The third party: an overview of the SNP

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 11 November 2014 in Inside Politics

As if recovering from an exhausting campaign, replacing a leader and integrating 50,000 new members was not enough of a challenge, the party must now fight a UK general election

In the final days of the referendum, and those that followed, events in Scottish politics seemed to move faster than ever. 

Within hours of the result coming in, David Cameron had taken to the steps of Downing Street to announce: “It is time for our United Kingdom to come together, and to move forward. A vital part of that will be a balanced settlement – fair to people in Scotland and importantly to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well.”

He continued: “There can be no disputes, no re-runs – we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.”

So far, this was exactly what was expected. But then came the twist.

“I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.

“So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.”

With those words, one chapter in Scotland’s political history ended, and another one began. For many of those, tired and emotional from a long night and an even longer campaign, the response would have been outrage. For others, just weary resignation.

But it did not stop there. Speaking less than twelve hours later, Scotland’s First Minister – the man who had led the SNP for a total of 20 years – announced his resignation. 

Yet while the Yes campaign lost the referendum, it was not acting like it had. 

While Labour burned up from the inside over party squabbles, and raged externally against the Conservative decision to link devolution to the West Lothian question, voters flocked to pro-independence parties.

The Greens could not fit their new members in meeting halls, with Patrick Harvie looking genuinely stunned as he announced in Holyrood that ‘my party’s youth wing is now bigger than my whole party was a week ago.’ 

The SNP meanwhile went even further, with the party tripling in membership numbers and becoming the third biggest party in the UK in the process. 

So it is pretty safe to say that, meeting in Perth this week, the SNP will have plenty to talk about – even if the growth in members, coming in the shadow of the No vote, gives the surge a slightly bittersweet taste.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith told Holyrood: “Conference is the first opportunity we’ve had other than branch meetings to have a get-together and a group hug – remember that a lot of us are still very contemplative about what September actually meant and we’ve got lots of reasons to be cheerful. We were part of something that has changed the face of Scottish politics – that’s exciting – all the new members who are bringing in their energy and enthusiasm – topping up our own, incidentally, it’s not like we were moribund in the first place, we’ve been augmented.”

Of course I am now in the minority of the SNP, having been in longer than a month ago. But we are all absolutely equal in the party.

The party’s business convener, Derek Mackay, admits the growth in numbers came as a surprise.

“I had set out an ambition to double the membership of the party and that would have taken us to around 40,000 members, so this post-referendum surge is incredibly welcome – it represents a huge shift in Scottish politics – but the surge was something of a surprise.

“That colossal surge has meant that branch meetings across the party have been transformed. What was sometimes a few people sitting around a table planning the next jumble sale has turned into a dynamic discussion on the future of our country and how the SNP should position itself.

“We have a much bigger pool of people to draw upon in terms of skills and talents as a party, and in looking towards future elections as well. Looking to the future, it gives us much greater breadth and depth for council and parliamentary elections where a lot of people are motivated to be politically active.”

The new members should bring new dynamism to the party, but they will also bring challenges. In fact the party’s infrastructure is currently being examined, to make sure it can cope with the influx. Indeed, the SNP national executive committee has met since the referendum, agreeing to take forward a review of the structures and the rules of the party to make sure it is fit for purpose with this new mass membership. 

Mackay says: “The new members have transformed our local infrastructure. But nationally as well, we have had to take a look with some urgency at some of our existing rules – the 13-month rule, for example – and how new members are treated. We want to make sure there is equality and that is why a special national council at the conference will address the 13-month rule. That said, not every new member has a vote in the election contest for [deputy] leader, because you have to draw a line somewhere and it was on the opening of nominations for that contest. But absolutely, we want to make all the new members feel equal in this party.”

Laughing, he adds: “Of course I am now in the minority of the SNP, having been in longer than a month ago. But we are all absolutely equal in the party.”

And if recovering from an exhausting campaign, replacing a leader and integrating 50,000 new members was not enough of a challenge, the party now must shake off the debris from the referendum campaign and fight a UK general election.

The next year looks like being absolutely critical for the future of the SNP. Westminster elections have never been easy for the party – as MacKay puts it – “to use a football analogy, it is not a home game for us.”

Yet a recent Ipsos Mori/STV poll projected that, if a general election was held tomorrow, the party would get 52 per cent of the Scottish vote. Based on a uniform swing, that would mean 54 SNP MPs. Labour would lose 36, with just four Scottish seats in the Commons.

Pete Wishart MP describes the General Election as an unprecedented opportunity. 

“What we are observing is a very tight possible result next year because there does not seem to be much give between the thirty odd per cent that Labour and the Conservatives seem to be polling right now so that presents us with enormous opportunities to progress the Scottish agenda, the idea that we get the maximum powers to the Scottish Parliament. It is an unprecedented opportunity; we have never really gone into a general election campaign before with such expectations and with the potential for such leverage. 

“So in the past, people might have suggested that it is about who the Prime Minister is and what sort of government you might get but this time, for the first time in a generation, we have the opportunity to make Scotland central and to make sure we get the maximum amount of leverage from the UK parliament. We don’t know how the opinion polls are eventually going to settle down but I think one thing is certain: there will be significantly more Scottish National Party MPs in the Houses of Parliament and if we are in a close fought, tight environment where numbers are going to be important, that presents us with so many opportunities.”

Wishart denies that the outcome of the Scottish Labour leadership contest will impact on the SNP’s success at the General Election campaign. But, like it or not, it seems obvious the two parties’ destinies are entwined. Over the coming months the SNP will aim to get as much power from the Smith Commission as possible, while capitalising on Labour’s woes.

“The Scottish people have considerable issues with the Labour Party – I think they will neither forgive nor forget Labour campaigning so passionately with the Conservatives and for jubilantly celebrating the referendum result. I also don’t think they are finished with them yet, they observed what happened during the referendum, particularly places where the Yes vote prevailed, and there is something there among former Labour voters that is making them approach this election differently. I think we will see that reflected in support for Labour at the General Election and we have seen a hint of that in recent opinion polls over the last few days.”

But faced with the fear of another Tory Government, is it not possible that Scots will vote for Labour to keep the Tories out? It seems likely that the Labour argument will be, ‘a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories’, is that going to scare people into going back to traditional patterns?

Wishart says that argument is wearing thin.

“I think that is almost certainly what they are going to say because it is about the only thing they can say. But it is not going to have as much resonance this time round. I mean, Ed Miliband is even more unpopular than Nick Clegg in these polls. That is possibly the only campaign tactic they have but it won’t have the same impact this time round because a lot of people in Scotland are finding it quite difficult to distinguish between Labour and the Conservatives.” 




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