Finding the resolve: conference resolutions

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 10 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Some question whether conference resolutions represent the voices of average members or allow enough room for dissent

The Scottish National Party is heading into one of its toughest conferences for many a year after a decade in power and a series of bruising election results.

Its plan for another independence referendum is on hold, a third of its supporters reportedly defied party policy and voted for Brexit, its elected members at both Holyrood and Westminster have diminished, and with no election scheduled until 2021, the party is going to have to get down to some serious domestic policymaking to hold Scotland’s attention for the next three years.

Conference is supposed to provide the fertile soil for policy to spring up from the grassroots – but for some rank-and-file members, it is simply an ineffectual forum where ideas go to die.


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But SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford insists party conference is more than just a talking shop.

“There is no question that conference is still the centrepiece of the life of the party,” he said.

“To highlight that, I would point to the high number of branches and members that are putting forward resolutions.

“It is important and it does influence the policy of the party. If it didn’t do that then the party would be in a very different place.

“Conference is still something I look forward to, but it is very different in scale from my first conferences with the thousands of people that attend today.

“It demonstrates that we have grown up and matured as a party and a movement.”

Blackford attended his first conference in 1979, a dark period for the SNP following the unsuccessful devolution referendum and heavy losses in the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.

It also saw the formation of the 79 Group as a radical policy platform for members to explore an alternative direction to the leadership.

Many of the 79 Group went on to guide the SNP into power nearly two decades later – most notably, Alex Salmond – but their dissent was not tolerated by the leadership of the day.

Blackford said: “I was the national treasurer of the Young Scottish Nationalists, and a member of the 79 Group.

“There were a lot of very capable people in the 79 Group and a number achieved electoral office which led to concern amongst some people – a misguided concern, in my view – that it was a party within a party.

“I can understand that some people were uncomfortable about that, and following a fairly fiery fringe meeting at the 1982 conference, Gordon Wilson, the then convener, announced his intention to move a motion to effectively ban all fringe groups.

“A number of people in the 79 Group obviously took offence at Gordon’s speech and walked out of the conference, and indeed, I was one of them.”

It demonstrates that not all conferences are sterile gatherings of yes-men bussed in to give their party a collective pat on the back – something the SNP demonstrated again in 2012 with its divisive decision to reverse it historic opposition to nuclear-armed military alliance, NATO.

The decision cost them two of their MSPs – John Finnie and Jean Urquhart – who resigned in protest.

Blackford said: “I was very proud of the debate that we had. It was a very mature debate and I thought there were a number cracking speeches on both sides.

“That debate was an enormous credit to the party, and it did show that we were prepared to allow a debate on a very difficult issue.

“It’s regrettable that we lost two dear colleagues. John and Jean were dear colleagues and it is a great pity that they left, but it was an enormous credit to the party that the debate was conducted in the way that it was.”

Some resolutions do find traction with the party leadership. 

A glance at previous resolutions include calls from the Cumbernauld branch for a ‘citizens’ basic income’ – where every citizen is given regular unconditional payouts from the government – which

Nicola Sturgeon pledged to give “deeper consideration” to in the years ahead. It appeared in this year’s programme for government.

The SNP’s spring conference in March saw delegates back a controversial resolution by Edinburgh MSP Ash Denham to criminalise people who purchase sex, reversing the current legislation where sex workers are charged.

Six months on, Denham said she “has total confidence that it will become government policy”.

“I would like to think that it would be in this parliament, but I don’t know that because I’m not a minister, so I couldn’t say,” she said.

“That is just my own belief because I think it is the right thing today – I am absolutely not speaking for the government.

“I have had a number of meetings with Annabelle Ewing, the Legal Affairs Minister, and I am the co-convener of the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation – and the other co-convener is (Labour MSP) Rhoda Grant.”

Denham also sees an opportunity to find common cause with fellow SNP MSP Kate Forbes, who has a resolution at the autumn conference to criminalise ‘sex for rent’ where landlords offer free accommodation in exchange for sexual services.

She said: “Conference is a vehicle for debating the big issues, and that is the way that the grassroots can get to talk about things that they want to talk about.

“If things are seen as being controversial, they can go to vote, like my resolution which did go to a vote and we won.

“It’s not a mechanism, as such, for policy coming in at conference being voted through, being adopted as SNP official party policy, and then becoming SNP government policy.

“There is no official way for that to happen – which is not to say that it doesn’t happen. For example, my colleague Gillian Martin took the issue of period poverty to conference recently, it got voted through, and now it is being taken forward by the Scottish Government in this Programme for Government.

“The leadership do watch to see what is happening at conference, what issues are of interest to the members and the grassroots, and they do take note of that.”

But one member of the SNP rank and file, who did not want to be named, insists conference is “just a filing cabinet where sensible policy ideas are parked”.

