As party conference season ends, what's new?

Written by Geoff Aberdein on 27 October 2016 in Comment

Geoff Aberdein takes a look at the state of Scotland’s political parties as they arrive back from conference season

With the monumental decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, ‘Brexit’ is the word on everyone’s lips and is undoubtedly the biggest political show in town. It’s easy to forget that just a few weeks before the EU referendum we had our very own Holyrood election. So here is a brief attempt at summarising the state of Scotland’s political parties as they arrive back from party conference season, raring to go.

Although it was on the wrong side of the end result on each occasion, the referendums of 2014 and 2016 have served the SNP well. The party galvanised support and it continues to defy the usual laws of political gravity.

Whether or not the First Minister moves for a second independence referendum, she is all too aware of the need to defend and promote her party’s record in government, and her policy-heavy leader’s speech in Glasgow last week was tacit recognition of this. With over nine years in office, this is something they are finding harder and harder to do, and they need to demonstrate constantly that there is plenty of policy fuel in the tank.


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Having worked closely with the First Minister for a number of years, I’m not surprised at the impressive way in which she commands respect, if not support, across the political divide. That said, how she and the SNP navigate the invoking of Article 50 and the Brexit negotiations to follow will likely define her tenure as leader. High stakes indeed.

Ruth Davidson emerged from May’s election as leader of the second largest party at Holyrood and with the wind in her enlarged sails. In establishing herself as a formidable opponent to the First Minister, she must rue the Brexit vote more than most. It has taken attention away from what Tory strategists planned to be five years of unrelenting focus on devolved governance.

Ms Davidson will no doubt take issue with some of the post-Brexit vote hardline rhetoric emanating from her colleagues at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. In the EU referendum campaign, she picked her battles wisely, most notably with Boris Johnson, and managed to establish a measure of distance from her UK party colleagues. One feels that she will need to continue skilfully striking that balance in the months and years ahead if she is to improve her party’s standing and potentially lead the opposition to independence if a second referendum is called.

Scottish Labour continues to suffer from an identity crisis. The Jeremy Corbyn re-election circus dominated the agenda during a crucial time when Kezia Dugdale would have surely preferred to be concentrating on presenting a compelling and distinctive narrative for her party north of the border.

However, this was never going to be a short-term fix and there are some signs of improvement. Winning the battle to ensure she can make an appointment to the UK party’s National Executive Committee augurs well for Ms Dugdale’s leadership credentials, and she has also made shrewd appointments to bolster Labour’s press operation. Labour are beginning to get traction for a more targeted and forensic approach to holding the SNP to account, particularly in the area of healthcare. Having the ‘principal opposition’ tag removed from Labour may not be a bad thing in the long run.

Solid work so far from Patrick Harvie and his team who, after taking a decent step forward in May, continue to punch above their weight in terms of pushing their priorities onto the political agenda. Mr Harvie will be well aware that his party hold the key to the SNP having a parliamentary majority for an independence referendum bill, and will consider carefully what concessions to extract in return for their support if and when the time comes.

Being knocked in to fifth place at Holyrood is as bad as it will get for the Scottish Lib Dems and I expect them to make some modest gains in next year’s local elections. Willie Rennie is a good leader and, increasingly unshackled from the memory of coalition government, he can approach this parliamentary term with a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude. If he wants to make a fresh start, Rennie could do worse than use the federal autonomy the Lib Dems have in Scotland to rebrand his party as the Scottish Liberal Party, reinstating what was an honourable tradition in Scottish politics. Going ‘back to the future’ may serve Mr Rennie well.

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