The Scottish Labour Party special conference on 29 October will mark the official start of the party’s leadership contest in Scotland.
One of the lessons Labour has drawn from the debacle of May’s Holyrood elections is that the party in Scotland needs to be more “Scottish”, i.e. it should have greater control over its affairs than it exercises at present.
The 29 October conference will therefore be voting on four packages of rule changes which effectively “devolve” power from the Labour Party at a national level to the Labour Party in Scotland, including the power to elect its own leader and deputy leader.
The conference is not a concession to the left, which advocated the convening of a special party conference after Labour’s May defeat in order to debate and vote on motions from CLPs and trade unions about how to respond to that defeat.
On the contrary, the conference is simply a constitutional requirement at which the proposed rule changes are likely to be nodded through with little or no debate (but plenty of tedious speeches).
Although the leadership contest is yet to be officially launched, seven MSPs and MPs have already expressed an interest in standing, or announced that they will be doing so. (Under the proposed rule changes Holyrood MSPs and Westminster MPs are eligible to contest the positions.
It is a sad comment on the state of the left in Scotland, especially in the much-reduced ranks of Labour MSPs, that none of the six can be called left-wing. Some of them may be long-standing union members. But that does not equate with being left-wing.
Tom Harris MP, who was the first to declare an interest in standing for leader is a long-standing and loyalist Blairite. Ken Macintosh MSP is a straight-down-the-line right winger, backed by Jim Murphy MP. Johann Lamont MSP should have resigned as deputy leader after Labour’s defeat in May. As deputy leader, she cannot escape some of the blame for that debacle. Instead, she now wants to use that defeat as a springboard for contesting the leader’s position.
A third of the votes in the electoral college for the leader and deputy-leader positions will be cast by trade union affiliates.
Instead of adopting the approach of “backing the best of a bad bunch”, affiliated unions in Scotland should issue a statement of the basic policies which a candidate would have to support in order to win union support.
This might encourage more, and better, candidates to throw their hats into the ring.
And the most basic line in the sand must be in relation to the public sector strikes on 30 November.
Affiliated unions should make it clear that any candidate who fails to publicly back the strikes and turn up to picket lines will receive not an ounce of support from the unions.