Why Rule Changes Matter: The Devil Is In The Detail

“The devil is in the detail” is one of the most tedious of political clichés, but if you want to know how far the renewal of Scottish Labour has come the dusty mechanics of the rule change debate told you as much as any speech by Richard or Jeremy. 

In Dundee on the Saturday morning of Scottish Labour conference, with little fanfare and no media coverage whatsoever, Dave Watson of UNISON moved “Rule Change 1 Party Programme “ At face value it’s a technical amendment to Labour’s labyrinthine policy making mechanism, but it’s a big step forward for membership democracy.

Currently major party policy statements are developed through a three year process of policy commissions inviting submissions, and then draft documents submitted to Policy Forums consisting of delegates elected from various parts of the party. Interrim versions of these are debated by party conference – with final versions voted on. If passed these then go on to form the policies that the manifesto will be based on.

One major criticism of the Policy Forum process is that these final documents must be accepted or rejected as a whole, with no amendments permitted. This leaves conference in an invidious position – objectionable elements may not be removed and to reject the whole document would leave the party with no new policy on a major topic a few months before an election. 

Conference has now won the right to "amend or refer back, by a two thirds majority on a card vote, part of any policy document without rejecting the document as a whole". This means that conference could for example remove a reference to using PFI from an otherwise positive document on public services – rather than rejecting the whole thing.

This shifts a significant degree of influence back to conference delegates and away from the often opaque policy forum process. It is a step the left of the party have been arguing for – and watched being bitterly resisted by successive leaderships for many years.

Who moved this motion is almost as significant as what it contained. Although this rule change owes its origins to a motion submitted two years ago by Maryhill & Springburn CLP, authored by the redoubtable Jim McKechnie, it wasn’t moved  from the floor , but the platform.  Formally this was a rule change moved by the Executive. The turnaround here is difficult to overstate. As Dave Watson , who moved the motion pointed out – this was a rule change he had first advocated in 2003. Now the body which had for so long opposed this move was it’s leading proponent. In the following vote the move was approved with over 90% of the vote.

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Clause 17: Party Programme (currently reads): Party Conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme for a Scottish Parliament.  This will be based on the rolling programme presented to the Party conference by the Scottish Policy Forum as approved by Party conference.  No proposal shall be included in the Party programme unless it has been adopted by party conference by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the votes recorded on a card vote.    Amendment:   Clause 17: Party Programme Insert after the second sentence ending "Party conference".   Insert "Conference has the right to amend or refer back, by a two thirds majority on a card vote, part of any policy document without rejecting the document as a whole".   To read:   Clause 17: Party Programme currently reads: Party Conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme for a Scottish Parliament.  This will be based on the rolling programme presented to the Party conference by the Scottish Policy Forum as approved by Party conference.  Conference has the right to amend or refer back, by a two thirds majority on a card vote, part of any policy document without rejecting the document as a whole. No proposal shall be included in the Party programme unless it has been adopted by party conference by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the votes recorded on a card vote. 

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