This article was originally published on Wings Over Scotland. The NEC meets today to determine very important issues. NEC Members would do well to read Chris’s article before they do.
If voting made a difference they wouldn’t let you do it” is one of many quotes that are regularly misattributed to Mark Twain.
However, the sentiment could very much be used to sum up the current management of the Scottish National Party.
After much debate on the significance of last year’s NEC internal election results it appears that not much has changed. I was aghast to find out recently that in one of its first acts, the new NEC unilaterally approved swingeing changes to its standing orders.
Now, I know that for many people, political parties’ standing orders may not be the most exciting topic you’ve read about but they’re a vital set of instructions paramount for the good governance of any internal functioning.
As a universal general principle, no organisational entity can change its own standing orders – to allow it to do so would create the possibly that it could start to act outwith the remit it’s been delegated to carry out.
In the case of the SNP, our supreme decision making body is our National Conference, not the NEC. Changing the standing orders of the party is at the prerogative of party members via the party conference.
Of course, this isn’t normally controversial. Previously conference was asked to approve changes to the standing orders of the Westminster group, and did so. But importantly, the Westminster group didn’t just unilaterally approve the changes they desired, as they knew that to do so would have been ultra vires by the constitution of the party.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because when a party faces allegations of nearly £600,000 of ring-fenced fundraiser money gone missing, claims that the party’s Chief Executive has perjured himself in front of a parliamentary inquiry (and ordinary members’ money is paying for the lawyers who are trying to get him out of it), and today’s Sky News exposé alleging serious and malicious corruption amongst senior party officials, ordinary members have to be more certain now than ever that the body we elect to run our party is upholding its duty of scrutiny.
And the simple truth is that it isn’t.
Last night we learned, via social media, that there’s to be an NEC meeting tomorrow to agree a new definition of transphobia. We also learned from social media that this was the first members of the NEC had heard about the meeting itself, never mind that this major new item was to be added to the agenda.
Party standing orders dictate that NEC members must have no less than seven days notice of an agenda, and any late item can only be added to the agenda with the approval of two thirds of the membership.
It doesn’t appear that Kirsten Oswald and Keith Brown sought that approval before issuing a public statement on the matter yesterday.
It has been put to me that the likelihood is that the statement was drafted by Ian McCann, the party’s Corporate Compliance Manager, and the first Kirsten Oswald and Keith Brown would’ve seen of the statement was when they too read it on Twitter. It’s been common practice over the past five years that unelected party staff members have been acting on behalf of the party’s elected officials without their prior knowledge or approval.
Party members have pointed out to me that the NEC simply doesn’t have the authority to agree to a new policy that will be used to take disciplinary action against people who believe in biological sex – that too is supposed to be a matter for conference to decide.
The SNP’s former Westminster depute leader has even told us that this new procedure will be applied retrospectively against party members who have expressed concerns about, or publicly discussed, issues such as the ill-advised gender reform policy.
I’d have thought that if nothing else we would have learned by now in the party that we should not be using retrospective procedures to try to falsely smear and censure people in our own party who have been adjudged in some way “problematic”.
However, what we can be sure about is that anyone that has said, or believes that transwomen are not women, or that women are adult human females, would be censured under this new policy if the NEC approves it – and one of the new unilateral changes to their standing orders is that they’ve given themselves the authority to do so.
And it doesn’t stop there. Readers will remember the farcical voting system that was used to block Joanna Cherry MP from contesting the Edinburgh Central seat, when the party of government used a SurveyMonkey poll to skew the results of a vote on dual mandates.
(Bizarrely, despite this online tool providing instant results – as anyone that’s ever been on a parent council and voted for the colour of next year’s PE kit will attest to – it reportedly took Mr McCann 45 minutes to “tally” the votes.)
But in yet another change to the standing orders, the Business Convener now has the unilateral power to determine the method and manner of voting. I can find no example of any other organisation where a convener can decide how a vote should be carried out. All other organisations set out exactly how votes should be conducted.
(Fundamentally, the NEC should mirror how party conference operates, but on an executive scale.)
This is a hugely significant change, made without any reference to the party’s proper decision-making procedures. Imagine for a moment Donald Trump had wanted to use voting systems that were different in Georgia than they were in Florida, based on the system he thought would best suit him? He would’ve won the election with that power.
Kirsten Oswald can now choose, without any sort of oversight or challenge, whether crucial party matters should be decided by STV, FPTP, SurveyMonkey, Greco-Roman wrestling or a quick game of musical chairs.
Considering that there only needs to be a one-third attendance of NEC members for a meeting to proceed, and that meetings are being called at weekends with less than 48 hours’ notice, and that the voting system used is now at the sole discretion of one individual, forgive me if I tell you that with my decade of experience of committees and standing orders, these are moves I do not trust to be an effective means of ensuring transparency and good governance.
Doubtless there will be those who’ll say that internal matters like these should be kept private within the party. But perhaps they should tell that to the Leader, the Depute Leader and the Business Convener of the party, all of whom have taken to social media in the last couple of days to talk about internal party business.
Democracy and fairness demand that those of us that do not agree with them must be able to debate them on the field they have chosen without fear of sanction.
Today this is about a new definition on “transphobia” that I fear the party leadership wish to use to placate their base, selectively sanction or even expel certain internal rivals, and create a distraction from the elephant in the room that’s being completely ignored by our NEC – the shocking claims that the SNP’s most senior staff have been involved in a criminal conspiracy. Tomorrow, who knows what else?
I urge every member of our National Executive Committee this weekend to uphold our constitution, as they agreed to do when they were elected.
And to those in the party leadership who are turning a blind eye to behaviour that would’ve made Shakespeare blush when he wrote Hamlet, let me remind you of a quote Mark Twain actually did say:
“In America we have a privilege other countries don’t have.When a thing gets unbearable people can get rid of it at the ballot box”
Christopher McEleny is a SNP constitutional expert.
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I wish to make only one comment in response to Chris’s article and that is to highlight the absolute folly of making decisions like these at a meeting that is clearly in breach of the Party rules and therefore unconstitutional. This is hugely dangerous both for the Party and the individual NEC members which could result in them, both the Party and individuals being legally open to challenge, should anyone be expelled for instance. As I understand it there is no guarantee in place that protects individual liability in these circumstances. Folk would be wise to be very careful what they do today.