Exclusive analysis: who are the new members of the SNP?

Written by Professor James Mitchell, Dr Lynn Bennie and Professor Rob Johns on 10 September 2018 in Inside Politics

James Mitchell of the University of Edinburgh, Lynn Bennie of the University of Aberdeen and Rob Johns of the University of Essex look at the new SNP membership

SNP members at party conference, spring 2018 - Image credit: PA Images

News that the SNP may now have more members than the Conservative Party across the UK follows the massive surge in membership witnessed in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum and the more recent mini-surge that occurred in June this year. 

The June increase appears to have pushed the SNP ahead of the Tories in the membership stakes. 

This increase came about after SNP MPs staged a walk-out from House of Commons after Ian Blackford, Westminster group leader, was ordered to leave the chamber. 

Blackford had refused to sit down while protesting about the lack of Parliamentary time to debate Brexit’s implications for devolution.

But who are these new members?  Why did they join the SNP?  Are they significantly different from existing members?

We conducted an online survey of these new members and are able to compare the findings with earlier surveys conducted in 2007/08 after the SNP first came to power and another in 2016, following the huge surge in membership following the independence referendum and subsequent spikes at the 2015 general election and EU referendum.

The most striking feature of the latest new recruits is how broadly similar they are to the existing membership. 

Few organisations can grow from c.25k to c.120k members without some fairly radical changes. 

The main challenges for the party’s leadership and headquarters appears to be organisational – how does a party that has grown so rapidly cope with such numbers? 

The surge has changed its demographic profile, becoming younger and less male though, like other parties, the SNP continues to struggle to attract younger voters and women. 

But ideologically, the SNP of today looks familiar. It remains broadly moderately left of centre and fairly pragmatic in its approach to achieving independence.

Back in 2007/08, our research found that the SNP had few women and few younger members. 

Research following the surge in late 2014 found that the party had increased its proportion of women and had a younger profile. 

This recent mini-surge has included a similar proportion of women as brought in by the major 2014 surge and more young people than then.

It includes 39 per cent who are women (compared with 38 per cent in 2016) and 21 per cent are under 35 years of age, double that following the post-referendum surge. 

Four out of five of these recent recruits have never been in a political party before and of those who had been in a party, the bulk are former SNP members returning to the party having left or drifted away sometime after 2014.

These surges are refreshing the party rather than changing it. 

But it should be stressed that the proportion of members who are active has not risen in proportion to the increase in membership. 

As before, but to a greater extent, the bulk of SNP members are inactive but provide the party with a steady income and an ever-growing online presence.

The reasons given for joining in this recent wave were outrage at the treatment of Holyrood by Westminster, unhappiness regarding the UK’s handling of Brexit as well as a belief in independence. 

The context and particular reasons given suggest that the SNP’s twin messages of ‘standing up for Scotland’ and independence continue to resonate. 

Brexit itself appears to have been less directly relevant than the perception that the UK Government is mishandling Brexit – and, in particular mishandling it to Scotland’s detriment.

One of the most significant changes in SNP membership since the party first came to power in 2007 is the decrease in anti-EU views in the party. 

Back then, 22 per cent supported independence outside the EU. But this has fallen back to under 10 per cent with the increased membership. 

This is the result not only of supporters changing their minds on the EU issue but also some more Eurosceptic members drifting away. 

Yet support for Brexit and for the SNP are not incompatible. It is notable that one in ten of those who joined recently, in the wake of SNP protests over the UK Government’s handling of Brexit, had voted to leave the EU.

Overall, these new members are slightly more ‘passionate’ and have stronger views on a range of issues than existing members. 

They are very slightly further to the left on redistribution of wealth and in favour of immigration. 

But there is little sign of the new or existing membership becoming impatient for a second independence referendum or likely to take the party off in a different ideological direction.

Contrary to much speculation in the aftermath of the post-referendum surge, the SNP’s membership remains broadly social democratic. 

The growth in membership largely involved ‘more of the same’ but with a broader socio-demographic profile. 

This is marked contrast to the recent significant rise in Labour’s membership which altered that party’s membership profile.

The SNP appears able to take advantage of opportunities to increase its membership. 

Events may create opportunities but a bandwagon effect is encouraged through social media generated in part from SNP HQ.

Professor James Mitchell is the professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Lynn Bennie is a reader in politics at the University of Aberdeen and Professor Rob Johns is the professor of politics at the University of Essex. The authors are engaged in an ESRC study, ‘Recruited by referendum’, studying the surge in SNP and Scottish Green Party membership.

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