SNP's transformative year: 'I think we acquitted ourselves well'

Nicola Sturgeon chairs Forum meeting

Kevin Pringle recalls the polling he carried out for the SNP in the winter of 2014, which first alerted him to the unprecedented breadth of potential support for the party in the coming year’s general election.

Pringle was then director of communications for a party that, despite losing the independence referendum of September 2014, was on a winning streak that would soon be described as unprecedented, including the immense popularity of its new leader Nicola Sturgeon, a surge in membership that made it the third largest party in the UK and the near wipe-out of Scottish Labour as it seized 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster in the general election in May.

Some commentators argue that the cracks are finally beginning to show in the SNP project, with a series of crises in public service funding and delivery, most recently the closure of the Forth Road Bridge for essential repair work causing transport chaos over the festive season.

The party is, nevertheless, heading into 2016 and next May’s Holyrood elections with a 30-point lead over Labour. It was the Scottish Conservatives who benefited from a minimal retrenchment in SNP support in the most recent polling by Ipsos Mori for STV news, and crucially, as it faces its third major campaign in as many years , the SNP’s activist base remains strong.

Pringle, who left the SNP after the general election to work in the private sector, unpicks the significance of last winter’s polling. “We tested things like whether having a greater number of SNP MPs would be better for Scotland’s interests and got overwhelming support for the idea,” he said. “The interesting thing was that of course yes voters [from the referendum] agreed, but about one third of those who voted no agreed too. And Nicola’s own personal ratings were very high amongst no as well as yes voters.”

There was logic to voting SNP on the back of a no vote, which the party went on to exploit mercilessly. “The no campaign made it all about Scotland getting a more powerful voice at Westminster,” Pringle said. “The terms on which the no campaign won the referendum created the circumstances in which SNP success at the next general election was possible.”

What was needed in spring 2015 was hard work, and the party was not short of foot soldiers. Many of those energised by the referendum campaign turned to the SNP, and the messy, contradictory energy of the yes movement was harnessed by its laser-guided election machine.

This was evident at the SNP’s spring conference in March, held in Glasgow’s exhibition and conference centre to accommodate its vastly expanded membership, which had hit 100,000. Party activists had also completed their millionth election canvass the previous weekend, and the atmosphere was giddily energetic.

By April, the buzz had spread across the country, with adoring crowds gathering to catch a glimpse of selfie queen Sturgeon, who also wowed audiences south of the border with her stellar performances in the televised leaders’ debates, before taking to the skies in the final days of the campaign in a Stronger for Scotland helicopter.

On election day itself, Pringle received a text from a former colleague who had always been supremely hostile to the SNP. It read: “It’s official, hell has frozen over.”

“People who were way beyond the reach of the SNP were now voting for them for the first time,” he said. “It was a change that had been under way for some years. It was about the good things that the SNP had done, but also the course that Labour had taken and its roots went back to the 1990s. What the referendum did was accelerate that process.”

The election of 56 SNP MPs has been “utterly transformational”, according to the party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, not least in terms of the practicalities of becoming the third largest party in the Commons. The SNP spokesperson is called earlier in the chamber and can make a longer contribution than before, there are SNP MPs on every select committee, including two chairs, and others signed up to a panoply of all-party parliamentary groups.

It is true that its suits no one better than the Tories to describe the SNP as “the real opposition”, and the party benefited hugely from having two others on the opposition benches either leaderless or consumed by in-fighting. It is hard, however, to dismiss its end of parliamentary term report as SNP spin. It was instrumental in Tory climbdowns on human rights, the date of the EU referendum, and foxhunting, it showed a unity of purpose that Labour lacked over austerity and Syria, and it used its particular version of a strong Scottish voice over English votes for English laws and the Scotland bill.

According to Mhairi Black, whose barnstorming maiden speech in the Commons became a viral hit, the SNP group has three distinguishing features. Speaking to the Guardian just after her speech in July, she said: “We’re all very close and we’re all looking out for each other, making sure no one falls through the cracks. Second, there’s the level of intelligence, different life experience and points of view. Lastly, we’re just really tight. There’s a lot of honesty in the group. Nobody feels they can’t be frank and open. When we finally do reach a decision, we’ve poked all the holes in it before the opposition can, so we end up producing something of very high quality.”

Her colleague Stephen Gethins, a foreign affairs select committee member who spoke eloquently against Syrian airstrikes, also said that unity had been sustained. “At the end of the year we’re all still learning as a team, but I think we’ve acquitted ourselves well. We’ve shown a united front on Syria and on austerity and been effective as a team.” Members from other parties “are still figuring us out”, he laughs.

That said, autumn also saw two of the SNP’s new cohort resign the whip following the exposure of financial scandals. In September, Michelle Thomson was associated with possible mortgage fraud, and Natalie McGarry was linked in November to an allegation that tens of thousands of pounds in donations may be missing from the prominent pro-independence campaign group she helped to set up. Both women deny involvement and Police Scotland investigations are ongoing.

These cases have a personal impact on SNP MPs, Gethins said. “If you’re a Tory MP, of course you dont know your whole group, but I know every SNP MP personally. We all know each other, we all quite like each other, so when someone is going through a difficult time you wouldn’t be human not to feel for them.”

As the TV screens at SNP HQ display a festive montage of images from what its business convenor Derek Mackay MSP describes as a phenomenal year, the party leadership will have Sturgeon’s cautions against complacency ringing in their ears like Christmas bells.

According to senior party sources, the prospect of winning a Holyrood mandate in her own name is of critical importance to her. At November’s party conference in Aberdeen, she signalled a significant change of tone, pulling focus back to the Scottish parliament. She also insisted that there would be no second referendum on Scottish independence in the SNP’s manifesto for next May’s election, nor should there be one until there was “strong and consistent evidence” of a change in public opinion.

Sturgeon is challenging opponents to fight her party on its record in government, evidence of a strong desire to counter the “lazy narrative” that some party insiders fear does not chime with public experience - that the gloss has dimmed and public services, particularly schools, hospitals and policing, are getting worse under the SNP.

Sturgeon’s imprint just over a year into her leadership can clearly be seen in next May’s candidates. Of those standing for the first time, 68% of constituency and 52% of list candidates are women.

One of them is Jeane Freeman, previously a special adviser to the Labour’s former first minister Jack McConnell. She was selected to be the SNP candidate in the South Ayrshire constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

Freeman describes the mood in the party at the end of this annus mirabilis as “buoyant but very realistic”. She said: “The party is now a mix of folk who have been through very hard years, when they were almost literally laughed off the streets, and people who joined in the spirit of optimism and hope after the referendum. One of the party’s great strengths is its capacity to learn from what’s gone before.”

She recalls a recent walk through the town of Girvan with a local SNP councillor, who knew everybody they passed, their families and their jobs, regardless of whether they had voted for him or not.

“The 2016 campaign will be about aspiration and radical thinking, also about our competence and ability in government, but you still need to be able to walk down that high street and know everybody on it. You need to keep on being good at that.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Libby Brooks, for theguardian.com on Sunday 27th December 2015 17.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010