George Kerevan reports from the SNP conference, registering an historic breakthrough for opponents of the party leadership.
The SNP’s (virtual) national conference 2020 ended in a surprise breakthrough for the party’s left-wing Common Weal Group (CWG), in internal elections. The CWG is a grassroots network inside the SNP focused on winning the party to radical policies, including rent controls and implementing a new currency immediately after independence. The CWG slate even managed to deprive MP Alyn Smith of his post as head of the SNP’s Policy Development Committee, a perch he had used to sanitise the conference’s agenda of all branch motions with any chance of embarrassing the party leadership.
Smith’s removal as a senior office bearer – along with the right to attend the SNP National Executive – by grassroots action is a stunning rebuke to the leadership. He lost by a margin of 974 votes to 803, indicating a serious groundswell of opposition to what is seen inside the party as a timid willingness of the hierarchy to rely on Boris Johnson sanctioning a second referendum.
Other advances by the left or by oppositionists included the election of Douglas Chapman MP as Treasurer – a move which will cause problems for SNP Chief Executive (and husband of Nicola Sturgeon) Peter Murrell, whose salary is an official secret. Joining new convenor Chris Hanlon on the Policy Development Committee is Dr Tim Rideout, who has spearheaded opposition to the pro-market Growth Report and Sterlingisation. MP Joanna Cherry, a noted critic of the leadership line, was elected to the National Executive as was Amanda Burgauer, a leading CWG activist.
The Member Conduct Committee, which sets and vets membership conduct, now includes Neale Hanvey MP, who won his Kirkaldy seat despite being suspended by Nicola Sturgeon for alleged antisemitism. The Conference Committee, which controls conference organisation and agenda, now includes Rory Steel, another leading CWG activist.
Altogether, the CWG slate won 44% of National Committee ordinary places, 45% of the Policy Development Committee places, and 50% of the Membership Conduct Committee. This represents a significant defeat for the leadership though it is fair to say the party hierarchy have been taken unaware. This internal election is the first since the 1990s, and certainly the first since the SNP membership grew exponentially after the 2014 referendum, in which there has been an organised opposition. We can expect next year’s internal elections (post the Holyrood poll) to be a different matter.
The left’s victory came despite Alyn Smith, who had run a public campaign of vilification against the CWG. Smith had accused CWG of splitting “his” party and being a Trojan horse for non-party elements – by which he meant Robin McAlpine and the entirely separate Common Weal radical think tank, which is independent of the SNP.
PLAN A VERSUS PLAN B
Smyth is an arch proponent of the leadership’s so-called Plan A, which focuses on gaining a majority at next year’s Holyrood elections then relying on public opinion and parliamentary manoeuvring to force the Tory Government at Westminster to grant a second independence referendum. FM Nicola Sturgeon, chief advisors such as Angus Robertson and Andrew Wilson, and Smith himself are opposed to giving any credence to, or even discussing, any Plan B.
Party dissidents, including MPs such as Joanna Cherry, Angus MacNeil and Kenny MacAskill are demanding the preparation of an alternative strategy, should the Tories reject granting a Section 30 Order legitimising a fresh referendum. This could include mounting a legal action to try and prove the Scottish Government does not need Westminster sanction to call another referendum (though obviously, if this is successful, Westminster could simply pass new legislation).
Many movement activists (a lot of whom are outside the SNP) are not prepared to rely on parliamentary manoeuvres to win independence. There is a lot of discussion within the movement of mass action, civil disobedience and holding a referendum without Westminster approval. Movement activists are aware that, at the very least, it is necessary to keep pressure on the SNP leadership. Recent weeks have seen the creation of YesAlba, a new, autonomous membership organisation pledged to winning independence, along the lines of the Catalan ANC.
The SNP leadership managed to keep discussion of Plan B off the official conference agenda, but some delegates used the tactic of opposing an anodyne motion on independence to raise the issue anyway. Also, many members tuned into an Alternative Conference on zoom organised by Tim Rideout, to discuss many of the branch motions that Smith and the leadership loyalists had kept off the official agenda.
However, despite gains for the left, the tightly managed online conference confirmed much of the SNP leadership’s core strategy. First, the leadership mounted a propaganda offensive in the media and membership in favour of its parliamentary Plan A approach. Next, in its crusade to appease middle class voters, Sturgeon and Co. continued to punt the pro-market, fiscally conservative Growth Comission (GC) report platform. The fact that the GC plan to reduce the budget deficit as a political priority (don’t for God’s sake mention “austerity”) has been blown to smithereens by the pandemic does not seem to have made any difference.
