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Party within a party: SNP conference preview

Nicola Sturgeon gives a speech at the SNP annual conference 2019 in Aberdeen

Party within a party: SNP conference preview

Before we look at this year’s SNP conference, it’s worth remembering the anger and bitterness that surrounded last year’s SNP conference. 

At the time, it seemed almost a battle for the party’s soul, fought through the proxy of the elections to the governing National Executive Committee (NEC).

In the one corner, you had those critical of Nicola Sturgeon and the leadership over the pace of indyref2, the planned reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, and the secretive, closed rank management of the party.

In the other, you had the loyalists who dubbed the critical groups as factions, “parties within parties” giving outsiders undue influence.

It was a victory for the critics, with more than 20 activists, councillors and MPs critical of Sturgeon’s leadership elected. Loyalist Alyn Smith was ousted, while West Dunbartonshire councillor Caroline 

McAllister, the convenor of the Women’s Pledge group, was named as the new women’s convener. 

There were victories too for the left-wing Common Weal Group. The party’s new treasurer Douglas Chapman, new equalities convener Lynne Anderson and new policy convener Chris Hanlon had all signed the group’s manifesto for democracy calling for greater accountability and “putting members back into the heart of the party”. 

A year later and only Hanlon remains in post. 

Many of those elected have not just quit their roles but have left the party, joining Alex Salmond’s Alba.

The NEC is once again far more for Sturgeon than it is against her.

It’s unarguable that the First Minster comes into this conference – taking place online between 10 and 13 September – stronger than she left the last. 

The SNP is in its fourth term of government, taking 64 seats at the election in May, just short of a majority but still 33 more than the Conservatives in second place. 

The party’s position in Holyrood has been strengthened after the First Minister brokered a partnership agreement with the Greens.

Sturgeon enjoys approval ratings far greater than her rivals, and an international recognition not granted to any of her predecessors. 

She remains on course to become Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, breaking Alex Salmond’s record on 24 May 2022.

Sturgeon has survived a painful year for her and the party –  the Salmond saga, the Holyrood and Hamilton probes into the handling of harassment allegations, the continuing questions over the “missing” £600,000 of ringfenced donations, the Alba schism.

Nevertheless, nothing seems to have made much of a dent. Party membership grew from 105,393 members in 2020 to more than 119,00 at the end of May.

Mass defections after the emergence of Alba never happened or made little impact to the overall numbers as more joined the party than left. 

Though there are still questions over the money raised for the independence fighting funds, according to their most recent accounts, they have £1.362m in the bank, putting them in a strong place to fight any campaign.

Does this mean the SNP’s perennial debate over a plan B for independence has gone away? That there won’t be questions over the leadership of Sturgeon and her husband, the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell?

No. The motions submitted by branches for this year’s conference suggests that members and branches still think the party leadership might not be going fast enough on independence and that there’s a sizeable section of party faithful who want to push policy leftwards. 

There are two motions specifically on independence. They’ll both be debated on Sunday, and follow the First Minister’s announcement on Tuesday that the Scottish Government are to restart work on preparations for a vote before the end of 2023. 

The first deals with timing, stating that “people in Scotland should not have their health, wellbeing and future economic potential compromised by holding a referendum on independence before it is safe to do so, and that this decision should be determined by data driven criteria about the clear end to the public health crisis, which would allow a full, normal, and energetic referendum campaign.”

There could be debate over exactly what that data driven criteria needs to show exactly.

The second, which is less cautious, states that “recovery from Covid will require powers that are not available within the devolved powers of the Scottish Government and believes that independence is therefore essential to our recovery from the pandemic, and therefore recovery should be at the heart of our campaign for independence.”

There could be another clash over timing, but over nuclear weapons, with a disagreement over when they should be removed from an independent Scotland.

The motion before the conference calls upon a “future SNP Government of an Independent Scotland to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland within three years.”

But some members want to see that slightly watered down, with merely the “practical work to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland” started within three years.

There are also a number of internal motions which could see disagreement among delegates, with a debate over one member, one vote looking particularly contentious. 

One source said some members were concerned that while it’s more democratic “it'll lead to populism that's been seen within Alba or certain areas of the independence movement.”

There’s also another potential disagreement over the processes used to select local government candidates. The party are asking delegates to approve processes to allow them to stand “a balanced list of candidates, aiming towards 50/50 gender-balanced representation and increasing the number of candidates drawn from under-represented groups.”

However, under equalities law, specific mechanisms to do just that are only lawful if they’re going to reduce inequality in the party’s current representation in the local authority concerned.

That could mean that in some authorities the Scotland-wide mechanism used in 2017 can no longer be applied to all protected characteristics.

The leadership are asking delegates to agree for the selection to be “delegated to each Council Campaign Committee acting with the National Executive Committee to meet
equalities targets.”.

Some members may not appreciate the party taking control of the process.

One of the other spectacles at this year’s conference might be the leadership hopeful beauty contest. 

Ahead of May’s election, the First Minister was asked if she would serve a full term in office, serving until 2026.

“I am fighting this election campaign, I am putting myself forward for a full term of office as First Minister, should the people of Scotland elect me. And that is entirely up to the people of Scotland,” she said. 

Asked if she’d go on after that, she replied: “Frankly, I will think about the next election when we get closer to that.

“One of the things I have learned… is to take every election as it comes and not take the voters or the country for granted.”

While there’s no immediate vacancy at the top, there’s still no clear successor. There are, however, many potential, interested candidates. 

Health secretary Humza Yousaf has openly admitted that he would like to be “captain of the team” one day. 

Other politicians touted as potential future leaders include Kate Forbes, Angus Robertson, Ian Blackford and even former leader John Swinney. Each will get a big speech and a chance to shine.

Though of course, it’s Sturgeon’s big speech at the end that everyone’s interested in. We can expect talk of indyref2, COP26 and, in a Scotland where it seems we’re never ever more than six months away from an election, we can expect a bit of a focus on local government with elections due to be held next May.

The SNP is keen to kick off its campaign for the council elections, desperate to avoid the 2017 result which saw a party used to winning losing seven seats overall.

It’s worth noting here too that while many of the voices critical of Sturgeon won’t be on the SNP’s conference floor, they will be in Greenock, taking part in the inaugural Alba party conference happening on the same weekend. 

Alba, who announced first, weren’t happy. One source told press: “It’s a bit petty to announce a conference date on the already publicised date of the inaugural Alba conference when we arranged our conference in consultation with independence movement groups to try avoid clashes as much as possible.”

Was the scheduling deliberate by the SNP? An attempt to silence the dissenting, critical voices in Alba? Trying to kill off the launch of the rival pro-independence council campaign? Or was it because they didn’t notice, didn’t care, or just didn’t think it mattered?

The First Minister still has an overflowing inbox and a whole litany of government and party problems to deal with, not limited to complaints against senior SNP figures including MPs Patrick Grady and Patricia Gibson; the diabolical drug death problem; and the Covid-battered economy, education system and health service.

But for these four days, she might be able to breathe a wee sigh of relief.  

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Nicola Sturgeon to update MSPs on state of Covid in Scotland

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