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What is to be done?



Since I posted my short blog a few days ago indicating the platform I shall be standing on, I have been inundated with comments and questions: Well over 100. The vast majority of comments have been very supportive. The one that was not mainly defended the current arrangements and was therefore unsympathetic to my prospectus.

In some respects I am disappointed that more of those who oppose my platform have not entered the debate. The one message of opposition I have received was very courteous. It is very sad however the individual feared making their message publicly and chose private messaging. I just want open and fair-minded debate to be the norm. Our culture should support “brave” open and considerate debate. We need to be open to considering ideas on their merits not on the basis of their source. I hope more of my critics will feel free to debate.

Your questions addressed

This blog is largely driven by the comments and questions I have received. They have been enormously helpful in enabling me to further reflect on my proposition. I start with a very contentious issue.

Voting and Secrecy

Let me start by addressing an issue where my views have been sought by many: Voting in the NEC on issues of policy, strategy and processes. Let me be abundantly clear on this point. The SNP is a political party, not a secret society. I feel very strongly about this.

As an MP every vote I cast was recorded and made public. The same goes for MSPs. There is no case I can see for votes taken on the NEC to be hidden from party members, particularly on contentious issues. It is political cowardice for people to want their votes to be hidden. If that is how they want to behave, they should join a secret society and avoid democratic politics. Openness and transparency are essential in the conduct of party business.

The secrecy of the ballot box in elections to office is a very different matter. We should not make erroneous comparisons.

But it isn’t just about voting. We need to have in place a culture that encourages and respects open debate, not one that is narrowly partisan and closes debate down. I am naturally drawn to the conclusion that where people hurl insults instead of reasoned discussion they rarely deserve listening to. I am also drawn to the conclusion that when people want to operate in secret, it is because they have something to hide.

Accountability

The issue of voting relates to the issue of accountability. There is scope for genuine debate about accountability. Probably for most elected members on the NEC and indeed most parliamentarians, accountability is left to elections. Indeed one of the purposes of elections is to enshrine accountability to electorates.

That however does not prevent us from choosing to do more. For example, although not a requirement, immediately I was elected as an MP I set up a small three person group to independently review how I was using taxpayer expenses. My personal view on reflection is that it was not enough. That’s why if I become an MSP I will go further and set up a group to review my performance at both constituency and parliamentary level. However, that is a matter of choice, not something I am calling for more widely.

I think the point I am trying to make is that whatever our principles and standards are, they are best seen as minimum requirements. In this regard it is never enough to say “I followed the rules” if the result is to do harm to our cause or perfectly decent members. Needless to say it is even worse if you don't follow the rules.

Individuals

Some people have asked me to specifically and publicly condemn named individuals who in their view have behaved inappropriately and indeed against the interests of the party.

I am not going to do that unless there has been some appropriate kind of due process, whatever my personal feelings might be. Here is why.

It sits uneasy with me to be calling for natural justice for people and at the same time condemning individuals where there is no due process involved. It is extremely difficult. When an MP I was appalled at the treatment dished out by some people in the party to my colleague Michelle Thomson. I sought to do my best to support her, but I still wonder if I did the right thing by not naming people. I chose the route of complaining about the lack of due process, a failure to support our own when under attack by tabloids, a failure of natural justice. I chose to show my support to her publicly. But I am still not sure if I got it right. These are difficult matters.

All that said, because of my reluctance to engage in personal attacks in public, I feel a particular responsibility to use my best endeavors to put in place appropriate processes, appropriate decision making, and appropriate accountability (and I would add appropriate support for members under completely unfair attack by the media.) In other words, I want the party to behave to the highest standards, and avoid intemperate and inflammatory action.

Uncertainty

My uncertainty in this and other areas has consequences. I am very well aware that there are likely to be times when I may act or vote on the NEC in ways that disappoint my supporters. This brings us back to accountability and transparency. I see it as my responsibility to stand up and explain my choices openly and without rancour. In the long run I think that will contribute to a better culture of responsibility.

Slates

Some have asked me if I am part of a slate of reform candidates. I don't have any objections to slates of candidates, but in this case it is entirely a personal choice to enter the race. I recognise it means if I am elected I may need to work harder to get alliances, but on the other hand it means I am beholden to no one other than the party membership as a whole, and it gives me the freedom to be true to my conscience and speak openly.

Policy issues

Perfectly reasonably many people have asked my views, or offered their own views, on a range policy issues. Some of the areas are complex and I am not clever enough to do justice to them in a tweet. That is why I have started writing blogs. It is my intention to keep explaining my position on a wide range of policy issues. So why not subscribe and keep reading?

However, I have a more general point to make relating to policy development in party. In many respects it is weaker in my view now than it was 30 years ago. I want to see more policy debate. I want to see more political education. I want to see difficult issues debated at conference and elsewhere. I want to see more scope for the engagement of members. My blog “Let’s Get Together” on this site, is a paean to unleash the talents in our movement rather than have them stifled.

