Dangerous democracy - will the SNP assimilate or change?

Written by Tom Freeman on 27 March 2015 in Comment

Parties who ignore what their grassroots members want don't fare so well.

Sitting in Aberdeen Conference Centre last weekend I was struck by how few Liberal Democrat party members were there to hear the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and the Minister for Employment, Consumer Affairs and Equalities, not to mention the leader of the Scottish party.

A lot of power and influence in the room, but not much interest. 

Some might say this is unsurprising, given the Liberal Democrats’ journey from a party of protest to one of government. Previous party conferences rejected the UK Government’s position on tuition fees, NHS reforms, and many other policies. A leading campaigner even quit the party from the podium in Brighton in 2013 over the use of secret hearings in civil courts, which she called “a betrayal of liberal values”.

Looking at row after row of empty seats in Aberdeen, I was reminded of how the party partially grew out of the SDP, and how the original ‘Gang of Four’ were so unimpressed by the socialist will of Labour’s membership they left to form their own party in 1981. 

“Democracy is what is controversial in Britain, not socialist rhetoric. Nobody cares about socialist rhetoric any more than they care about what bishops say on a Sunday about brotherhood. But when you raise the democratic question then I tell you, you’re in trouble, not only with the top, but the mobilised mass support down the line. People are really interested in it, and leaders are opposed to it,” the late Tony Benn told a television documentary on the incident. 

Benn was of course a supporter of the trade union block vote, which, it could be argued, did nothing for democracy either. Vote-rigging allegations in Falkirk last year was the last straw in that particular part of Labour’s constitution.

"Scotland’s civic discussion wasn’t just about independence, it was about equality, the economy, welfare, energy, housing, tradition, corporate rule and patriarchy, empowered by a real chance for radical change. Democracy at its most dangerous" 

But Benn’s comment is perhaps more relevant for the SNP now. 

Even if groups like Women for Independence, Business for Scotland or National Collective did emerge from a party brainstorming session, they evolved into their own mass entities as political engagement grew during the referendum campaign. 

Scotland’s civic discussion wasn’t just about independence, it was about equality, the economy, welfare, energy, housing, tradition, corporate rule and patriarchy, empowered by a real chance for radical change. Democracy at its most dangerous. 

While Scotland voted No, the SNP has been buoyed by the startling increase in membership and its consistent strength in the opinion polls. 

But has the party’s voice changed to reflect its new majority? In reality, the SNP has tried to channel that energy into its already broad church. National Collective co-founder Ross Colquhoun is the SNP’s new ‘engagement strategist’, while other prominent Yes campaigners were allowed – nay encouraged – to stand as candidates under the SNP banner rather than their own. 

Ominously, the party is to rewrite its disciplinary code so Nationalist MPs will “accept no Member shall, within or outwith Parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the Group”.

Will a diverse group of MPs, not to mention a politicised and active membership, now watch their leadership negotiate concessions with any of the unionist parties they have so effectively demonised? There may be 3,000 delegates at this spring conference, but unless their voices are heard, I wouldn’t bet against future events resembling last weekend in Aberdeen.

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