David Torrance: No room for debate at SNP conference

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Jane Barlow
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FOR the past decade or so the SNP’s annual gatherings have been among the most carefully choreographed of the autumn conference season.

As the party became more professional under the leadership of Alex Salmond, it was well aware that the sight of activists squabbling in Ayr or Perth didn’t exactly increase its electability.

Only political movements that aren’t serious about winning elections have the luxury of allowing members to set policy, so instead the SNP’s annual conference became about showcasing a government in waiting and, since 2007, the government itself.

The SNP is now very good at this, and this week’s meeting of the party faithful in Aberdeen will be no exception. But of course, even the slickest parties can’t plan for everything, for example the ongoing story involving one of its MPs, Michelle Thomson.

Now there’s no sense that this represents a conference-wrecking problem, although it will be an unwelcome distraction. The sight of the SNP having to remove images of Thomson from her Edinburgh constituency office and withdraw “the 56” merchandise from sale is also embarrassing.

In other respects, the SNP has swiftly – and, it has to be said, ruthlessly – moved to neutralise the Thomson issue ahead of conference. A “source close to the First Minister” briefed one newspaper that even if Thomson was cleared of any wrongdoing she wouldn’t be allowed back into the party. For them, it’s clearly about damage limitation.

Beyond that difficulty, however, the conference presents other challenges for Nicola Sturgeon as leader, chiefly the gap between the party leadership and grassroots activists (many of whom have only recently joined) on issues like fracking and the tactics surrounding a second independence referendum.

Although the SNP was quick to criticise Labour for not having a debate about Trident in Brighton, its own conference agenda was characteristically bland and contrived to avoid rows, thus no debate – desired by some members – about a second plebiscite. The First Minister has done her best to close that down before the party meets in Aberdeen.

Likewise with fracking, an extremely difficult issue for the SNP which will have to be resolved eventually, although the recent extension of a moratorium until 2017 can also be seen in the context of the Aberdeen conference: that announcement will have contained what might have ended up being a fractious debate between pro- and anti-fracking delegates.

Only twice since 1999 has the SNP conference actually risked having a debate about a major policy change. The first, also in Aberdeen shortly before the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, was to get party assent for the “Penny for Scotland” pledge, while the second was a charged debate about membership of Nato a few years ago.

Instead, as party leader, Salmond liked to use the party conferences (another traditionally takes place in the spring) as launch pads for a new policy announcement or strategic change. This made sense as such gatherings get guaranteed media coverage, particularly on television, and the SNP excels at what political wonks call the “optics” of such things.

The First Minister has spoken of this conference being the “launch pad” for the SNP’s Holyrood campaign, an election she says the party intends “to win, and win with an outright majority”, although there’s the usual Sturgeon caveat about taking “absolutely nothing for granted”. That, as the Thomson story demonstrates, is a wise strategy.

The SNP leader also reiterated that she will be “very proud” to stand on her Government’s record next May, an indication that she intends to come out fighting amid increasing criticism of the party’s record on issues like education and health.

This week’s conference will not be allowed to distract from that aim, for whatever the internal murmurings about strategy and energy policy, Aberdeen will be yet another opportunity to remind voters that the SNP remains the most disciplined political party operating in the UK.