Ian Swanson: Toeing party line is so last year

Jeremy Corbyn wants Labour members to decide policy. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor/JP License
Jeremy Corbyn wants Labour members to decide policy. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor/JP License
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Could the ‘new politics’ usher in an era that will see more grassroots involvement in decision-making, asks Ian Swanson

SCOTTISH Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has come under fire for saying the party’s MSPs should be free to campaign for a Yes vote in a future referendum.

Critics claim such a stance makes it look as if Labour is abandoning its historic opposition to independence.

There’s no suggestion Labour’s Holyrood politicians are queuing up to argue for Scotland to go it alone, but there were plenty of Labour voters on the Yes side last year – and Ms Dugdale says she does not want to “shut down” debate.

Meanwhile, her first conference as leader next month will see a session set aside where delegates can choose the agenda – and it is widely expected there will be a debate on calls to scrap Trident, a policy she would oppose.

Both these moves signal a welcome new openness and a willingness to have free discussion on important issues.

And they are in line with the tone being set by Labour’s new UK leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has spoken of his desire to “democratise” the party. He may have his own strongly-held views on many issues, but he wants party members to discuss and decide policy.

The SNP – though famous for its internal discipline – had a very public, open debate at conference a few years ago on its stance on Nato.

Could it be that the tide is moving against party conferences as stage-managed, set-piece occasions where the leadership can always be sure of getting its own way?

Will the “new politics” which saw people in Scotland engaged as never before during the referendum leading to a huge turnout on polling day, and then over the summer, thousands of people signing up to help choose Ed Miliband’s successor, now extend to more grassroots involvement in the parties’ own decision-making?

The referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign both saw huge turnouts at public meetings and a new level of involvement by people who had not previously considered themselves political.

The challenge is now for politicians and parties to respond to the new interest and enthusiasm.

That means maximum openness and free debate, not rigid sticking to party lines and rehearsing the same old arguments.

SNP backbencher John Mason has spoken of some of his fellow Nationalist MSPs being “overly protective of the party line” when they are supposed to be scrutinising new laws in committee and holding the government to account.

In a submission on proposed reforms to the Scottish Parliament’s procedures, he commented: “I do not really think that changing the system in itself is the answer. Rather my feeling is that the answer is in the attitude of the members of the Scottish Parliament and in particular the attitude of backbench members within the majority party, which is currently the SNP.

“The Government backbenchers need to be prepared to challenge the government and also the opposition members need to be constructive at times and not just oppose for the sake of opposing.”

The apathy which seemed to be so central a feature of politics before the referendum was often down to a feeling of disconnect between politics and the real world and an alienation from the system of decision-making.

If the experience of the referendum, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, Ms Dugdale’s openness to debate and Mr Mason’s frank observations herald a new attitude, then politics, public engagement and good government will all benefit.