Peter Jones: Labour needs a two-party solution

Jim Murphy MP might become the next leader of Scottish Labour. Picture: Robert Perry
Jim Murphy MP might become the next leader of Scottish Labour. Picture: Robert Perry
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SEPARATE Scottish and UK structures would clear up the issue of autonomy and heal tribal divisions, writes Peter Jones.

What a mess Scottish Labour is in. In fact, mess doesn’t even begin to describe it because messes can always be tidied away. This needs radical reconstruction. The novel way ahead I am going to suggest – that there should be two distinct Labour parties – will initially sound completely bonkers. But I think it is the only way of dealing with what otherwise looks like an irreconcilable fault line within the party.

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Johann Lamont, who proved more capable than first thought as the Scottish party leader, if a little unimaginative, resigned because she discovered that she was leader in title rather than in reality and that the UK leadership still held a whip hand over her. While she was clearly prepared to make some compromises to maintain an uneasy relationship, the move by Ed Miliband to sack the party’s Scottish general secretary without even discussing it with her was the last straw. A leader can only lead if he or she has authority, and evidently Mr Miliband was not prepared to allow her that.

There is a fault line here, and just electing a new person to lie on this bed of nails is not going to sort anything. This fault line is to do with the nature of the Labour Party – it is not, never has been, and probably never will be, a monolithic party whose leader has absolute sway over the membership and its policies.

It is better thought of as a collection of tribes, who mostly work together in the common interest but are prone to disconnect from each other and even to engage in inter-tribal warfare, especially when the party seems weak and directionless, which is the case just now.

There are the trade union tribes, councillor tribes, and constituency member/activist tribes. The glue that has historically held them together has been partly ideological – shared interest in achieving social justice, etc – but partly also stems from personalities, particularly in the shape of MPs.

Labour MPs spend much of their time tending to the needs of these various tribes out of self-interest. Come election time, they need them all working for them.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament disrupted this because it also created a new tribe – MSPs – who had mainly complementary, but also some competing, interests. The big problem was that MPs who had been used to being top dog in their local patch now had competing claimants for that crown.

Even worse, these new MSPs were of much greater interest to the media, both local and national. The Scottish Parliament suddenly became the place where the action was and many MPs felt sidelined.

This isn’t just a matter of petty local jealousies. There is a much deeper and bigger issue here. Scottish Labour MPs are a much more important part of the UK Labour Party than is the case with other parties.

Not only do they supply back-bench numbers which can be important in getting a Labour government elected, they also produce ministers. That is a strength, but also creates vulnerabilities for UK Labour. If Scottish Labour ministers can implement policies such as free personal care for the elderly, why can’t UK Labour ministers do the same?

This explains why Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Ed Miliband have all tried to control it from a distance, which they have all been exhorted to do by their MPs, who mostly have a thinly disguised disregard bordering on contempt for the Scottish Parliament. Somehow the rhetoric of devolution, particularly that the whole point of it is to allow different policy choices to meet different circumstances, has escaped them.

The changes made to party structures which made Johann Lamont the first elected leader of Scottish Labour (her predecessors were just leaders of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament) turned out to be changes in title only. MPs never accepted she had any authority over them and neither did she have any authority over the party’s staff.

This divide between MPs and MSPs is not going to go away, which is one reason why the Liberal Democrats’ federal structures won’t work. The huge row which has now erupted following her resignation also exposes the party, unless it changes, to the Nationalist charge that it is controlled by “London Labour”, a major weakness which will be ruthlessly exploited by the SNP in the general election now just seven months away.

Labour needs radical structural change to turn that around. It can’t be delivered before the leadership election; the best that can be done is that the successful candidate comes in with a manifesto for party change blessed by Ed Miliband. If the fault line cannot be erased, it needs to be recognised.

The only practical solution, it seems to me, is to create two structures – a UK Labour one in which MPs are the main figures, and a Scottish Labour one for MSPs and councillors. Both branches of the party could have their own staff; individuals, trade unions, and affiliates would join both but their fees would be apportioned between both parties. Constituency parties would operate pretty much as they do now but they would have to spend half of their meetings dealing with Scottish Labour matters and the other half with UK Labour matters, and any funds raised would be divided.

This seems to me to be the only practical way of ensuring and showing to the electorate that the Scottish party has autonomous control of policy and campaigning.

It would insulate the UK party against accusations of a Scottish tail wagging the UK dog. But it would also mean that MPs could not stand for the Scottish leadership unless, of course, they were prepared to switch to the Scottish Parliament, which could be engineered at the coming general election.

Such a proposal has a lot of complexities, but it is workable. It is how the Parti Quebecois, which stands only in provincial Quebec elections, and the Bloc Quebecois, which stands only in Canadian federal elections, have managed things for many years.

This may not be an acceptable idea, especially as it comes from an outside observer. But to any observer, it seems blatantly obvious that something equally radical will have to be done if Labour in Scotland is again to be taken seriously as a contender for government.