There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
The Founding Fathers of America were uneasy about them. Democracies the world over are stuck with them, for better or worse. Political theorists argue endlessly about them. PPE graduates talk glibly about them. What in hell are they?
Wikipedia offers general definitions -
A political party is an organization of people which seeks to achieve goals common to its members through the acquisition and exercise of political power.
A political party platform or platform is a list of the values and actions which are supported by a political party or individual candidate, in order to appeal to the general public, for the ultimate purpose of garnering the general public's support and votes about complicated topics or issues.
So there we have it. Simples? No - there’s an inconvenient reality for political parties, democracy.
In turn, political parties are an inconvenient reality for democracies.
How to get to the heart of the complex questions surrounding democracy and the role of political parties? A few simple ideas – all relating to Westminster elections.
1. Our UK democracy allows the citizen to vote for a candidate for the Westminster Parliament. Any citizen qualified by law (not by party!) may stand for Parliament.
2. A candidate may elect to stand under a political party label – if that party agrees – or stand as an independent. If the candidate stands under a party label, the party is identified on the ballot paper.
3. Political parties must have processes to identify potential candidates, nominate them for assessment, assess them, and decide if they are to be adopted as a prospective Parliamentary candidate.
Let’s pause here and look at the implication of the above three facts -
Democracy depends on named individual citizens being elected to represent defined constituencies. The voter gets therefore to choose between the candidates presented on the ballot paper – but not to choose which candidates are on the ballot paper in the first place.
Whether a candidate appears on the ballot paper is determined by one of two scenarios -
his or her decision to stand as an independent candidate in a parliamentary constituency.
A political party’s decision to allow them to stand – after evaluation and assessment - as the sole candidate for that party in that constituency.
In the first scenario, a citizen offers himself/herself for election by secret ballot to his/her fellow citizens.
In the second scenario, the voter is offered a candidate chosen by a political party.
The voter is both cases may evaluate the candidate against his/her own criteria by the means available – the candidate’s individual background, qualifications, experience, values, principles and objectives as offered by the candidate and by personal research.
In the second case – the candidate has also been approved by the political party’s selection process.
One might characterises this as being offered a meal cooked by the person offering it, or by a meal offered by a well-know restaurant chain – a unique meal or a branded meal. In the first case, knowledge of the individual is vital. In the second case, the reputation of the brand is crucial.
This brings us sharply up against the role of party in politics.
Imagine a Westminster Parliament convening for the first time comprised of nothing but independents – candidates who offered themselves to the electorate without the involvement of any party machine. 650 individuals, expected to collectively govern a United(?) Kingdom comprising four bits – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - but elected by a much smaller group (their constituents).
A crucial decision has to be made immediately – say a decision to go to war, or refrain.
They could debate at once – if they could agree the terms of reference and when to start the debate. Such a debate would make PMQs look like a Sunday school picnic.
They could then move to a vote – providing they could agree when the debate had ended. A truly democratic decision would be then be made, if the enemy had not yet launched their attack.
Let’s say they approved the war.
A whole set of new decisions would have to be voted on after lengthy debate. By that time, the United Kingdom would have either been overrun by the enemy or obliterated – or taken over by a military coup by impatient generals.
An extreme scenario – but a real possibility. The point is that, even in the absence of immediate crises, such a Parliament would speedily have itself organised into factions of similar mind and rapidly thereafter into political parties.
Party is inevitable in democratic politics if anything is to be done – unless, as Frances Fukuyama points out, a fully functioning and powerful bureaucratic and military state under a rule of law was already in place before democracy ever emerged, and the elected representatives were either content to let it run things pro-tem – or were afraid to challenge it.
So, practically, nothing gets done without party, and a party - or parties - able to command a majority on key issues in a vote, i.e. to form a government.
What has all this got to do with recent events in and around Holyrood?
THE SNP and CANDIDATE SELECTION PROCEDURES
By the 2007 election, the SNP was a tightly-disciplined machine with a modest membership, significantly the creation of Alex Salmond and his key supporters and advisers.
