Conferences are unique events, with each having its own dynamic and mood. At some, the action’s in the hall and at others, on the fringe. For many, it’s the major set-piece speeches that set the tone and for a few, it’s the delegates’ chatter that resonates.
For the SNP, this year, it’s most certainly going to be more of the latter than the former. After all, this is the first conference for many a year where they enter on the back of a defeat – the truncated event after the 2014 referendum not really counting – and it’s many years since they entered a conference having experienced such an electoral reversal.
Of course, it was only a loss of sorts as both local and Westminster elections saw the party win in seats and votes. But in the council elections they underperformed and in the parliamentary ones it was a pyrrhic victory with the loss of 21 seats and so many heavy hitters making it feel more like a defeat. The absence of many will be sobering. Moreover, for many members and some elected representatives, it’s the first reversal that they’ve experienced after years of forward marching.
That said, they’re still in a position that other parties covet and will have an attendance that their opponents can only dream of. Rumours of their demise are wishful thinking. It will, though, make the conference more muted which may be no bad thing. Some recent ones have been if not triumphalist, then certainly evangelist and, whilst rapturous for the faithful, it’s off-putting for the wider public. Labour in Brighton should have taken note.
Though there’ll be major set-piece speeches and worthy debates on the conference floor, of more interest will be the mood of the rank-and-file delegates, where there’s some disgruntlement. Much of that’s inevitable after 10 years in office at Holyrood and a change in leadership. A transfer of power has taken place from Salmond to Sturgeon but her distinctive policy agenda has still to be set, other than, perhaps, on gender balance. This conference will herald the start of that with her programme for government and delegates will have the opportunity to discuss how radical they can or wish to be, though some downplaying of expectations given limitations of powers will be required by ministers.
Another aspect of discontent is the second independence referendum, though it shouldn’t be overplayed, as there’s neither a rebellion nor an outlet for one. However, the First Minister’s ill-judged call to arms after the EU vote was a pivotal factor in the electoral setbacks. There’s a section of the gallery that has been clamouring for another, since the day after the last one. She’ll have to tone down the rhetoric as its electorally damaging and unwinnable without greater clarity on Europe and further work on policy. That may cause mutterings amongst some but the government party has an obligation to govern and focusing on that until the time and basis for another is laid must be the priority. Fringe meetings afford a vital opportunity for that detailed policy discussion.
SNP conference: Picture credit - PA
Focusing on social and economic policy also allows for campaigning by the party, as well as requiring hard decisions by the cabinet. Played right, though, it could give some impetus to reclaiming the ground that has been lost in recent years. That’ll require some organisational change, however. Angus Robertson remains deputy leader in name but it’s hard to see how he can fulfil the role as an unelected politician.
Leadership is a full-time job, as Gordon Wilson found before.
Equally, his successor as Westminster leader will also require to take stock. It’s hard to see just what the legacy of the 56 was. Ultra-parliamentarianism didn’t work. The SNP is there to represent Scotland, not administer the British state.
So, let conference begin and mutterings commence. It’s cathartic and part of the price the SNP has to pay for being the dominant party.