SNP conference can mark a change in direction for our party
- First published in : Visit Website
- First published on: 13th Oct 2023
A bruising defeat in a by-election is not the backdrop to SNP conference that anyone in the party would want. In years to come there will be time for reflection on why some people pushed so hard for a by-election the party was unlikely to win and why former colleagues and supporters turned quite so viciously on an MP who, prior to her covid wrongdoing, had such an impressive track record as a hard-working constituency representative and was the most loyal, enthusiastic, and tireless of activists. But for now, as others have remarked, we must not let a good crisis go to waste. Conference must mark a change in direction for our party.
Stephen Flynn has said it can’t be business as usual. He is right. Just as Kate Forbes was right when she said continuity wouldn’t cut it. Earlier this week in this newspaper Gerry Hassan identified the root of the SNP problems as the suffocation of debate and democracy within the party and the lack of a collegiate approach under the previous leadership. He is also right.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the current leadership recognise that such an approach has been damaging and don’t intend to continue it. There is clear evidence from the conference programme that Humza is prepared to facilitate debate in a new way, and I have had also had the benefit of personal meetings with him this week which have made it clear to me that this the case.
The focus of this conference must be getting the party’s short to medium term strategy in the right place. The keynote debate at conference will be about our independence strategy. We must resist the media narrative that this means the conference is only about the SNP talking to ourselves. Plenty of other important policy issues will be debated over the 3 days of conference. It is right that independence strategy should come first. Independence is what drives our movement. As a result of strategic missteps by our previous leader, who didn’t allow these matters to be debated at conference, our strategy needs reset. I would have liked that to have been done earlier this year in March as originally planned but the surprise resignation and the leadership election that followed in its wake knocked that plan off course.
Some hard truths need to be faced up to. It is true that there is cause for optimism in that while support for the SNP has dropped, support for independence stays firm at about the 45-50% mark. However, I don’t think we should get too complacent about this. That is roughly where we were 9 years ago. The years in between have been a wasted opportunity to do the hard work of convincing some of those who voted No in 2014 that independence is the best option for Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon’s government didn’t look serious on independence and the opportunities to advance our case during Brexit were squandered. However, that’s in the past now. We are where we are and what is needed is a medium to long term strategy for the General Election ahead and to win more voters over to independence.
The siren voices urging we drop independence from our offering are really in the wrong party. Furthermore, they haven’t properly analysed what has happened, what has gone wrong and why we lost the by-election so badly. Independence was not at the heart of the SNP campaign in Rutherglen and Hamilton West so pushing independence can hardly be blamed for the result. Instead, the focus was on the cost-of-living crisis. Of course, this issue which is currently the main concern of most voters in Scotland should be front and centre, but we need to explain why independence is the only way we can take control of the areas we need to control to change the way our economy and society works and to make sure our message is not hampered by threatening those already hard pressed with tax hikes.
The by-election campaign was also hampered by a series of unpopular policies which have hit the buffers. For example, self-identification of sex and the deposit return scheme. The problem is not just that these policies are unpopular but that voters see public money being wasted on expensive mistakes at a time when we should be focused on tackling the cost-of-living crisis.
Analysts interviewed in this newspaper have identified that the low turnout was a key issue but that while Labour basically retained most of their past voters or got other voters to vote for them it was the SNP vote that plummeted. Many of those who had voted for us in the past stayed at home and did not vote at all. We need to give them a reason to vote for us again. We should not arrogantly assume we have a vote which must be got out. We don’t own “our voters” but there are former SNP voters who can be persuaded to vote for us again. Putting independence at the heart of our offering and refocusing our policy efforts away from identity politics and virtue signalling and onto the most pressing issues faced by voters is the path to wining back trust and confidence.
It would also help if the party were to look united and I want to do my bit to try to achieve this. So, I am pleased to be able to tell readers that I have had the benefit of extensive discussions this week with Humza Yousaf. We are both in agreement that to treat the next General Election as a de facto referendum would be unwise. The narrative of this election has already been defined as getting rid of the Tories. Really nothing we can do will alter that. Furthermore, the party is not going to be able to win 50% or more of the vote even including the votes of other pro-independence parties. The suggestion that this General Election should be a de facto referendum was a misstep by the previous leadership. We need to explicitly rule that out at this conference.
As a result of my discussions with Humza it has become clear to me that the strategy favoured by him and Stephen is a demand of the incoming UK government that if the SNP wins the election in Scotland (however so defined in the final resolution) on an independence platform, they must enter into negotiations into how to give that democratic effect. That could encompass immediate independence negotiations, or a referendum, or transferring the power to hold a referendum and other matters such as employment rights, etc, to Holyrood. The leadership will support Tommy’s Sheppard’s amendment which leaves open the possibility of treating the next Holyrood election as a de facto referendum.
I am very pleased to report that Humza will also support my amendment mandating that a constitutional convention should be set-up with MPs, MSPs and Civic Scotland to take forward our journey to statehood. I am minded not to call for a vote on an amendment which would replace the winning of the most seats with the winning of the majority of votes as the basis for the mandate we seek. In the circumstances I see no need to set a higher bar for us than other parties will set for themselves. I am content this is the right strategy for the situation in which we now find ourselves.
My friends at the SNP Trade Union Group who have given their support to my amendments will need to come to a collective decision on whether they can support me on this, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explain my position to some of their representatives. They will be coming together at conference to discuss matters. Their fringe event on Sunday is a must attend event discussing how the powers of independence can transform our economy and public services and ensure an environmentally sustainable future. This is an excellent illustration of the sort of issues that SNP members need to be debating to take our party and our cause forward.