party’s General Secretary, Iain McNicol – the first Scot to hold the position since Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson over a century ago – took to the stage, gripped the audience, and reminded us that “when we fought for the Scottish Parliament it was a fight borne of hope…socialism doesn’t come about by shouting and we need to have policies that speak to peoples aspirations”. He went on to say “like us here today the founders of our Labour Party in 1900s held a special conference. Not because they liked it or lacked imagination but because they knew that organisation matters…”We aren’t just debating dry rule changes on a rainy Saturday in Glasgow. We are building a new confident Labour Party ready for the future. Driven by social justice, in tune with modern Scotland, at home in the digital age, fizzing with energy and infused with hope for a better day.” The room exploded. This wasn’t a day of polite agreement – the hall was overflowing with enthusiasm for change, completely in tune with Iain’s wish that “change must come, not grudgingly, born of defeat, but willingly, born of hope”.

As Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyak MSP held a Q&A session on the proposals delegates focussed on implementation rather than questioning the direction of travel, about the bits still to come rather that those that were being presented on the day. The focus was on moving forward rather than looking back. Whilst agreeing with the proposals to devolve party processes there was also a clear desire not to ‘separate’ from the UK party and overwhelming support for Sarah Boyak who committed that the “changes would not see the party shutting our eyes at the border”.

The proposals were adopted by both CLPs and the party’s affiliates unanimously – a testament to the amount of work that has gone in to uniting members around a common set of values and aspirations.

Iain Gray was right when he said that we have not wasted this crisis. He was right when he said that day “is a turning point – we’ve spent enough time talking about how bad we were in May, it’s time to talk about how good we’ll be in future”. And he was right when he said that the miners dispute, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in, that have shaped our nation were struggles of solidarity, not of national identity. As I said in my article here at the time, Iain was not solely to blame for the results in May and it was good to see conference showing him their appreciation for remaining at the helm whilst the Review took place and allowed the party the a chance to rebuild.

Conference was treated to the first hustings debates with all candidates who have to date put themselves forward for the positions of leader and deputy leader of the Scottish party. The deputy leadership hustings seemed to have more energy about them with most commentators agreeing that Anas Sarwar stole the show. His response on support for our trade union comrades – “Unite or Ashcroft, Unison or Brian Souter, GMB or Rupert Murdoch – I know which I’d pick every day of the week” certainly had one of the loudest rounds of applause of the afternoon. I couldn’t say with confidence who won the leadership hustings but Johann Lamont seemed to do better than most had predicted. The most revealing question came from a delegate who asked all candidates what their voter contact rate was – only one couldn’t say. It was good to see all candidates – for both leader and deputy leader – commit to supporting our trade unions on the November 30th day of action. Scottish members certainly do have a rich choice before them.

The Review group has much work still to do – reviewing the Scottish party’s campaigning methods, policies and relationship with members to name but a few significant areas. But the will is certainly there for the party to continue this process of change. Further proposals arising from that work will come to both the SEC and the NEC at the same time to ensure that we continue to work together on this reform. And if those are agreed by both bodies and require any further changes to the UK rule book those will be put to Annual UK Conference next year.

Anyone who knows me knows how proud I am to be Scottish and to have grown up in our Scottish Party. And anyone who was at conference on Saturday will know how that this sense of national pride is runs through everything that our Scottish Labour Party do. As Tom Harris MP said on Saturday we “will not have our politics defined by Alex Salmond”. The Scottish Labour Party is a united, resilient beast and one he will have to watch.

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