The SNP’s powerful Standing Orders and Agenda Committee (SOAC) decides what gets on the agenda, and anything that could ruffle the feathers of the party leadership is unlikely to make the cut.

“It’s pretty hard to say that conference has produced much which has been a catalyst for serious legislation, even two or three years down the line,” the member said.

“Getting a resolution through the procedures to conference isn’t a small or easy task.

“If you put something forward that is radical, revolutionary or worthy of serious debate, you probably won’t get it past SOAC.

“You don’t have firebrands when you’re a party of government.

“There is nothing in the agenda about independence. There will be an emergency resolution on the events in Catalonia, which means there will be some opportunity for it to be mentioned.

“Locally, we’ve been pretty critical internally about the lack of real examining of our economic strategy after the last independence referendum.

“Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission is now a year old, and I assume that will give us the answers to all of our questions but there’s no sign of it being published and, more importantly, there is no sign that the membership will ever get an opportunity to debate or influence its contents.

“I would say the agenda for this conference is no more exciting than normal, in terms of the resolutions that have come through.

“There has also been an ongoing level of friction that someone like myself, as a humble member, finds it quite tough to get resolutions accepted, whereas if you are an elected member, it’s much easier for you to tack your name on to a resolution and find it has a level of support.

“Radical policies are going to come from the branches, but it’s hard to get that through SOAC for it actually to be debated.”

A big test for SOAC at this conference came from SNP Councillor Chris McEleny’s motion to recall the decision of the Scottish Parliament to reintroduce tail docking.

SOAC did not approve it for inclusion in the members’ choice ballot, which would have then needed to be voted for by delegates in attendance to be debated. 

Ahead of the decision McEleny had said: “One of the benefits of a policy conference is that it gives ordinary members of the party the opportunity to set the political direction of our party.

“It is for elected representatives to then follow that direction. It is clear to me that many SNP members, supporters and indeed people across the country, do not agree that tail docking should be introduced. 

“This is a topical issue and I think that we should give party members the opportunity to voice their opinion and as a party, we should have an informed debate that lets us set our view on it.”

One party member who hasn’t been afraid to speak out against the SNP leadership over the years is Jim Sillars, who was poached from Labour by the 79 Group but soon found himself at odds with Salmond.

“It has been suggested on several occasions that I should resign, but I have no intention of resigning,” he said.

“I hope for better days in the SNP when policy will be shared with the membership.

“We have 118,000 members and there must be an abundance of talent right across the social and economic spectrum, and I would hope that one day, we will see a proper research department created, with a director of research whose job will be to create policy groups within the rank and file membership.

“Before the SNP had a big parliamentary presence the resolutions did matter, but the resolutions that were the most interesting were the ones that were refused by SOAC, who looked after the leadership’s interests very well indeed.

“But once the SNP had its big parliamentary presence [and] power moved from the party to the leadership of the parliamentary group, the resolutions represented members’ views but didn’t really see their way into significant policy.

“SOAC is a very powerful organisation which can make sure that there are no debates.”

Sillars is also proof that if you wait around long enough, one-time heretics can find themselves back in the mainstream.

He has been a longtime supporter of EFTA (European Free Trade Association), the tiny trading block that has access to the EU single market without being bound by all of its rules.

Salmond recently extolled the benefits of EFTA as a platform for Scotland to access the single market, without signing up to the unpopular policies of the EU such as the euro or the Common Fisheries Policy.

“The late shift to EFTA indicates the point of weakness that I am trying to highlight,” Sillars said.

“Unless you have policy committees and robust internal debate, where people are willing to go against the prevailing point of view, then you get stuck the way the SNP is now stuck in a love affair with the EU where it is totally uncritical, as though there were no significant or deep flaws in that organisation.

“We need to set up a policy group that will examine why we lost the referendum in 2014, and make recommendations to the national executive about how we overcome the failure next time round.

“That should be the debate on independence at this year’s conference, and I think it is a very bad mistake for a party whose raison d’être is independence for them to keep it off the agenda.”

Sillars late wife, Margo MacDonald, also stands as a warning as to what can happen to SNP members who stray too far from the mainstream.

She was bumped down to the bottom of the regional list in 2003 for opposing the SNP’s gradualist approach to self-determination, and ultimately expelled from the party for standing as an independent.

“Margo was driven out of the SNP through the desire of the leadership to have no dissenting voices at Holyrood, and they succeeded,” said Sillars.

“Who have been the dissenting MSPs over the last 10 years? None.

“Margo was singled out as a lesson to the rest of them, but the mistake they made was thinking that they had got rid of her completely.

“That’s the kind of discipline anyone else will get if they step aside from the party line.

“I know people who voted to leave the EU but won’t say, and that’s an indication that what they did to Margo is still in place at the back benches of Holyrood.”  •

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