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Slate wiped clean: SNP's 87th annual conference could be its most collegiate in years

The First Minister addresses the last virtual SNP conference from her Glasgow home

Slate wiped clean: SNP's 87th annual conference could be its most collegiate in years

Once again, the SNP’s conference risked being overshadowed by a row over gender, sex and Joanna Cherry. 

The MP for Edinburgh South West infuriated some of her Westminster colleagues, and two of the party’s influential affiliated groups, with a tweet earlier this month.

Taking to social media, the QC shared an article from The Times about Stonewall’s influence on UK government policy around trans issues and conversion therapy.

Cherry tweeted: “It’s very concerning that the PM is only getting the view of Stonewall on the clash between sex-based rights & those based on gender identity. All policy makers should hear the range of opinions on the debate around gender identity.”

She then followed it up with another: “And re conversion therapy which any right thinking person should oppose we must not make it a criminal offence for therapists to try to help patients with gender dysphoria to feel comfortable in their birth sex. As we used to say #Somepeoplearegay. #GetoverIt”.

The backlash was immediate and furious.

The SNP’s youth and LGBTI wings called for the MP to be kicked out of the party, claiming she was supporting conversion therapy. 

Kirsty Blackman, the SNP MP for Aberdeen North, tweeted that she had complained about Cherry “through the proper channels, repeatedly, for years” and yet it had “resulted in nothing happening and these views still being expressed – and still causing harm to so many people.” 

The Equality Network then shared a picture of Cherry’s tweet, with the comment, “Apparently, ‘We must not make it a criminal offence for therapists to try to help lesbian & gay patients to feel comfortable in a mixed sex relationship.’

“Conversion therapy is harmful and wrong whether it’s trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or their gender identity.”

That led to the incredible scenario of Cherry, an SNP MP writing to Shona Robison, an SNP minister in Holyrood, asking the government to probe the organisation that receives most of its funding from the taxpayer. 

What was different about this pre-conference row, this public airing of SNP tensions over trans issues, is that it was a lot less even. 

Many of the more prominent SNP activists who were sympathetic to Cherry, and who were unhappy with some aspects of the Scottish Government’s planned reforms of gender recogniton laws, are simply no longer in the SNP. 

Last year’s conference was dominated by factionalism in a way that hadn’t been seen in the modern party. 

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. The so-called, self monikered “good guys”.

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

The internal elections saw huge victories for the critics, with more than 20 activists, councillors and MPs critical of Sturgeon’s leadership elected. 

Those factions, lists and slates no longer exist. 

“I suspect the Alba defections have stopped the elections being particularly interesting,” one SNP source told Holyrood. 

That’s not to say Nicola Sturgeon can expect an easy ride from her new council, but it may be a lot less rough.

The motions in the final agenda were mostly uncontroversial. 

There was some debate ahead of the gathering over a call for a frictionless border between an independent Scotland and England. Though it appeared on the draft, it never made it to the final agenda. 

Had it, it would almost certainly have been sent back to the drawing board. Wishing a hard border didn’t exist, isn’t the same as a hard border not existing. That’s still one of the big questions over independence that the SNP is currently working on answering.

The resolution, which came not from the leadership, but by Holyrood backbenchers Emma Harper and Christine Grahame, has been postponed until the SNP’s spring conference next year, where it will come back rewritten. 

Other motions to be discussed by delegates touch on life in an independent Scotland, notably through the treatment of pensioners, WASPI women, prison rehabilitation, and closer links with the EU.

There’s a debate on the civil service in an independent Scotland, with a motion claiming a new country would need “a major staff expansion” and “around thirty-five thousand new posts”.

Another on the establishment of a Scottish Reserve Bank will likely lead to more debate over post-indy currency.

But as activists debate the structures of independence, they’ll all be very aware that the dial has not been moved a great deal. However, according to the polls this may not be a huge problem for the SNP’s supporters.

The most recent YouGov poll for The Times reveals that the constitutional question remains close, with 40 per cent of voters saying they would vote yes to independence, and 46 per cent backing no. When undecided voters were removed, 53 per cent back the Union, compared with 47 per cent in favour of breaking away. 

Writing in the paper, Professor Sir John Curtice said it was notable how at the last election SNP voters had backed having a referendum within the next 12 months by 57 per cent to 23 per cent. Now, he noted, they oppose the idea by 49 per cent to 39 per cent.

“The quietude of the constitutional debate in the past six months, one the first minister has done little to disturb, has perhaps persuaded many independence supporters that the Yes movement does not yet have the energy for a successful campaign,” he suggested.

