David Maddox: Autonomous Labour plan could be worse than Evel

The reforms which will see Scottish Labour become more autonomous. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The reforms which will see Scottish Labour become more autonomous. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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Much has been said about the iniquities of Evel (English Votes for English Laws) and how it creates two classes of MPs which in effect marginalises and excludes Scottish MPs in Westminster.

So, given the apocalyptic constitutional language around the Tory plans for the UK parliament, it is quite something to describe a measure as beyond Evel or even worse than Evel. Yet Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale appears to have had a healthy stab at doing just that with her plans to federalise the Labour Party.

Ms Dugdale, with the support of the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has put forward reforms which will see Scottish Labour take control of administration, membership, Westminster candidate selection and virtually everything north of the border.

The party in Scotland will, in Ms Dugdale’s word, become “autonomous” and in effect will have a separate policy platform on issues decided in Westminster. This means that at the 2020 general election, candidates for Labour in Scotland could be running for a party that supports unilateral disarmament and scrapping Trident while the UK party wants to keep the nuclear deterrent. The Scottish party could have different tax policies in reserved areas as well.

The potential for chaos seems obvious. How do voters anywhere in the UK know what they are voting for if Labour has different policies on important issues in different parts of the UK?

At her press briefing Ms Dugdale assured sceptical journalists there would be “processes” to resolve policy differences. She also said this happens in Europe so voters will be able to accept it.

Her optimism may not stand the test of an election campaign or even the run-up to it, when the formidable Tory and SNP operations exploit the differences north and south of the border. And why should voters have any time for a party which cannot even agree with itself on issues like the defence of the nation?

Not surprisingly Labour MPs are having grave doubts about the plans. They see the potential for electoral chaos but they are also angry about a proposal that undermines the concept of unified membership of the Labour Party.

The comparison with Evel is being made and there are some who believe the Dugdale blueprint will effectively create a new party and end the chance of a Labour leader from Scotland or even a Scottish MP holding a senior Cabinet post. At least Evel allows Scots MPs to be part of votes on all bills.

In the attempt to answer the “branch office” description of the Scottish party, Ms Dugdale may be doing the SNP’s job for them and creating a set-up which leads to resentment and conflict.

The question has been asked about why not just go for a separate Scottish party. A bit like the SDLP from Northern Ireland.

The reason is simple – money. If Scottish Labour became separate Ian Murray could no longer sit in the shadow cabinet and would lose all his privileges as a member of the second biggest party, including office and short money for campaigning.

More worryingly, it would allow trade unions to start directly funding the SNP instead of Scottish Labour. At the moment unions cannot fund a rival to Labour and remain affiliated to the UK party, but the creation of a separate Labour Party in Scotland would open the door to a UK-affiliated union switching its Scottish funding to the SNP.

There is a strong argument for devolution to the nations, regions and smaller communities but this can only be taken so far, and Ms Dugdale’s plans take Labour to the point of separation. If the reforms themselves don’t achieve that, policy rows over issues like Trident may provide the final push.

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