Nicola Sturgeon is to make a direct appeal to Scottish voters who blocked independence in last year’s referendum in a bid to secure a record third term in power for the Scottish National party in 2016.
Opening the SNP’s biggest ever party conference in Aberdeen on Thursday, Sturgeon will tell delegates: “For those who want Scotland to be independent, there is only one vote next year that makes sense – and that is a vote for the SNP. But I don’t just want to win the votes of independence supporters.
“I want to inspire people who voted no last year to vote SNP too. I want them to vote SNP because they know we are the best party, with the best ideas and the best people to lead Scotland forward.”
Describing the growth of the SNP – which has more than quadrupled in membership since the referendum in September 2014 – as extraordinary, she will insist: “Everyone, from the strongest supporter of independence to the stoutest advocate of the union, has the right to know that we will continue to govern well with the powers we have at any given time.”
However, in what will be seen as a coded warning to supporters to leave chatter about a second referendum at the doors of the conference hall, she will add: “There will, understandably, be significant interest in what our manifesto will say about independence. But let me make this clear: what matters just as much to me and to people across the country will be what it says about jobs and the economy, the safety of our communities, our hospitals and health centres, our schools, colleges and universities and our plans to use new powers to tackle poverty and inequality.”
Sturgeon’s remarks will set the tone for a significant shift in focus over the next three days. Despite the SNP’s unprecedented success in May’s Westminster election, its leader is well aware that the party’s own record after nine years in government is still to be tested.
According to senior party sources, the prospect of winning a Holyrood mandate in her own name is of critical importance to Sturgeon.
This deliberate pulling back of party focus to the Scottish parliament is also a practical acknowledgement of the demands of a third gruelling and expensive campaign in as many years.
It is probably also a nod to the resentment felt by some in the Holyrood cohort at the attention lavished on the 56 SNP MPs since their election (now 55 since the resignation of the Edinburgh West MP, Michelle Thomson, after she was linked to a police investigation into mortgage fraud).
But most importantly this conference is an opportunity to counter the “lazy narrative” that some party insiders fear is chiming with public experience: that the wheels are coming off, and that public services – in particular schools, hospitals and policing – are only getting worse under an SNP government.
With the party at 56% in the latest TNS constituency polling, 35 points ahead of Scottish Labour, the likelihood of the SNP sweeping the board in a parliament designed specifically never to produce a majority remains high.
But this is a party that has never knowingly rested on its laurels, and the SNP business convener, Derek Mackay, insisted that the coming days “will focus on our record unashamedly”.
“The polls show that people trust us in government and Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity and strength as first minister showcases that.”
Pointing to a run of strong byelection results – the SNP has only lost one since the general election – and a membership of 120,000 and rising, as well as activists crucially renewing their subs after last autumn’s post-referendum surge, Mackay cautions: “If anyone thinks we have lost momentum, then just wait until they see this conference. The party remains buoyant despite a few recent controversies and absolutely focused on 2016.”
Those controversies include ongoing concerns about Thomson’s property dealings – although the parliamentary commissioner for standards announced on Tuesday that she will not be further investigating the former SNP business spokesperson. But there have also been more localised rumbles about limited scope for self-scrutiny in the conference agenda. Of the 29 resolutions currently tabled, more than half are put by sitting MPs or MSPs rather than local branches and only two appear to include potential for any genuine policy change. It remains to be seen whether having triple the previous tally of fringe events will deepen the debate.
The only fringe event to directly address the question of the timing of a second referendum was cancelled by the Law Society of Scotland this week, citing concerns that its impartiality could be called into question. The Law Society has been criticised for its handling of the investigation into Thomson’s former solicitor.
Sturgeon’s imprint a year into her leadership can most clearly be seen among the candidates for the Scottish parliament. Over 40% of those standing in next May’s election are women and, notably, 68% are first-time candidates.
And in the latest overture to the trade union movement – a sector largely ignored by Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond – the general secretary of the Scottish TUC, Grahame Smith, has been invited to speak during the debate on the UK government’s trade union bill, the first time a representative of the STUC has addressed the SNP conference in the party’s 81-year history.
Gillian Martin, an activist with Women for Independence who was chosen from an all-female shortlist to stand in Salmond’s former Holyrood constituency of Aberdeenshire East, believes that the focus of the conference will surprise observers. “There’s an expectation that we’ll be going on about a second referendum, but we will be talking about being in government. It might not be the most headline-grabbing and won’t be done quickly, about taking a long-term approach to changing Scottish society.”
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