Andrew Whitaker: Can SNP surge withstand failure?

The notion that Tony Blair was the man to oust the Tories was reflected in Labour's membership figures. Picture: Getty
The notion that Tony Blair was the man to oust the Tories was reflected in Labour's membership figures. Picture: Getty
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THE surge in SNP membership by 55,000 to 80,000 in the aftermath of the No vote appears to represent the biggest growth in the rank and file of a party since Tony Blair’s New Labour experienced a massive influx of new members in the mid-1990s.

It’s now more than 20 years since New Labour, for a time, appeared to be reversing the decades-long trend of shrinking party memberships.

To understand what’s actually going on with the SNP, it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two membership surges.

At the height of his powers in the mid-1990s, when he was in all but name prime minister-designate, Blair described New Labour as “a new political party” not just in terms of the shift away from Old Labour-style policies, but in terms of the influx of new members.

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In the early days of his leadership, Blair was viewed by some as a John F Kennedy-type figure, who epitomised a desire for change.

After nearly two decades of Conservative rule, the bulk of the UK electorate was desperate to see the back of the Conservatives. The elevation of Blair to party leader in 1994 and the notion that he was the man to oust the Tories was reflected in Labour’s membership figures, which surged to about half a million in the lead-up to the 1997 election.

Inevitably, a large chunk of the new membership withered away, perhaps due to Blair’s controversial backing for the Iraq war and the drift towards neo-liberalism.

But for a while it appeared that New Labour was a modern mass membership party, which was not necessarily the most active, but which provided a network of support on which to call for election time campaigning and from which to ask for financial support.

The surge in SNP membership, by contrast, appears to have taken place against the backdrop of a bigger than expected defeat for the Yes campaign – effectively led by the party.

For all that, there are some striking similarities between the respective growths in party memberships, albeit it in totally different political circumstances. The growth of Labour in the mid-1990s and the SNP’s post-referendum membership boost saw people largely unknown to the existing party cadres joining up on the basis of wanting to be part of something
bigger.

The SNP’s new recruits appear to be motivated by a desire to secure a second referendum as soon as possible, with a view that just one more push is needed.

Whether the 55,000 new members will stay in the SNP if that vision fails to take shape remains to be seen..