Democracy on their minds

Observations on Scottish Labour

It is a measure of how little the Scottish Labour conference counts these days that only 42 out of 72 constituency parties bothered to send anyone to this year's event, held in Inverness on 28 and 29 February. Numerous controversial issues face the party: relations with Labour's coalition allies, the Lib Dems; proportional representation for local government; private finance initiatives and partnerships with the private sector; the future of public sector reform in education and health. But not one vote was held. The conference has become, in the words of Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Pollok, "non-voting fodder".

Some have had enough of this. Three big unions (Unison, the TGWU and GMB), along with soft-left former supporters of new Labour in the constituencies, have started a campaign for party democratisation. One of the main demands is for a special conference to debate any future agreement on coalition government.

As things stand, the leadership negotiates and signs a programme with the Lib Dems without any agreement from the party. It has made a deal, for example, to use proportional representation in the 2007 local government elections while consistently stating that it opposes PR.

At this latest conference, the Scottish Executive minister responsible, Andy Kerr, didn't make the case for PR. Instead he argued the need for stable government, achievable only through coalition with the Lib Dems.

As it happens, there is a Labour case to be made for PR, challenging the old Labour vested interests of town-hall Scotland to enter a world where they have to share power. Instead, the Labour leadership leaves the moral high ground to the Lib Dems.

Scottish Labour has for decades talked the talk - a populist people's rhetoric - while denying democracy to town halls up and down the land and to its own members. Many commentators thought that democracy would come to Scottish Labour only after the party had lost power north of the border. But the pressure now looks irresistible - the issue was kept off this year's conference agenda only on the understanding that it will be returned to and voted on next year.

Devolution has begun to change one of the last conservative citadels of the Scottish political establishment - the Labour Party.

Gerry Hassan is co-author of The Political Guide to Modern Scotland, published by Politico's next month (£20)

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