SNP balancing act as leadership copes with membership expectations

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Anti fracking protesters

Commentary by Hugh Kerr

The SNP conference is taking place in Aberdeen next weekend. On the face of it, this will likely be a loyalist rally of around 5,000 members as the party is buoyed by very good opinion polls; suggesting a further period of majority government next May.

However there are rumblings from various sources which may raise their head at conference, if not on the floor of the conference, in the fringe meetings and in the bars around the conference. These rumblings are not yet serious enough to suggest major trouble, but it may be  that the remarkable honeymoon that Nicola Sturgeon has enjoyed since becoming leader after the defeat at the referendum may be coming to an end.

Michelle Thomson MP: Opera lover
Michelle Thomson MP: Opera lover

Of course chief among these concerns will be the case of Michelle Thomson MP who is currently suspended from the SNP because of the inquiries into her property deals. I should declare an interest here, as a former member of Edinburgh West SNP I was a friend of Michelle Thomson, not least because we were both opera lovers! Michelle did a very good job during the referendum as a spokesperson for Business For Scotland  and I was not surprised when she was adopted by my old constituency as their candidate.

During the election campaign her property deals were raised with me by an old friend but I assumed that Michelle must have been fully vetted by the SNP and therefore was likely to be a clean candidate. Of course the inquiries into Michelle’s business practices are not yet complete, however it is clear that if there is substance in any of the allegations, her parliamentary career may soon be coming to an end and indeed there could be the first bye election of the new Westminster Parliament.

Of course the largely hostile mainstream media have been trying to make the most out of Michelle Thompson by attacking the SNP, even before she is found guilty. To compound it they have been scrutinising  other SNP MPs and discovered, shock horror, that some of them own homes as well,  although they usually live in them! This is rather ironic since for years this same media has failed to examine the property dealings of Labour MPs like Alistair Darling who flipped his homes four times in four years to maximise his parliamentary expenses and minimise his tax liabilities. Or Jim Murphy, who rented out his own flat to another MP while claiming rent expenses from the House of Commons for another flat. Still we are well used to the selective scrutiny of the Scottish media.

VETTING PROCEDURE

However there is a serious question to be asked about the SNP vetting procedure which is generally regarded as robust. Indeed as a former Labour councillor and MEP I can personally testify that  SNP vettings are much tougher ! Although I should mention that one high Labour Party official did tell me after I was elected and subsequently expelled by Tony Blair for opposing his policies, ” had we thought you would win Hugh we would never have let you stand in the first place”.

When I joined the SNP I put myself forward as a prospective European Parliament candidate. I scored highly in the training exercises and I thought interviewed well but I was turned down because they said ” I lacked knowledge of SNP policy” This was rather strange since the vetting panel never asked me any questions on SNP policy, maybe they just assumed it since I had only been a party member for a year? Of course the more likely factor was that as a socialist and a former press officer for Tommy Sheridan they didn’t want me as an MEP! Although I was welcomed into the SNP by many of its leaders I have no doubt that some of the members including the vetting panel viewed me as just a little too much on the left. I did feel rejected at the time, but because of the upcoming referendum I decided not to kick up a fuss.

When new leader Nicola Sturgeon opened up the selection process for Westminster after the referendum, including to new members who had been in other parties, I put my name forward again. I undertook the training exercise, did well and was interviewed by the panel. This time it is clear what they were after, no doubt after a briefing from the leadership, and that was 100 per cent loyalty to the party and the whips in the House of Commons. I gave them a general undertaking of loyalty but said I could not vote for cuts to benefits or Trident renewal and hoped that this would never be asked of any SNP MP. Clearly this wasn’t sufficient for the panel as I was duly turned down, I was encouraged to appeal by old friends in the SNP and duly met the appeal panel.

LOYALTY AND DISCIPLINE

Two out of the three of the appeals panel were known to me and it was clear that it was the loyalty and discipline issue that concerned them. I accepted the general line on discipline but reserved the right on matters of conscience, as all MPs must. One suggested that conscience in the SNP was decided collectively and not individually! I said that was an interesting view but not one that would get much support from philosophers like David Hume whose writing underpinned Scots law…

Ex ambassador Craig Murray
Ex ambassador Craig Murray: Too much of a free spirit for the SNP

I said discipline would not be a problem 99 times out of 100,and one member said maybe if there was a difficult vote “you could always go to the opera”! I said what a good idea light-heartedly and clearly this was sufficient to get me approved, as I was quickly put on the list of approved candidates. However the vetting process does raise questions: many other people were turned down despite seeming obviously experienced and able. Some, like Craig Murray our former ambassador to Uzbekistan, were clearly rejected because they refused to give an assurance of absolute loyalty. Personally I think Craig Murray would have been an enormous asset in the House of Commons for the SNP. As his consistently readable blogs show, he knows where all the bodies are buried when it comes to British foreign policy. With the use of parliamentary privilege his speeches would have been very interesting indeed. Craig has subsequently been turned down for the Scottish Parliament elections, so it seems he is too much of a free spirit for the SNP.

If there is concern over vetting of candidates there is greater concern among members over the issue of internal party democracy. When I first joined the SNP Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader, had a letter in the Scotsman suggesting that the SNP was like the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, no dissent allowed. I replied that they couldn’t be that strict as they had put up with his criticisms for years without disciplining him.

COMPLIANT MEMBERSHIP?

