Plans to include non-SNP campaigners on the party’s list of Westminster candidates are coming unstuck, writes George Kerevan
CHANGING the traditional ground rules of the political game is never easy. So it should come as no surprise that the SNP’s plan to include leading non-party Yes campaigners in its list of candidates for Westminster has already run into trouble.
Most folk, including non-SNP luminaries who have been approached to throw their hat into the ring, agree this is a sincere and indeed ecumenical offer from Nicola Sturgeon.
So what’s the problem? There are, of course, those – Scotsman journalist Lesley Riddoch for example – who feel that devoting five years of their lives to working in the misogynist bear pit that is the Palace of Westminster is definitely something they don’t want to do.
Who could blame them? Wanting to go to Westminster is one definition of insanity.
But even if an individual is prepared to do service in the sexist, schoolboy, raucous and (most of the time) powerless chamber of the House of Commons, they will have to stand under the banner of the Scottish National Party.
Therein lies most of the difficulty in making this project work. What is on offer is not a Yes Alliance of the parties and groups that fought side by side in the referendum campaign. Rather it is the SNP with bits added on. And an SNP that now dominates the Scottish political scene. That makes potential non-SNP candidates nervous.
As I write, the party’s membership has exceeded 90,000 and will encompass 2 per cent of the entire population before polling day on 7 May next year. The latest polls put the SNP at 46 per cent compared to Labour’s 24 per cent for the Westminster contest.
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This explains the diffidence being shown by prominent independent Yes campaigners to accepting the invitation to stand on an SNP ticket for Westminster. They are frightened of losing their political autonomy and their individual voices. Being marooned in the Palace of Westminster and routinely ignored by the BBC and London media is hardly a compensation.
The SNP leadership seem a bit surprised by this negative response. They thought they were responding to the undoubted popular wish for including independent Yes figures on the ballot. Indeed, they steamrolled through the necessary changes to the party’s constitution at the recent conference in Perth.
I understand that Nicola Sturgeon and the unflappable Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, have been busy on the phone trying to reassure potential independent Yes candidates they can identify themselves as non-members on the ballot paper. For example (and I’m using my own words here): “Joe Bloggs. Yes for Scotland candidate and Scottish National Party”.
But the SNP tag is more than a formality. Those signing up will have to agree to take the SNP whip at Westminster.
Therein lies the problem. One person I spoke to, while appreciating the significance of the offer, still felt slightly insulted. As they put it to me: “I’m an adult. If I’d wanted to join the SNP, by now I would have done so.”
Is there room for compromise that can rescue the project? Indeed there is.
The SNP leadership has to be more sensitive to the position of individuals who have taken a deliberate decision not to be in the party. Equally, potential non-SNP candidates are being a trifle naïve if they think the party’s formidable campaign machine and money will be put at their disposal without some guarantee of collaboration at Westminster.
The SNP rank-and-file in the constituencies are not starry-eyed. They won’t stand aside in seats they have campaigned in for decades without some assurance the non-SNP “name” will work with them.
It is important to keep open the option of a wider Yes representation on the 2015 ballot. Why? Because Labour wants to make this election an old-fashioned, sectarian fight between the SNP and themselves. They hope to portray the Nats as right-wing splitters more obsessed with the constitution than defeating the Tories.
Certainly, the Yes camp will lose traction if all it talks about is a second referendum – that 45 per cent vote in September was as much an anti-austerity protest as a constitutional one. A wider Yes campaign in the Westminster election offers a social alternative most Scottish voters will identify with.
Why not go the whole way and have a genuine Yes coalition, with SNP candidates making way for Greens, the SSP and independents in selected seats? The reality is, like it or lump it, such a full-blown Yes Alliance was never on the cards after 70,000 people opted to by-pass movement politics for direct SNP membership. Besides, divvying up the seats would be hard work. That would be fine if the negotiations had been completed 18 months ago, but there are no Yes, or even SNP, candidates in place as I write this. Meanwhile, frantic Labour sitting members are already out there knocking on doors.
Yet there is a way forward. Sustainable political collaboration on the basis of equality requires an agreed programme, even a minimal one. Without a basic set of demands everyone can sign up to, the SNP will feel vulnerable to being embarrassed by maverick independents, while non-party candidates will feel gagged and exploited for their name. Fortunately, there is already a lot of common ground: on opposing austerity, demanding Westminster delivers more powers (aka “the Vow”) and rejecting Trident. If Nicola Sturgeon got everyone round the table, a common programme could be thrashed out quickly – as it is, key independents have been caucusing already.
Outside of this basic programme, independents would retain their individual autonomy in Westminster votes.
A problem might crop up over a key element of SNP election strategy: assuring traditional Labour voters that the SNP is willing in principle to keep a minority Miliband administration in power – though in return for certain guarantees such as keeping “Son of Trident” out of Scotland.
This tack is necessary to stop voters being bamboozled into returning to Labour at the last minute to keep the Tories out.
Not signing up to this would be a deal-breaker, if only because Scottish Labour can’t be disloged without it.
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