Kenny MacAskill: Continual battle mode for indyref2 was mistake

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The SNP remain the biggest party in Scotland but Nicola Sturgeon must make changes in policy and organisation, warns Kenny MacAskill.

All parties, both sides of the Border, are now analysing the election with strengths and weaknesses for all. The First Minister has already said she’ll take time to reflect for the SNP. In that she’s wise, though she does need to act thereafter.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will take time to reflect for the SNP post-election.  Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will take time to reflect for the SNP post-election. Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Her party did win the election in both seats and votes. However, going from 56 to 35 seats, even with only a small reduction in poll share, looked and felt like a defeat.

The result still needs to be kept in perspective. It’s a considerable blow, especially with the loss of such senior and talismanic figures as Angus Roberston and Alex Salmond, but it’s still a higher base than they had ever had before 2015.

Moreover, whilst other parties might jeer, they would still rather be where the SNP are, than where they stand. In politics as in sport, it’s winning that counts. Glorious defeat and near misses don’t really register with the electorate.

So there’s no need for panic but there does require to be change. The SNP has come a long way in a very short space of time, forming a government only in 2007 and achieving a referendum on independence just seven years later.

That, though, was lost and cannot simply be wished away, even by those like me who have strived throughout our lives for it. Many had presumed that defeat in 2014 would lead to the demise of the SNP. However, whether through the strength of the campaign, the closeness of the result or the action of the victors, the outcome was far from that. Instead it saw the party morph in membership and sweep almost all before it at the subsequent general election.

Ironically, they are now paying a price for that success. Much new blood came in, which is always badly needed by any party but many did so only on the basis of the referendum. They wanted a re-run of it as soon as possible. But, that cannot be. The groundwork needs to be laid before a further attempt can be made, and that hasn’t been done.

However, rather than damping down expectations, the party leadership played to the gallery. A new SNP was taking off and things could only get better. For sure, huge crowds gathered to hear the gospel but it was preaching to the converted. Meanwhile the work to prepare arguments on currency or pensions remained invisible.

Outside in the wider world there was a reluctance to have another referendum amongst some, and open hostility from others. The Brexit vote compounded matters splitting the Yes movement and even dividing SNP support. Yet, the party pressed on regardless.

The continual battle mode for indyref2 has been a strategic mistake. The First Minister was right to put the issue back on the table after the Brexit vote but wrong to push for an early vote when neither the mood was there nor the groundwork laid. It opened up the party to attack, and their opponents seized upon it.

Moreover, all parties are right to maximise the impact of their star performers and Nicola Sturgeon most certainly is that. However, it is as if they began to believe the hype coming from the converted, as rallies took place around the country, rather than engaging with a wider electorate. Some seemed to believe that all that was needed was one more heave and victory could be achieved. The party now needs to realise that it’s not will-power or passion that’s needed, but a credible platform both for government and independence.

The last referendum on independence was also a rubicon for the party. Alex Salmond had to stand down and Nicola Sturgeon was and remains the correct person to lead it. As new leader she was right to make changes. She’s entitled to her own team around her and her own emphasis on policy direction.

She was also correct in her drive to make the party more favourable to women. The gender gap has plagued both SNP and independence. In addition, many socially liberal policies that have been implemented are long overdue in Scotland. However, that party has to continue speaking to all of Scotland, and that includes both housing schemes and the business community. With both, there seems to have been a failure that now needs addressed.

After all, the biggest loss of votes was the stay-at-homes, not another party. Many were from poor and marginalised areas who had been motivated by the hope and vision in the referendum but have grown apathetic since then. The Corbyn surge needs to be a lesson that engaging with and enthusing that section of the electorate is needed.

That doesn’t need to mean a lurch to the left, though radicalism wouldn’t go amiss. It does though require a bolder policy platform in Holyrood, than the managerial oversight offered to date. Similarly, the result in the former north-east citadel cannot all be put down to fisherman and farmers post-Brexit. The economic situation not just in oil and gas needs addressed, and engagement with the business community increased.

Organisationally the party needs to learn from past successes. In days gone by when the SNP vote was a fraction of what it is now, a strategy was established that ensured every possible vote could be got out. Much of that has been lost and replaced simply by numbers of activists in the final days of a campaign. As some results show, getting every vote out still matters. Likewise social media has a role but SNP activity should be on the doors with the electorate not just in cyberspace with like-minded individuals.

So Nicola Sturgeon needn’t panic, but she has to make changes in policy and organisation.