CONTROL AND THE CONSTITUTION
A guest post from Dot Jessiman.
Thoughts on a Year on the NEC
I came to the NEC with high hopes . I believed the initiative of introducing regional representatives to the NEC as a direct link between leadership and grassroots would input doorstep experience directly into campaign strategy, producing different emphases in organising for rural and urban areas, supply appropriate campaign material , and improve the appalling communication between the campaign strategists, HQ and the constituencies which had cost the northeast almost all of its rural seats in the 2016 General Election.
I hoped I could contribute my experience as a Programmer to tackle the tardy organisation, particularly of candidate selection. However, it never crossed my mind that more was needed than a thorough overhaul of campaign thinking to ensure we could supply the focus and efficiency required by THE campaign we were assured was coming. I was concerned, but not seriously, by the lack of a strategic framework for IndyRef2 which relied too heavily on our opponents’ mistakes to make our case and at the total lack of discussion of the Party’s main goal of independence. But I set aside the first Saturday of every month and waited for my papers to arrive. And I waited. And I waited. No NEC input to the General Election campaign apparently required but, OK, on the basis of General Election now, Holyrood next and IndyRef in 2020 who cared?
Between January and March when Coronovirus understandably suspended all meetings until the June Zoom, doubts were emerging. The abandonment of IndyRef in 2020 (now we had produced a good Election result? surely not). No honesty about the dangers of sole reliance on Section 30. The Agenda confined to the Candidate Selection Timetable and Rules, dominated by dialogue between the Minority affiliated groups and the relevant Conveners on the terms required to produce what they considered to be adequate “equality mechanisms”. The degree of central control the NEC should exert on the Constituencies to ensure the application of their decisions including the right to instruct constituency officers arranging hustings to ignore obligation of organisational neutrality. Significantly given past problems, no time slots were earmarked for the NEC preliminary decisions or for vetting, and no discussion of campaign strategy and campaigning.
This Agenda, applied throughout the year, was clearly leading to a creeping centrality , concealed by the confidentiality rule, with power concentrated in the hands of those showing little signs of recognising the needs of active campaigning while ignoring the membership’s absolute priority of independence. The dual mandate decision using unconstitutional voting procedures in a secret ballot with 5/6 potential candidates voting without declaring an Interest demonstrated that, where minority interests and central control clashed with the Constitution, Standing Orders and even decent behaviour , it was the Constitution that went to the wall with the National Secretary, the guardian of the Constitution, ignoring protests and denying guidance.
Political parties can attract some pretty ambitious and power hungry operators – particularly spectacularly successful ones like the latter-day SNP. The Constitution which lays down precisely how we conduct business to balance the democratic rights and priorities of members with the leadership requirements for political success; which reconciles the needs of individuals and the collective needs of the Party is not, quite definitely not, optional. Erode it and you end with short term chaos and long term corruption for experience shows that contraventions unchecked lead too often to another ,and then another with all the consequent division and lack of focus on the political priorities that division entails.
The operative word is “unchecked” . Normally this would mean discussion at Conference. But resolutions which Constituencies have sweated over to suggest actions to solve problems encountered on the way to Indyref2 have been replaced by pages of flabby banalities for the delegates to sell to the activists, to the wider Yes movement and even more importantly to the Scottish electorate. Resolutions where the clear wishes of the membership to check the erosion I have described and reassert the old well-tried balance which has brought us thus far as a disciplined party, have been met by Conference Committee interpreting its remit creatively to decant not one or two motions but a whole large batch over to a long term body which , however useful, has unlike Conference, no binding authority and is due to reach its conclusions, conveniently for the centrists, post-Holyrood.
Whether the delegates will decide to use the rules of debate to ensure a more constructive outcome to Conference remains to be seen . But if they are determined to re-establish the Constitutional stability needed for focus on effective campaigning the only route left to them `is the ballot box and voting for those committed to certain principles. I believe they are:
1. Re-establish IndyRef as the Party’s first priority through an NEC initiative to establish a working group to explore all potential and legitimate routes to independence with recommended strategies.
2. Transparency and Accountability. Open and recorded votes on all matters, declaration of interests mandatory. Minutes normally made available to Constituencies. Recognition of regional members’ need to consult and inform.
3. Strict adherence to the Constitution. Support for the Deputy Leader’s review of Governance with a recommendation that next year’s Conference be asked to agree transferring the seats for minority groups to a new advisory Committee.
4. Review the vetting and selection procedures to return powers to Constituencies to select candidates, arrange selection meetings and voting. Reassert the requirement of organisational neutrality. Reverse the dual mandate decision effectively barring MPs from contesting Holyrood.
5. Set up a group under the Organisation Convener to liaise with regional committees to produce a campaign plan to achieve a majority SNP Parliament in May and for continuing to IndyRef2 .
6. Ensure Elected Officers and HQ provide a first class service to members with rapid response to queries and requests.
Independence is now within our grasp based on the work of thousands of activists who were/are prepared to fight, the establishment, the media, the scepticism of their fellow Scots. The Constitution, with its emphasis on democratic control by the membership, is strict but just rules for our behaviour in conduct and debate has always given us the stability and discipline needed to focus on the job in hand. It is no coincidence that all of the signs of “divisiveness” now surfacing revolve round erosion or contravention of the Constitution. We must re-impose uncompromising respect and use the stability that would give to the last major fight that faces us. Its up to you!
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