The psephologist said the first minister would soon need to “reveal her hand”. 

“During the next few months the need to steer Scotland through a winter in which coronavirus is under control will ensure that the constitutional issue still lies on the table. But come spring, Sturgeon will need to explain how she will deliver and win the referendum that her party’s supporters want.”

Meanwhile, there are other motions on post offices, the use of the pesticide Glyphosate, street harassment, and on violence against women. 

This included calls for a wider introduction of Emily Test cards. These were named after Emily Drouet, who was 18 when she killed herself at Aberdeen University’s halls of residence after being assaulted by her boyfriend, Angus Milligan. 

More than 100,000 were sent to help college and university staff support victims of gender-based violence. The conference debated whether the cards should in future be sent to all Scottish frontline emergency service staff and all staff working in education.

While another motion will see the SNP leadership being urged to do more to help activists targeted for abuse on social media. 

The motion calls for the creation of “advice and guidance on what constitutes online abuse”, drawn up by a working group selected by the party’s ruling NEC.

If passed, the party will be asked to create “procedures for managing and supporting those who are victims of abuse”. 

The motion in the final agenda, put forward by branches in Dundee, Fife and the Highlands, also called for the party “to promote good behaviour from all SNP members across all social media platforms – on our behaviour with other members and beyond.”

It also calls on the party “to create procedures for managing and supporting those who are victims of abuse.”

It adds: “Conference believes there is often a lack of recognition of the significant impact of online abuse. 

“Conference resolves to promote good behaviour from all SNP members across all social media platforms – on our behaviour with other members and beyond. It asks the NEC to provide advice and guidance on what constitutes online abuse, drawn up by a working group selected by the NEC.

“Conference further requests the creation of a mentoring structure or role to encourage and support members who have been subject to abuse.”

One source, tongue firmly in cheek, said the motion was effectively SNP members urging the SNP to do more to help SNP members targeted for abuse by SNP members.

It’s not clear what capacity the SNP has to investigate complaints. Anecdotally, it’s thought the party is dealing with hundreds of complaints at the moment – many of them around issues relating to gender recognition reforms. 

Which brings us back to Joanna Cherry and her future in the party. Not too long ago she was being talked about as someone who could potentially replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader.

But the prospect of her leading the SNP is now very distant. According to a recent poll, just five per cent of voters want to see her replace the first minister. 

That survey, carried out by Panelbase for The Sunday Times, found 52 per cent of voters want Sturgeon to stay where she is until the end of the parliamentary term at least, while 34 per cent want her to quit before then and 14 per cent are unsure.

Among SNP supporters, support for her remaining in post is up at 85 per cent.

And while a pre-conference poll by YouGov found that her approval ratings have dropped by nearly 40 points, she is still, by some considerable distance, the most popular leader in Scotland. 

Nevertheless, the first minister has started to talk about life after Holyrood, though bristling at the suggestion that might happen any time soon and insisting in a recent interview that she would serve her full term. 

Sturgeon recently told Vogue that she and husband Peter Murrell had been discussing fostering children and that she may write about her time in power. 

“I can categorically say that I am never going to sit in the House of Lords and that I am not going to set up another party,” she told the magazine. 

“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for any new leader or new first minister to have that immediate predecessor breathing down their neck… some may say I’m speaking from experience.”

So who will the immediate successor be?

That Panelbase poll found 64 per cent of voters are not so sure. Finance secretary Kate Forbes is the most popular pick for the electorate, but only just. She has the support of seven per cent of voters, while deputy first minister John Swinney is on six.

The leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, the health secretary Humza Yousaf and the MP Cherry are next, each on five per cent, followed by the constitution minister Angus Robertson on four per cent. 

However, among supporters of the SNP, Forbes is out in front by some way – she is backed by 11 per cent, making her the favourite. Their second choice is Blackford, on eight per cent, followed by Swinney and Robertson on seven per cent, Yousaf on six per cent, Cherry on five per cent, Keith Brown on two per cent and Michael Matheson on one per cent.

Unlike the others, Forbes and Yousaf are under-40. There has been a Scottish Parliament for all of their adult lives. They are, as the journalist Chris Deerin once described them, children of devolution. If you had to bet the house, it would be this generation you'd back.

However, there is no vacancy, and if we take the first minister at her word, there will be no vacancy until at least 2026. With council elections, a general election and, she hopes, a referendum on Scottish independence before then, she has a busy half decade in front of her.

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Nicola Sturgeon questions equality watchdog intervention in trans law reform debate

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