Despite mounting criticism, recent events have done little to throw the SNP off course
With six months to go to the election, Nicola Sturgeon faces little political opposition. She doesn’t need to win an election – Labour has done that for her
The SNP meets in Aberdeen this week for the biggest party conference in its history with its leadership thanking its lucky stars for the gift of Labour.
For while the threat of scandal and ineptitude stalks the Scottish Government ahead of an election, it is the leadership of Labour and not the SNP that can be blamed for having shot that fox.
In the 12 months since losing the referendum, the SNP’s membership has quadrupled, Nicola Sturgeon has taken over as leader, and the party has won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster while, after eight years in government at Holyrood, it is showing upwards of 50 per cent of support in the polls for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. These are extraordinary times.
But more recently, the party has not had its troubles to seek. On education, justice and health, standards have been seen to slip. It has found itself in a row over accusations of cronyism. More damagingly, one of its newly elected MPs, Michelle Thomson, has been suspended from the party amid a police investigation involving allegations about property transactions taken on her behalf, so serious that the case was referred to the then UK-wide Serious and Organised Crime Agency.
Sturgeon herself – and her party’s selection process – have become the focus of media questions about what was known and when about the now ex-SNP MP’s business practices, with the First Minister’s uncharacteristic steely rhetoric in answering those questions at odds with the open persona that has more recently come to the fore.
There is some evidence of internal disquiet at the way the FM has handled things, a rippling of discontent among party veterans about how developments have unfurled, hard questions about party HQ processes, and a bewilderment from some, that for a party which has built its success on a discipline so tight that there were never even any leaks, how this has come to pass.
And while the SNP’s political opponents have been rubbing their hands with glee at the sequence of recent events, they have done little to throw the SNP’s electoral steamroller off course.
Kezia Dugdale has appeared behind the curve – merely following the media’s revelations – throughout the Thomson story, with the new leader using her questions at last FMQs to ask about the delay in the Law Society passing on its concerns to the Crown about the property deals, just 24 hours before the Society revealed it had actually referred the case to SOCA [now the National Crime Agency] back in 2011. Previously, Labour would have been on the inside track.
And not even the promised left-wing transformation of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has helped stall the fortunes of the SNP.
On Trident and austerity – two areas where Labour had a chance to steal a march on the Nationalists – Corbyn has bottled it. He now leads a bitterly divided party confused about what it stands for and his presence at Holyrood, designed to sprinkle some of his popularity fairy dust on Dugdale, has only helped cement the view that she leads an operation that remains, as Johann Lamont would have it, “a branch office”.
Here is the conundrum for the opposition. The SNP might be seen to be doing wrong, might even be proved, eventually, to have done wrong but do the new SNP adherents even care?
The Thomson issue, in particular, has exposed a cultish support of the SNP that seems blinkered to reality. Stoked by nationalist supporting websites that seem to think that legitimate questioning about the affairs of an elected representative are fuelled by spite and envy, supporters have labelled journalists’ questions about Thomson’s role in her solicitor’s affairs a unionist plot. A prominent SNP MP has even described coverage as verging on misogyny.
And while Sturgeon tells me she holds no truck with these claims, equally she sees Twitter and social media as a policing mechanism for the mainstream media and one she applauds.
It is clear that Sturgeon sees absolutely no downside to a party membership that has quadrupled in the past year – even one that seems so outlandishly out of kilter with the orthodox views of the more established core membership.
And she told me that she does not “control the thought processes of every party member” and that “[the SNP] is a vibrant party with a growing membership with people with different views from all walks of life. That is a good thing.”
She went on to say that there were no dangers in having such a growing membership but it was up to her to ensure that party management was “up to that task and challenge”. There was “no downside”, she said.
With six months to go before the Scottish election, Sturgeon faces little political opposition. Right now, she doesn’t need to win an election – Labour has done that for her. But this week in Aberdeen she will face a different test.
There are already accusations that this conference has been cleverly orchestrated by party HQ with some more controversial issues like fracking watered down and even a second referendum taken off the agenda. And for all Sturgeon’s talk of party democracy and freedom of expression, she has to convince a party, swollen by a majority of new members impatient for change, that not everything is up for debate.
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