Keith Brown – ostensibly the party’s deputy leader but actually the guy sent off with a sad look on his face to placate an angry membership – spoke to the pre-conference SNP Trade Union AGM. There he defended Sterlingisation – the establishment of a new state without its own currency and therefore without a host of vital economic powers – “as it is party policy now”.
There are also worrying signs that the right of the party – Alyn Smith and hawkish defence panjandrum Stewart McDonald – are moving SNP policy in a Cold War-re-enactment direction. Noticeably absent from the conference agenda were motions from SNP CND, the party trade union group, and several branches calling on the Scottish Government post-independence to adhere to the new UN Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Coincidentally (?) Smith and McDonald have submitted a paper to the Tory Government’s latest defence and foreign affairs review, calling for a “multilateral” approach to nuclear disarmament.
Multilateralism is code for the West to keep its nukes as long as everyone else has them. The concept has traditionally been ridiculed in the SNP (it is well-known as a tactic to avoid any serious discussion of disarmament). Allied to the removal of motions on the UN Treaty, this has caused a major internal row. Adherence to the UN Treaty raises legal difficulties for an SNP Government because it would have to stop Nato partners bring nukes into Scotland on their P-8 maritime bombers (which operate from Lossiemouth) or on visiting ships.
Sturgeon won back a degree of control with her end-of-conference speech. This offered a £500 bonus to NHS and care workers. There was also a £100 ex-gratia payment to poor families and an earlier announcement at the start of conference that free school meals would be extended to all primary pupils if the SNP wins in May. These commitments will certainly position the party favourably vis-a-via the Tory Neanderthals. But this is hardly muscular social democracy in action. After all, the SNP is in government and could introduce free school meals tomorrow.
Where the conference was truly lacking was in the economic debate. Yes, there was a call for the Scottish Government to consider a 4-day week. But there was no topical motion demanding the immediate nationalisation of Bifab. Some Highland councillors popped up to support the Tory plan for de-regulated Freeports, which should have been slapped down immediately. The economy motion trumpeted the creation of a Scottish Space Agency but failed to mention the first user of the Shetland Space Port is likely to be Lockheed Martin, the big US defence contractor, launching mini spy satellites for the US Navy.
WHERE NEXT FOR SNP LEADERSHIP?
The party internal elections will have indicated to the SNP leadership that there are limits to how far it can take the membership for granted. However, Nicola Sturgeon and her close allies are very adept at shifting ground tactically, to preserve their influence. As a result, we can expect a lot of leftish talk in the next few weeks. Besides, the SNP lead in the polls and the emergence of a popular majority for independence (representing a shift by middle class, pro-EU voters) has only strengthened Sturgeon’s position among party centrists.
In order to placate the membership, the SNP leadership has offered to hold a number of National Assemblies (internal regional aggregates) early next year, to discuss strategy and manifesto policies for the May Holyrood elections. However, previous National Assemblies heavily criticised the infamous GC to no effect. Certainly, the changed composition of the National Executive and Policy Development Committee might influence how these Assemblies are conducted. But few can hold out any hope the 2021 Holyrood manifesto will ban grouse shooting, impose rent controls, ban all evictions, or nationalise Bifab.
We can also expect the party’s internal civil war centred on trans rights to take on fresh impetus. This is a toxic issue which crosses political lines. Then there is the open question of whether the incoming National Executive will prove any more functional than the outgoing one. There is a new National Secretary, party veteran Stewart Stevenson. He is an old comrade and friend of Alex Salmond. But it remains to be seen which way Stevenson will lean in the legal quagmire that has emerged between the Salmondites and the party leadership.
The vote for party president was won by leadership-loyalist Mike Russel with 1061 first preference votes. But journalist and blogger Craig Murray – who is under indictment for alleged contempt of court for his reporting of the Alex Salmond trial – got a not negligible 421 votes. That suggests a significant part of the active SNP membership supports Salmond come what may. Add the 239 votes for the presidency that went to left-of-centre Corri Wilson and the SNP leadership has a permanent problem.
For the moment, the initiative lies with the CWG which has planted a flag for the left inside the SNP – the first such organised current since the 79 Group 40 years ago. But the CWG slate was a mixed bunch. Those saying they supported the CWG manifesto were quite disparate in their politics. The CWG also promoted some candidates associated with opposing the Gender Recognition Act. This is a focus of criticism from others on the left, and certainly a rallying point for leadership supporters to attack the CWG.
It is important the new left forces in the party consolidate their important but still vulnerable ideological bridgehead inside the SNP. They need to make common cause with AUOB/Yes Alba and the wider mass movement. They need to recruit more members inside the SNP and put out a steady stream of articles and position papers for the branches. CWG needs to coordinate its work in the party and prepare for the coming National Assemblies. An organised left has been reborn inside the SNP. But the big battles are still to come.
Image: Scottish Government