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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Reflections on Scottish Labour conference


Some reflections on what I thought was one of the better Scottish Labour Party conferences I have attended in recent years. Helped by three day’s of sunshine in Inverness! 

The first day of conference was dominated by the launch of the Devolution Commission report. I have already blogged my contribution to the debate, but there were also significant contributions by Richard Leonard, Pat Rafferty and Neil Findlay. Although we made similar points, there was no collusion, other than the Red Paper Collective being at the forefront of the debate. 

I don’t have a problem in principle with external speakers as they bring a different perspective to the debate. A patient angle in the health debate was good, as was a victim of crime in the justice debate, together with Brian McConnachie QC’s different take on the justice system. However, two speakers on the same report was overkill in the education debate. Despite this, education had the feel of a proper debate with Labour students making some valid challenges to the Colleges v Universities line. UNISON police delegates also didn’t miss the mark on the myth of police on the beat. 

Ed Miliband’s speech was shorter than the usual UK leader contribution, but none the worse for that. There was some significant content as well on the One Nation theme. I particularly liked the attack on City short termism, by challenging quarterly accounts and the pernicious role of hedge funds. The trade unions had a very constructive private meeting with him afterwards. There was plenty of content to keep the trade unions happy throughout conference as Magnus Gardham’s piece in the Herald highlighted. Anas Sarwar on Amazon was a good line as was the Renfrewshire Labour Leader on tackling blacklisting. More should follow his example. 

Johann’s speech was undoubtedly one of her best. There was plenty of content to balance up the inevitable knocking copy and it was well delivered. Conference oratory is not her strong point, but this was delivered in a good conversational style that delegates really enjoyed. The warmth in the hall was genuine and some of the lines were very good. On Thatcher she was much stronger that Ed Miliband in the commons, “Let our movement be shaped by our heroes not our villains”, encapsulated my own view of how we should react to the legacy debate. I also liked, “Scotland’s greatest moment was not when we outfought our neighbours, but when we outthought the world”. Contrary to the media coverage, the speech was much more about themes of poverty, inequality, education and land reform than the constitution. Although she did highlight the SNP’s claim to be on a home rule journey while noting, “it’s a pity they weren’t there when the journey started”. I thought the line, “the powers I want are the powers Alex Salmond already has”, made the Red Paper point well that political will is more important than constitutional powers. 

Important for me was dealing with the issue of universal services after the dire ‘something for nothing’ speech. I took the view at the time that the reaction was hysterical, but she went out of her way to say that she was not attacking the principle of universality, while making valid points about priorities. “A free bus pass doesn’t work if there isn’t a bus to get on”, makes that point well. Conference also passed the UNISON Scotland motion on welfare reform that included a very clear section on this issue: 

“In this context conference affirms Scottish Labour's support for universalist principles as an effective contribution towards creating a fairer and more equal society - the universal provisions of social, welfare, education and public services paid for through progressive taxation, where the rich are properly taxed on their income and wealth.” 

The health debate had several good contributions on health inequality, including the SHA Scotland motion, and Dr David Conway’s contribution now posted on the SHA Scotland blog. We also had a good discussion on this at the SHA fringe meeting. 

Full credit to Vicky Jamieson who chaired conference well and ensured a good spread of delegates got to speak. Some of the most popular issues could have done with a bit more time, but generally most delegates felt they had every chance to participate. As always the fringe is just as important and a wide range of subjects were covered. 

The media coverage was pretty fair if a bit obsessed by the constitutional issue. My particular thanks to the Daily Record for printing a very flattering 20 year old photie of me – even if some delegates made less than complimentary comparisons with David Cameron! In fairness to some MPs who might have been less pleased with my, ‘spitting their dummies out’ TV soundbite, they were at conference in significant numbers. No sign of the boycott – or perhaps because of it! Though it didn't get as much coverage, the next line in my speech made the point to MSPs that devolution doesn't stop at Holyrood.

Despite being something of a political anorak, I am not a huge fan of conferences. But I enjoyed this one. Even though I hope we don’t replicate back to back with the STUC again. Not sure my liver will cope and even 20 year old photies won’t kid anyone!

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