Analysis: What we know about the SNP membership

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 26 April 2019 in Inside Politics

The SNP has a huge membership, but can it mobilise high levels of support in its push for independence?

Image credit: PA

It had been a while since the SNP adopted guerilla tactics, but for anyone who has followed the party’s fortunes over the last few years – or indeed decades – the sight of the party’s MPs storming out the House of Commons chamber last year will have been pretty familiar.

From Alex Salmond’s decision to interrupt then Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s budget, 30 years ago, the list of SNP stunts is a long one. In the grander scheme of things, the walkout was one of the less dramatic disruptions.

The move stemmed from growing outrage from parties across the spectrum in Scotland over concern Brexit would lead to a “power grab” on devolved powers. This view was hardly controversial. As well as the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens had all expressed grave reservations about the implications of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on devolution. Even the language used was remarkably similar – they all referred to it as a “power grab” – with the Tories standing alone in arguing otherwise. At one point, Scottish Secretary David Mundell actually went as far as to claim it represented a “power bonanza”.

But clearly frustration was growing, and by 14 June, it culminated in a mass walkout of SNP members, after MPs found themselves with just an hour to consider what over 50 amendments to the Brexit bill would mean for the future of devolution.

Blackford had been using his spot at Prime Minister’s Questions to demand an immediate vote on parliament sitting in private, but the Speaker, John Bercow, was not interested, telling him to sit down, and when he refused, ordering the SNP Westminster leader to be removed from the chamber.

Some were left very unimpressed, with Sky’s chief political correspondent, Jon Craig, apparently quite upset by the sight of the “stroppy” MPs following Blackford out the chamber, after Bercow “told the SNP leader what to do with his bizarre demand”.

Joanna Cherry had been seen “making derogatory hand movements towards the Speaker with her Commons papers, in a gesture and with a disdain that would earn her a long suspension from the courtrooms of Scotland, I imagine”, he warned in his write-up, while “Chris Law, Angus MacNeil and Tommy Sheppard also appeared to be shouting aggressively at the Scottish Conservative MPs”.

But the worst of all was Mhairi Black (“perhaps not surprisingly”), who had been spotted “pointing angrily and shouting at the Scottish Tory MPs as if she was challenging them to a fight”.

For Alberto Costa, a Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, it was very serious. As he put it: “What we saw today was ultimately an embarrassment for the people of Scotland.”

The PM’s spokesman was also, apparently, very disappointed in the party, pointing out: “That sort of stunt effectively means that the SNP members who were down on the order paper to ask the PM questions can’t represent their constituents.”

So at least everyone seemed to agree the whole thing was a stunt. A better question was whether or not it was a good stunt. And despite media outrage, evidence suggests that it worked pretty well, with sources in the SNP saying it brought a mini surge in membership applications, leading to over 5,000 sign-ups in the 24 hours following the walkout. The party HQ reports that between 50-100 people normally join or rejoin the party every day, meaning those 24 hours saw a growth in interest around 100 times above the normal level expected.

In fact, the latest mini surge means the SNP may well now have more members than the UK Conservative Party, with the June 2018 growth following a huge jump in membership after the 2014 independence referendum. That rise in support – reportedly bringing 100,000 new members – had almost overwhelmed the party, with ministers and cabinet secretaries summoned to SNP HQ to help answer phones.

And there’s no doubt the surge changed the party, with research published by Professor James Mitchell from the University of Edinburgh, Dr Lynn Bennie from the University of Aberdeen, and Professor Rob Johns from the University of Essex, providing a glimpse into the people that make up the SNP membership, and what their presence could mean for the future.

As part of the study, ‘Recruited by Referendum’, the researchers approached almost 90 per cent of SNP members, with a response rate of around 21 per cent, taking in the views of more than 16,000 people to find out what drives them. And the results certainly challenge much of the received wisdom surrounding the party.

For a start, analysis suggesting Nicola Sturgeon’s caution in pushing for indyref2 is frustrating the membership seems to be overblown, at best. As part of the research, the authors asked SNP members to rank how urgently they believed the SNP should push for a second referendum on independence, with ‘one’ representing an immediate vote, and ‘ten’ meaning the party should only hold one if they were confident of winning.

The results show members lean heavily towards backing the leadership in only holding a vote in the right circumstances. More than half of respondents chose an eight, nine or ten in answer.

As Professor Mitchell told Holyrood: “Our data shows people are pretty pragmatic. It’s not that they don’t want an independence referendum, but they want one when they’re sure they can win it. They’re not saying they want it now, but the problem that arises is that a very noisy, vociferous minority tend to attract attention in the media, who frankly aren’t representative.

“The membership is certainly not causing the leadership any problems on the date of the referendum at all. That’s true also of the 2018 mini surge, which we examined, and if anything, they are even more pragmatic, which surprised us. So, there’s something there, people quite liked the unconventional campaigning. People liked that symbolism, but that doesn’t mean they were ready for an independence referendum yet. The interesting thing about the demographic profile of those new members is that they are similar to the existing membership – slightly younger, there are slightly more women – but basically the same as before. What is striking is that they are refreshing, rather than changing the SNP.”

The research also examined members’ reasons for joining the party, with, unsurprisingly, support for Scottish independence cited as the most common. But following closely behind was a belief in creating a more equal or just society, with the third most common motivation being inspired by the party leader.

Likewise, the most common identity cited by SNP members was that they felt part of the independence movement, with identifying as part of the anti-nuclear movement coming in second and the environmental movement following in third.