But – a personal view – its candidate selection process for Westminster elections and in local council elections often produced abysmal results, notably in Glasgow. Some selections (no, I won’t be specific!) were only explicable by either rewarding of loyal time-servers, or seriously deficient selection processes – or perhaps even a lack of suitable candidates.
But despite these failings, the party machine in Scotland delivered - in Holyrood - two terms of government (second on a landslide 2011 victory), negotiated a legal referendum, and took Scotland to the brink of independence. These were formidable achievements by any standard.
The post-indyref events are even more astonishing – the fivefold membership growth, successive positive polls, the resurgence of the YES spirit, a vibrant, popular and respected new First Minister and the humbling of the opposition parties.
It was immediately evident that the spectacular growth in SNP membership post-indyref would offer huge opportunities to the Party, but also pose challenges. Nicola recognised this instantly, and responded rapidly by opening up the way for new members to offer themselves as candidates for the immediate challenge – GE2015 – and for Holyrood in 2016.
There can also be little doubt that this sent a chill down the spine of two categories of party members: long-serving, worthy activists who had paid their dues to the party and aspired to candidate selection and the party favourites – talented activists, not necessarily long-standing members, who were being assiduously groomed for imminent stardom, many of whom had made their bones during the long referendum campaign.
It is probably fair to say of the second category that their backers were more than a little uneasy about the prospect of their protégés being challenged by the nouvelle vague.
THE TWO HURDLES
The process for vetting and selecting candidates (set out in full in the Appendix below) provides for -
A national register of approved potential parliamentary and local government candidates to be created and maintained by the SNP National Executive Committee
The individual SNP branch may only nominate, and its members select their parliamentary and local government candidates from this approved list.
So, before a candidate gets anywhere near the ballot paper and the electorate, he or she must leap two hurdles – a selection committee appointed by the National Executive, and then a vote of the constituency branch members.
It is this first stage – and the appeal following it – that Craig Murray failed, and it is the conduct of the process and the alleged media briefings that he complains of, not the SNP’s right to vet him by such a process. His permanent blackballing as a candidate deserves closer examination.
Falkirk has been through all this relatively recently, with Jim Murphy and the Unite Union playing starring roles as competing villains in the melodrama, with briefings and counter-briefings, against the flaming backdrop of the Grangemouth dispute.
Where do I stand on all of this?
For the record, if I had to choose between Craig Murray and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (I don’t know who the other candidates are) I would choose choose Tasmina.
Do I see an alternative to such a party candidate vetting and selection process – two relatively undemocratic processes before the polling station and ultimate constituency voter choice?
No, I don’t, even though I don’t like the way it sometime operates.
Do I think the SNP is any better or any worse than any other party, any more or less democratic in such processes?
No, I don’t – I simply want them to observe the highest standards with such imperfect aspects of democracy.
Do I think Craig Murray has always acted wisely in his comments and blogs, both before and after the vetting process?
No, I don’t. I respect his moral courage, as a British career diplomat, in challenging the injustices of the system, and respect his stated principles, but I feel he has been injudicious in some statements.
But I don’t know who is to blame for the potentially damaging media coverage this debacle threatens, or who released the cat from the bag in the first place. I think the SNP needs to be more transparent - as a matter of urgency - on candidate vetting and selection, and more careful in their press contacts on such matters.
God knows, the electorate of Falkirk deserves better than this.
APPENDIX ONE – extract from SNP - Rules and Standing Orders
Rules on Vetting and Selection of Potential Parliamentary and Local Government Candidates
1.1 The Scottish National Party will encourage a diverse range of members, with a broad mix of skills, understanding and experience, to apply for consideration as potential parliamentary and local government candidates. The vetting or assessment of members for consideration as potential parliamentary and local government candidates will be carried out by the Candidate Assessment Panel appointed by the National Executive Committee (hereafter referred to as “the Panel”).
A national register of approved potential parliamentary and local government candidates will be created and maintained by the National Executive Committee, from which branches will be able to nominate and members select their parliamentary and local government candidates. At all times through this process, the principles and practice of ensuring equality of opportunity for all will be promoted.
