Is our party hierarchical?

Despite the rhetoric, evidence might give us cause for thought. MPs and MSPs/Welsh Assembly Members seem to take precedence over the councillors who build up the party’s base again and again. I would argue that we should be an integrated whole – with much more mutual respect and understanding. And of course, never forgetting the parish councillors and Lords who serve us so well.

Councillors delivered excellent results last year, arguably giving the credibility which benefitted the party in the European elections. The party then extrapolated predicted General Election success from the latter; neglecting wisdom which cautions against using only quantitative information. Had other smaller parties built up that local government base, would the European results have been different?

When the Scottish Parliament came into being, our MSPs seemed to give less priority to proportional representation for local government than some serving councillors hoped for. In fact, that proportional representation took a number of years, and contributed in a small way to my decision not to seek re-election after 13 years (1990-2003). It can become disheartening to be always in opposition; I had a satisfying career as a research librarian, and wanted time to index books. The seat remained Liberal Democrat at the next election.

The Coalition (which I supported) took a heavy toll on local government including here in Edinburgh. Did our MPs give enough attention to the effects on our local government base? Did the party support long-serving councillors who lost seats?

Lockdown may give us unexpected thinking time – let’s use it well.

* Moyra Forrest is a member and former councillor in Edinburgh. She worked as research librarian for Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, Edinburgh University.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The way the Coalition panned out is just one example of the party shooting itself in the foot thanks to a reluctance in some quarters to learn from experienced councillors who know quite a bit about coalition, minority administration and other decision-making processes which in a normal year some council groups would have been facing this coming weekend.

  • Not sure the headline really describes the content here. Where should influence lay in a political party ? Well probably depends where you, as an individual, happen to be positioned and not surprisingly councilors feel they should be listened too more often. As for those foot soldiers who would like to see a genuinely democratic party, can I refer you to Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy. True today as ever.

  • I would say that our party – as exemplified by most of its senior folk – really struggles to practice what we apparently seek to preach.

  • Humans are an intensely hierarchical species as are other primates so, to answer the title question directly, it is hierarchical because it must be. And, as Chris Cory says, that means the Iron Law of Oligarchy applies.

    The Party’s approach needs to reflect that – but doesn’t.

  • Thank you to Chris Cory for drawing attention to Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy. I have now googled it, and believe that we need to focus on the possible changes that have taken place since 1911 when Michel’s book was published.
    I suggest that there in 1911 it was easy to find ways of involving small groups of people who knew each other in decision making. There was no effective means of involving whole populations.
    Advances in technology mean that we can at least try. In fact within the party as elsewhere there is little inclination to do that.
    My view is that we need urgently to develop means of involving people in decision making, which enable rational decisions to be made. This is essential for dealing with the issues of how mankind can work together to build a sustainable future on our planet.

  • +1 for what Tom Harney says above.

    Party decision making seems to be in the hands of the same old people trying to do the same old things things the same old way, when the world around us has changed.

    As evidenced by the decision to postpone the leadership contest and cancel conference – that was a challenge for new thinking as to HOW we could carry on with those things, rather than say we can’t do it like we used to so cancel.

  • I wasn’t saying I approve of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. I regard it as part of man’s fallen nature and as such am entirely in agreement with Tom and Nick.

  • Moyra Forrest 9th May '20 - 1:50pm

    Thanks for such interesting comments. I accept we’re limited by our relatively sparse resources; and discovered after election how much easier it is to carp from the sidelines than be in the hot seat. That said, lockdown does bring opportunities if we choose to seize them.

    Before the Scottish Parliament was born, the Scottish Constitutional Convention (I was a Lib. Dem. member) visited Inverness where I was particularly struck by one comment, “We feel as far from Edinburgh as from London and Brussels here. How can we make it our Parliament?” The letters page of The Scotsman, 21/10/97 reminds me of my thoughts then: “Surely information and communication technologies offer exciting solutions to some of the cost problems of a physical building for the Scottish parliament? …Video conferencing, e-mail, internet: the world has changed a lot since the last time a parliament was built in the UK … This … is to be a people’s parliament and not all the people live in Edinburgh! …”

    We got a building in Edinburgh which continues to attract controversy. However, Tavish Scott (our then MSP for Shetland) and others pushed for the Parliament to meet in locations around Scotland. Partial success meant some committees did just that. It is very interesting that an opposition MSP is currently re-considering her decision to stand down at the next election; online meetings could ease her dilemma of how to balance family and political service from her distant northern constituency.

    Self isolation and social-distancing are encouraging a host of new and different ways of living. A future for our party where talent is not constrained by physical location? New and different hierarchies are probably inevitable, but exciting nonetheless.

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