But more surprising is what the research showed about the declining primacy of independence within the party. In 2007, just over 70 per cent of members agreed with the statement, “the SNP’s primary goal should be independence and all else should be secondary”. Pre-2011, the proportion fell to just over 60 per cent. Pre-2014, it was around 55 per cent. In 2014, 40 per cent agreed, and by the time the post-2014 referendum membership surge arrived, the proportion of SNP members who thought independence should be the party’s primary goal fell to just over 30 per cent.

And this, too, seems to be true of the members brought in after the walkout, with the newest surge of members holding similar views to those that came in 2014. But while common sense may suggest people drawn in by a more unconventional stunt might have veered towards more militant action in the pursuit of independence, a stronger pull seems to have been the attraction to a party seeming to stand up to the UK Government.

As Mitchell explained, in his snapshot of the new members: “They do want independence, but they are very clear they have strong views on a range of issues. That’s a shift, because independence was the one and only issue for some members [at one point], but even that was never entirely true. ‘Standing up for Scotland’ is undoubtedly a key factor in explaining where the new membership lies. They like the idea SNP MPs are standing up for Scotland in the House of Commons.”

Research following the surge in late 2014 found that the party had increased its proportion of women and had a younger profile, with the 2018 mini-surge bringing a similar proportion of women, alongside more young people. That means 39 per cent of SNP members are female, compared with 38 per cent in 2016, and 21 per cent are under 35 years of age, double that following the post-referendum surge.

The study found four out of five of these recent recruits have never been in a political party before and of those who had been, the bulk are former SNP members returning after having drifted away sometime after 2014. And, perhaps predictably, the new members seem to be strongly pro-EU.

Mitchell said: “They are, overwhelmingly, pro-European. If you compare the two surveys we did, in 2007-08 and the post-referendum one, the SNP was always pro-EU but it’s now overwhelmingly pro-EU. There’s still a small element that’s opposed to the EU but the membership is emphatically behind the EU, in a way it’s never been before in its history. I mean, the membership has been pro-EU for a long time but the level of support for the EU is phenomenal. After the 2014 referendum, nine per cent supported independence outside the EU, that’s a significant drop. I suspect it will be slightly down on that since then, too. Most of the new members are emphatically pro-EU. Then the number of senior SNP figures who support withdrawal from the EU is tiny, you’re basically just talking about Alex Neil. You just cannot find significant figures in the SNP who are anti-EU, so it’s not just that the membership is pro-EU, that leadership in the broadest sense [is as well]. It will be well under nine per cent in that group. The EU is more heavily embedded in the SNP than it has been since the party embraced Europe back in the 80s.”

The study also found a high degree of satisfaction with the leadership, despite media speculation over growing unrest at Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to delay a second independence referendum. But, according to Mitchell, that support is unlikely to be tied to Nicola Sturgeon herself.

“It’s nothing to do with her,” he said. “It’s to do with electoral success, and the surge in membership is to do with Yes doing better than expected. Obviously, it was a defeat in the referendum but people didn’t expect that high level [of support]. Then what you get in all political parties is that when a party is succeeding and doing well electorally, people respect the leadership; when it’s doing poorly, the leadership gets the blame. That’s not always fair, sometimes it’s nothing to do with the leadership. It was pre-Sturgeon that created that success, and she was the beneficiary, and although we don’t have survey data today, but I would guess support for her leadership might be a bit lower than it was, because the SNP hasn’t been doing quite so well. People are not yet at the point of criticising the leader, but they are coming close, through increased criticism of party headquarters.”

So, while things may be more positive for the SNP than conventional wisdom would suggest, with the party meeting up for another huge conference – this time in Edinburgh – challenges are looming.

Clearly the criminal charges facing Alex Salmond – the former first minister has been charged with 14 offences, including two of attempted rape – have already led to divisions in a party known for its unity, even if the timescale involved in prosecution may mean this conference will pass without the case dominating discussion. 

Meanwhile, questions over the party’s domestic record remain, particularly amid opposition criticism of the party’s failure to tackle the attainment gap. And even if it isn’t education that trips the FM up, the nature of governing for a decade, much of it under the shadow of austerity, will make maintaining political momentum difficult regardless.

More immediately, the sense remains that, five years after the first independence vote, the party is still fumbling around to find the case to win a second. The Sustainable Growth Commission, an economic prospectus for independence steered by former MSP and now strategic communications consultant, Andrew Wilson, was intended as a discussion stimulus. Sturgeon said it would “restart the debate” about the “opportunities” of independence. Yet discussions at previous conferences have been muted, at best, while the membership still seems distinctly unenthusiastic about an economic case built around caution, rather than inspiration.

Perhaps the answer to those issues will come from the membership – having around 120,000 members should bring advantages – yet the party also seems to have struggled to find the mechanisms necessary to take the energy brought by such wide backing and mobilise it. Whether or not it can do so may well decide the results of any future referendums.

Meanwhile Brexit, and its effect on support for Scotland leaving the UK, remains a massive unknown. While the leadership seems to enjoy the trust of members, who understand the need for pragmatism in the SNP’s pursuit of independence, that patience is likely tied to the party’s continued success in the polls. Lose that knack for electoral success and good feeling will likely disappear with it, and all the stunts in the world will do little to help. When it comes to shock tactics, the SNP apparently still has a few tricks up its sleeve. But whether there is an overarching strategy guiding those tactics remains unclear.

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