2. Mainstreaming Equality of Opportunity
2.1 The National Executive Committee shall establish and maintain a strategy to deliver equality of opportunity throughout the party, including in the selection of candidates for local government and parliamentary elections. The equality strategy will focus primarily on increasing the representation of women, ethnic minority and disabled members throughout the party, and will aim to ensure the SNP fields a more balanced list of candidates in future. Support will be offered to branches and other local organisations to ensure equality of opportunity at grassroots level. The equality strategy will aim to recruit and retain more members from underrepresented groups; to encourage active participation by these members at all levels in the party; to increase the number of candidates drawn from underrepresented groups; and to monitor progress on achieving these aims. As part of the equality strategy, the National Executive Committee shall agree a plan for each election, which may include the use of specific mechanisms, such as hard targets or other measures to deliver a balanced list of candidates. Any specific mechanism will require the approval of National Council before being introduced. Vetting of Potential Candidates
3. Candidate Assessment Panel Candidate Assessment Panel
3.1 The remit, conduct and procedures of the Candidate Assessment Panel will be established and amended from time to time by the National Executive Committee.
3.2 The Panel will be responsible for organising Assessment Centres for vetting of potential candidates.
4. Assessment Criteria
4.1 The National Executive Committee will set down the assessment criteria for potential parliamentary and local government candidates. The Panel will undertake assessment of potential parliamentary and local government candidates in accordance with the National Executive Committee’s guidance. The Panel will make recommendations to the National Executive. The recommendation can only be to approve or not to approve a member as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate.
4.2 The National Executive Committee’s assessment criteria shall, on the advice of the Panel, ensure that there is no discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, disability and/or religious belief.
4.3 The Panel, following a decision to approve or not approve a member as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate, will produce a feedback report summarising individual performance, including justification for the decision and proposals for personal development, if required.
5. Code of Conduct
5.1 Each member who applies to be considered as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate is required to sign a code of conduct, which will govern their behaviour as an approved potential local government candidate.
5.2 Each member who applies to be considered as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate is required to sign the relevant SNP Group Standing Orders.
6. Approval of potential candidates
6.1 The National Executive Committee will accept the recommendations of the Panel unless two-thirds of all possible members of the National Executive Committee decide otherwise. The National Executive Committee can only approve or not approve the recommendation of the Panel.
6.2 Any member who has been approved by the National Executive Committee as a potential parliamentary candidate will automatically be considered as an approved potential local government candidate. The member is required to satisfy the Local Government Liaison Committee (or body with responsibility for council elections) that they are eligible for nomination as a council candidate in that local government area as the law currently stands.
7.1 A member who has not been approved as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate may appeal to the National Executive Committee’s Election Appeals Committee in accordance with procedures approved by the National Executive Committee. The decision of the Election Appeals Committee is final.
8. Register Register of Approved Potential Candidates
8.1 The National Executive Committee shall establish and maintain a single Register of Approved Potential Parliamentary and Local Government Candidates, listing in said register whether members have been approved as potential candidates for local government, parliament or both. This register will be made available on the members section of the SNP website.
8.2 The Panel will review the register on an annual basis in accordance with procedures and guidance approved by the National Executive Committee.
9. Removal from the Register of Approved Potential Candidates
9.1 The National Executive Committee may remove a member approved as a potential parliamentary candidate from the Register of Approved Potential Parliamentary and Local Government Candidates on the recommendation of the Panel, on the grounds that the member has either:
i) breached the Code of Conduct of an Approved Potential Parliamentary or Local Government Candidate, and/or
ii) breached the Disciplinary Rules of the Party. 9.2 and their removal is the recommendation of either:
i) a Liaison Committee, with responsibility for a parliamentary election, resolution passed at a duly constituted Special meeting, or
ii) a Constituency Association (or Constituency Branch) resolution passed at a duly constituted Special meeting, and/or
iii) in the case of 9.1 ii), the National Secretary, following a report of the Disciplinary Committee.
9.3 The National Executive Committee may remove a member approved as a potential local government candidate from the Register of Approved Parliamentary and Local Government Candidates on the grounds on the recommendation of the Panel, on the grounds that the member has either:
i) breached the code of conduct of an approved potential local government candidate, and/or
ii) breached the disciplinary rules of the Party.