However, these days I think Jim might have a point: The SNP is a very ‘top down’ centrally controlled organisation with a relatively compliant membership, not least because for years everyone was focused on the referendum, then the general election, now of course the Scottish Parliament elections next May and possibly the next referendum. The truth is there is always a reason to stay quiet for the sake of the party unity, but party democracy is also important.

Let us begin with the upcoming party conference,. More than 170 resolutions were sent in by SNP branches,  but only 24 were selected for debate by the all-powerful standing orders committee (there is a suspicion that they are guided by the leadership, not least business manager Derek McKay MSP). Over half of the resolutions selected were submitted by SNP parliamentarians, most of them rather bland in content. Fewer than half the resolutions selected for debate were from branches and again often rather non-controversial.

When I first joined the SNP and I discovered that MPs and MSPs could submit motions on their own to annual conference I was rather surprised. Even at the height of Blairism in the Labour Party this never happened, maybe it was justifiable in the days when the SNP was a small party, but with over 100,000 members and many branches with 1500 members, why should parliamentarians have the right to determine the conference agenda, other than to control that agenda?

Perhaps it’s time the SNP reviewed its constitution to make it more democratic and to involve the 80,000 new members, many of whom it seems are little more than paper members and are considering whether to renew the membership taken out in a gesture of solidarity after the referendum last autumn.

AVOIDING THE RADICAL

The agenda for the conference confirms that it is designed not to prompt any major debates or divisions  whilst the focus is on the Scottish Parliament elections next May. So resolutions and amendments which opposed fracking altogether have not been selected, whilst tamer ones which agree with the current Scottish Government policy of a moratorium on fracking and now underground gasification have been chosen.

More radical motions on TTIP have not made it on to the agenda whilst the current policy of going along with TTIP while protecting public services is reaffirmed. Above all there is no mention of a second independence referendum or membership of NATO which divided the conference only two years ago but I suspect would be rejected by the new membership today.

Sturgeon: Well ahead in Scotland and intending to stay that way
Sturgeon: Well ahead in Scotland and intending to stay that way

It is likely that the all-powerful Standing Orders Committee will get away with the agenda, it’s very difficult to overturn these reports although there may be challenges from the anti-fracking group in the SNP or the Trade Union Section of the SNP which representing over 16,000 members is potentially powerful. Chris Stephens MP the outgoing secretary of the Trade Union group has shown a recent and rare sign of dissent by backing Labour MSP Neil Findlay’s campaign for a full enquiry into the miners’ strike in Scotland.

As Alex Bell argues in his new online publication Rattler, since the SNP is currently 35% ahead in the polls they have little to fear electorally but may have to worry about a new Corbyn led Labour Party outflanking them on the left. So far there has been little evidence of a Corbyn bounce in Scotland although there has been a rise in membership. However Scottish Labour has its conference at the end of October in Perth – I hope to be writing about it soon – my information suggests that it will steer sharply to the left in an attempt to challenge the SNP.

For example Labour delegates are likely to vote against Trident with Jeremy Corbyn’s blessing. They are also likely to vote against all fracking in contrast to the SNP moratorium policy. They may also take a hard line on TTIP, although they may have a slight problem because their senior Scottish MEP David Martin has been one of the main supporters of TTIP and is the socialist spokesperson in the European Parliament Trade Committee. Whatever happens, it is clear that Scottish Labour may offer a more substantial threat to the SNP in the future.

BROAD CHURCH

The SNP has always been a broad church, from Angus farmers who wouldn’t be out of place in the Tory Party other than their desire for independence, to free market liberals in the centre and social democrats like Nicola Sturgeon, towards explicit socialists and republicans like myself. With the advent of 80,000 new members the church has become bigger and I suspect broader, but I would bet more to the left than before.

Last year I was one of the first speakers  from the floor of conference and got a big cheer when I welcomed the new members as a socialist, republican and an internationalist. During my campaign to get the nomination for Kilmarnock I spoke to more than 500 SNP members, many of them new to the party. Some  had joined in the spirit of solidarity after the disappointment of the referendum, some freely admitted that they didn’t want to become involved in party meetings, whilst others had been to meetings but found them boring. I suspect that many of the new members may not renew their membership this year and we could see a substantial decline in that 115,000 figure.

The SNP faces a real problem in how to transform a small nationalist party pushing for independence into a mass social democratic party which is managing Scotland, with independence some way down the track. They have a real problem in integrating the new members into the party. The evidence is that in most branches the old guard is still in charge of the party machine and that the new members are not attending meetings. For example my branch of Edinburgh Central went from 200 members before the referendum to 1500 members afterwards. Now branch meetings have reverted to their normal attendances of 30-40 people and mainly the same people are running the branch as before.

SNP members – particularly new members – should understand that all political parties suffer declines in membership and support at the polls as well as increases. I well remember the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections when the SNP plunged to 24 per cent in the polls and only 26 seats and the socialists and greens and independents elected 16 members in what became known as the rainbow Parliament. I don’t think this is likely next May, but I do think the Greens will pick up seats in most regions. The Scottish Labour resurgence will I suspect take  longer and as long as it is tied to London and doesn’t endorse much more home rule for Scotland any resurgence may not flourish.

So the SNP conference will likely be a loyalist election rally of thousands of members with a triumphant Nicola Sturgeon going on to victory next May. There may not be trouble ahead but there rumbles in the belly of the SNP which can only grow in the future.

Hugh Kerr, a former Labour MEP, is a member of the SNP in Edinburgh Central.