Employees

Many people in recent days have expressed concerns about some individual employees. I won’t for reasons already stated name anyone. I accept there are issues that would be wise to consider. For example, to whom are senior staff members accountable, and why? How is the performance of senior staff members reviewed, and who is responsible for doing it? What standards of conduct are to be expected of senior staff? The reader may well ask additional questions.

My reasons for asking these questions are two fold. First, I believe that the NEC must be driven, not by liking or disliking any particular individual, nor by any false sense of loyalties, but instead by ensuring there are proper processes in place to enable appropriate staff management.

Secondly, there is a need for greater clarity regarding the relationship of paid officials to those who pay them: our members. That is why a few days ago I argued we need to follow good practice and ensure the membership is aware of how their money is spent, for example on senior salaries.

I have nothing particularly innovative to suggest. Nothing that is unusual. I only ask we follow well established good practice.

Responsiveness to the party

I have to admit I smiled when some people raised with me a number of concerns regarding the responsiveness of HQ to serious questions. The smile reflected my own concerns about the lack of response to questions I have asked about the current selection process for candidates. So reader beware, I have a personal prejudice in favour of conducting an urgent review of the relationship between HQ, and the branches, elected representatives and ordinary members. More questions coming up I am sorry to say.

Why are so many, perfectly reasonable questions from branch officials and others regularly ignored by HQ? Where does responsiveness to branch needs fit in the priorities of HQ? Who and what drives the focus of HQ?

It is not out of malice I ask such questions. I know HQ have to work in a fast changing environment often under extreme pressures, but to me that is all the more reason for clarity and a need to answer some key questions.

My own view is that the NEC needs to take greater responsibility for defining the purpose of HQ and ensure it operates in such a way as to support the party as a whole and the key task of being fighting fit for the political battles ahead.

Conflict resolution skills.

Finally a small number of people have said they find it difficult to get professional support from the party to deal with situations of conflict withing branches and CAs. It calls for people with conflict resolution skills. My suggestion is that, if I am correct in assuming HQ does not have skilled negotiators with the time to devote to conflict resolution, we should again dip into the huge reservoir of talent in the party. I am confident there are some highly skilled members of the party who would be willing to assist. However, yet again, it would call for a willingness to mobilise the talents within our membership.

To conclude, I return to issues raised in my blog of a few days ago, and develop things further in the light of my responses to the above matters raised with me.

Political Context

Being a political party means we have to be very clear about our purpose and direction on travel. I haven’t changed my mind in the course of the last few days, so I repeat the statement I made then.

As never before, the NEC needs to ensure the party as a whole is prioritising independence. It is what my colleague Michelle Thomson calls our “north star” for it should guide all our deliberations. Everyone has an important role and most obviously the leadership, paid employees, branches, CAs and individual members. Nothing should get in the way, and no sectional interest should be allowed to hide from view our “north star”.

Governance

In my earlier blog I published an incomplete list of the governance and related principles I would argue for if elected to the NEC. On the basis of today's blog I can now add to the list, making it some 15 areas I feel particularly strongly about.

1. I would borrow from best practice in business governance the principle of “Comply or Explain”. That is, if there is any departure from the principles, the NEC should explain why in a report to the membership, probably via conference.

2. All voting on the NEC should be recorded and open for inspection by members.

3. There should be a code of conduct for all in leadership positions including ordinary members of the NEC. As an example, this would set out very clear requirements to declare any conflicts of interests and eschew any involvement in decision making where they occur. (I am thinking here of where conflicts may arise because of business interests, close personal relationships, or wider financial interests).

4. The NEC should have a particular responsibility to develop a culture of trust and respect in the party, and behave accordingly.

5. Members of the NEC, again mirroring best governance practice, should supply appropriate challenge prior to taking decisions. This is essential to avoid the development of “groupthink”.

6. The NEC should adopt good practice in decision making.

7. The NEC should have a supervisory type role over the conduct of party business, to ensure, for example, that any malign behaviour or gross incompetence is dealt with speedily and effectively.

8. The NEC should ensure appropriate direction is given to HQ.

9. The NEC should set a high store by the need to have a party machine that is responsive to the needs of branches, CAs and elected representatives.

10.The NEC should ensure the talents of the party are mobilised to provide greater focus on policy development.

11.The NEC should ensure that appropriate conflict resolution capacity is created to serve branch needs.

12.Due regard at all times should be given to the interests of members of the party (just as in business there is a requirement to give due regard to the interests of shareholders).

13.All members are entitled to natural justice and due process. Throwing people “under a bus” on the basis of inaccurate and unsubstantiated accusations in the media must end.

14.There should be maximum transparency. I favour an assumption of open reporting unless circumstances clearly demand otherwise. (For example, and again reflecting best practice, remuneration packages of the most senior post holders should be published annually, as should salary scales. I would also favour a remuneration sub-committee being established).

15.The NEC should ensure compliance with the rule of law.

Finally, I think it is time for a glass of wine.

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