As party conference debates go, it was a gentle rebuke to the leadership rather than an activist uprising. But resolution 13, overwhelmingly passed by SNP members at conference on Monday afternoon, may denote a subtle shift in the party’s centre of gravity.
The resolution called for the appointment of paid regional organisers to harness the energy of the SNP’s vastly expanded activist base – hardly controversial stuff for a party that enjoyed a spectacular surge in membership after the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, rising to a tally of 120,000.
But for an organisation that has made a virtue out of not washing its dirty linen in public, the gentle wording of the resolution – which noted that “participation rates could be improved in terms of attendance at meetings and active campaigning, [thus improving] electoral results” – signals a deeper unease about how the SNP is struggling to make the leap from a small party used to highly centralised campaigning and policymaking to a mass movement.
With support falling in the last Holyrood and UK elections, it would be surprising if the 4,000-plus activists attending the conference in Glasgow were not feeling a little deflated. And although the resurrection of the Scottish Tories was the story of the general election, here there was far more concern about the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn, with some privately admitting they would vote for his version of Labour if they lived in England.
As one former aide warned, the SNP is trying to ride two or three different horses and not doing any of it successfully. “The Tories are the party of Brexit, Corbyn’s Labour party is now the party of the left, but I’m not quite sure what we’re for now,” the former aide said.
The comparisons between Labour under Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP are striking: the rapturous welcome given to Corbyn in Brighton was reminiscent of the foam finger-waving SNP rallies that immediately followed the 2014 referendum. But with Sturgeon’s approval ratings significantly reduced since their peak in May 2015, when the Scottish first minister performed well in general election debates and was mobbed for selfies wherever she went, it is notable how minimal her presence is at this conference, with only one speech, on Tuesday, at the end of proceedings. Far less of the SNP branding uses her image.
If there is less of the giddy triumphalism of previous gatherings, it could be partly a consequence of burnout. The newly elected Borders councillor Heather Anderson said: “We’ve been in battle mode constantly for the past four years and activists are exhausted. People are now feeling pretty serious and earnest. There’s a settling down and a refocusing on the need to get on with the day job.”
Certainly the word “progress” – alongside lists of the SNP government’s achievements – is emblazoned throughout the conference centre. (As one wag observed, Sturgeon will be hoping the first two letters as well as the last two do not fall off during her speech.)
Moira Shemilt, another new councillor, for West Lothian, reported a lot of energetic discussion on the fringes about Brexit, and inevitably its implications for a second independence referendum. While there is no official time given over to debating the topic, asking SNP activists not to talk about another indyref is like asking a dog not to bark.
“You can see that people are really thinking what Brexit is going to mean for us, and that we have to ca’ canny [translation: act shrewdly],” said Shemilt. “At the same time, Yes West Lothian is gearing up because if there is a referendum then we want to be ready.
“So there is a straining at the leash but also acknowledging the current political complexity and uncertainty, chiefly caused by the insanity that is Brexit. The mood is much more circumspect than in 2014. There’s a desire to understand where the overwhelming belief in independence and its route to something better fits within this shifting political context.”
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