9.4 and their removal is the recommendation of either:
i) a branch resolution passed at a duly constituted Special meeting, or
ii) a Local Government Liaison Committee (or body with responsibility for council elections) resolution passed at a duly constituted Special meeting, and/or
iii) in the case of 9.3 ii), the National Secretary, following a report of the Disciplinary Committee.
9.5 There is no appeal against the decision of the National Executive Committee on removal of a member from the Register of Approved Potential Parliamentary or Local Government Candidates. A member may be eligible to re-apply for consideration as a potential parliamentary or local government candidate on the guidance of the Panel. Selection of Parliamentary Candidates
10. Number of Candidates per Constituency
10.1 The Organisation Convener will make a recommendation to the National Executive Committee on the number of parliamentary candidates that will be nominated by the Party in each constituency at a parliamentary election.
11. Responsibility for Selection of Parliamentary Candidates
11.1 Constituency Associations (or a Constituency Branch) will have responsibility for overseeing the selection of Scottish Parliamentary candidates subject to National Executive Committee approval of the selection and subject also to the role of Party Headquarters in overseeing postal ballots and related matters, and to the provision which the constitution makes for the National Secretary and Business Convener to select candidates in specified circumstances.
11.2 Liaison Committees for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament (or Constituency Associations which have been given responsibility for Westminster elections by the National Executive Committee) will have responsibility for overseeing the selection of United Kingdom Parliamentary candidates subject to National Executive Committee approval of the selection.
11.3 The National Executive Committee will have responsibility for the selection procedures for the European Parliamentary elections.
12. Timetable for Selection of Parliamentary Candidates
12.1 Each Constituency Association or Liaison Committee with responsibility for parliamentary elections will agree a timetable for the nomination of parliamentary candidate(s) for the constituency which they are responsible for, in accordance with any procedures approved by the National Executive Committee.
13. Nomination of Parliamentary Candidates
13.1 The procedure for nominations shall be as determined by the National Executive Committee.
14. Selection of Parliamentary Candidates
14.1 Only members who reside and are on the Electoral Register in the electoral constituency can vote in the selection of a parliamentary candidate(s) in accordance with the procedures approved by the National Executive Committee.
14.2 Only members who have maintained their membership for thirteen months prior to a cut off date agreed by the National Executive Committee are entitled to vote in the selection for a parliamentary candidate.
14.3 All selections of parliamentary candidates will be carried out on the basis of one-member-one-vote using the principles of single transferable voting. Members will be made aware of the Scottish National Party’s commitment to equality of opportunity and the need to ensure a broad mix of parliamentarians are elected to represent the diverse communities of Scotland.
14.4 The National Secretary and Business Convener, in using their powers to select a parliamentary candidate in the circumstances specified in the Constitution, shall do so after consultation with the Constituency Association, Constituency Branch or Liaison Committee concerned or, in the case of selections of European Parliamentary candidates, with members of the National Executive Committee.
14.5 A ballot of all members in a constituency will not be required in the event that a candidate is unopposed for selection in a constituency. The NEC will make rules to cover selection procedure in these instances.
14.6 The National Executive Committee will have responsibility for the selection and ranking procedures for parliamentary regional lists.
14.6 The National Executive Committee shall bring forward additions and/or amendment(s) to these Rules in order to specify processes for ensuring a balanced list of candidates, particularly in regard to gender, for each parliamentary election.
15. Deselection of Parliamentary Candidates
15.1 A candidate for the Scottish or United Kingdom Parliament, whether in a constituency or on a party list, may be deselected by the National Executive Committee on a vote of two thirds of those present, if acting on the request of the Constituency Association or Liaison Committee concerned. The National Secretary may delegate the function of assessing such a request to a panel of National Executive Committee members, who will then report their findings to the National Executive Committee for decision.
15.2 A candidate for the European Parliament may be deselected by the National Executive Committee, by a two-thirds majority of those voting, if acting on the request of the National Secretary and Business Convener.
15.3 If a parliamentary candidate on a party list dies, resigns or is deselected as a list candidate, or becomes ineligible to be an SNP candidate, then any other candidates below him or her on the list each move up one place in the rankings.