Devolution genie spooks London parties

John Osmond says it won’t be long before Welsh Labour wants more than the name

Back in 1999, when it all started, Ron Davies famously said “Let no-one think that now the devolution genie is out of his bottle he can be forced back in or that he won’t want to stretch his muscles.” Its taken more than a decade but at last the genie is beginning to put the frighteners on the London-based (they hate that expression) political parties.

He started crawling out of the Scottish Conservative bottle a couple of weeks ago. Front-runner to lead the Scottish Conservatives, MSP Murdo Fraser, said that if he wins the election next month he will set about creating “a new progressive centre-right party with a Scottish identity”.

Now he’s jumping around in the Welsh Conservative bottle as well. Warning against the complacency that has afflicted Scottish Conservatives this week David Melding, AM for South Wales Central, followed suit, saying that a new brand for his party would signal “a new and greater ambition”.

However, all this pales into insignificance with the way the devolution genie is crawling around the Labour party in Scotland. Following its massive defeat in the Scottish Parliament elections in May the Scottish Labour Party set up a review of its organisation which came up with some remarkably radical proposals at the weekend. The result will be create a much more autonomous party, with UK leader Ed Miliband no longer in charge north of the border.

The review was carried out by Sarah Boyack MSP and a former Minister in the Scottish Parliament, and Jim Murphy MP, Secretary of State for Scotland until the May 2010 election and now shadow defence secretary. As Murphy put it at the weekend:

“This is about turning the Scottish Labour Party into Scotland’s Labour Party. Today we are completing the devolution of the Scottish Labour Party. From now on whatever is devolved to the Scottish Parliament will be devolved to the Scottish Labour Party.”

However, other Scottish MPs at Westminster are not so sanguine. For instance East Kilbride MP Michael McCann said the proposals were playing into the SNP’s hands. Asking why the party was “moving on to Tory and Nat territory” he argued that by adopting a federal system Labour would be accepting Alex Salmond’s Plan B for fiscal autonomy, which the Scottish First Minister is proposing to put into a multi-option referendum.

The proposals will need to be ratified by Labour’s UK Party conference next month, followed by a special Scottish Labour Party conference soon after, but this appears to be a formality. The proposals were approved by Labour’s Scottish Executive on Saturday and have also been cleared with Ed Miliband. Labour press release on the changes (here), which says they mean the “full devolution of the Scottish Labour Party”, lists them as follows:

  • Create, for the first time, an elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
  • Open that position to all Labour parliamentarians elected in Scotland, provided they commit to seek election as an MSP and First Minister.
  • Fully devolve the Scottish Labour Party in all Scottish matters, including the rules for the Scottish Leadership election, local government processes and selections, and Scottish parliament selections.
  • Begin the process of restructuring local parties in Scotland on the basis of Scottish Parliament seats, not Westminster seats.
  • Establish a political strategy board, meeting weekly, to develop and co-ordinate political strategy with the Leader, Shadow Secretary of State, the leader of the COSLA Labour Group, a representative of the MEPs, the party chair, and the Scottish General Secretary.
  • Establish a new political base in Edinburgh.

The question now is, of course, how long before this particular devolution genie travels south of the Border and west of Offa’s Dyke? Until now Labour in Wales has been content with the appearance but not the reality of autonomy, and very successful it has been with it, too. Rhodri Morgan’s rebranding of his party as neither New nor Old Labour, but “Welsh Labour”  did the trick for the first decade of devolution.

I fancy, however, it won’t stand the test of the second decade. This Scottish genie will be advancing on a branch or constituency party of ‘this great movement of ours’ near you, very soon.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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