Kate Higgins: SNP memberships a gift and a curse

SNP leader-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon must now manage the needs of 50,000 new members. Picture: Jane Barlow
SNP leader-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon must now manage the needs of 50,000 new members. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The SNP’s explosion in membership leaves the new party hierarchy with some tough decisions to make, writes Kate Higgins

By the time you read this, I will have been to my first SNP branch meeting in ten years. Some local party stalwarts will have retired, their contribution over many years warmly thanked and appreciated; two interesting resolutions submitted for party conference in November will have been debated; the process for selecting a UK election candidate will have begun; and no doubt, we will have spent far too much time resolving the vexing issue of where to safely store the A-boards until the next election.

All around Scotland, SNP constituency associations and branches are getting back to business as usual after the referendum. Only it is not business as usual, for the party as it was, is effectively no more. The party is dead, long live the party.

While Nicola Sturgeon looks likely – rightly – to become unopposed the SNP’s next leader and Scotland’s first female First Minister, an interesting contest of ideas is developing between the contenders for deputy leader.

Keith Brown MSP, minister for transport and veterans, talks of the need to decentralise decision-making, enabling a greater role for the grassroots in, for example, developing party policy.

He suggests internal reform to establish regional policy-making forums. Stewart Hosie MP, UK Treasury spokesman, however, thinks the internal party structures are fine as they are and that the focus should be on the Westminster election in 2015. There is support for both views across the party.

Everyone is struggling to comprehend the change in the party’s circumstances. On the day of the independence referendum, 18 September, membership of the SNP stood at a respectable 25,000 or so. By 30 September – just 12 days on – it had risen to 72,248. That’s more than the population of Inverness and just shy of Paisley’s.

The SNP must come to terms quickly with this near trebling in membership. Everyone must recognise that the times they are a’changing – or some might well find themselves swept out the door by the tidal wave of shiny new enthusiasm and energy. And also swept out of local power bases, and even elected office.

Command and control has operated for decades at all levels of the SNP. Partly that’s been down to a lack of willing volunteers – folk like me who have made a virtue out of avoiding branch meetings – but some have actively discouraged participation, preferring instead to have a benighted few make all the decisions on behalf of a silent and passive membership. Suspicion of outsiders has played a role, but so too has the “big fish, wee pond” culture which operates in many organisations.

So, there are adjustments to be made. And folk might want to make them before exuberant and enthusiastic Yessers start turning up in their droves to meetings, asserting their right to have a say in everything from the minutiae of storing A boards and where to hold the annual Burns supper, to the much more important decision-making on short-listing candidates, who to send to party conference as delegates and where and how to focus campaigning activity.

The influx is also going to require and result in a change in culture. The SNP has always been a very different beast from Labour. People joined the SNP because of a belief in and commitment to Scotland’s independence.

Often, adherence to cause and party has trumped other activities, unlike in Labour, when people have perhaps become party members because of involvement in other causes and activities, such as trade unions, tenant associations and community councils. SNP members have often been supporters first, then members and eventually, some also became activists. All that has been turned on its head.

Many of the SNP’s 50,000 new members have joined because they have tasted activism and are hungry for more. They arrive having thrown themselves into campaigning in the past year or so, often for the first time ever, and they show no sign of returning to their sofas anytime soon nor of tiring of taking to the streets.

As Keith Brown suggests, ways need to be found to harness this energy and give it direction. Structures need to be reformed and power shared to enable the successful assimilation of new members.

Failure to assimilate could create ghettoes – factions even – and risks organisational disarray. The worst possible outcome would be for a party in rude electoral health to end up mired in internecine battles over the next few years, causing all that has been gained to slip away.

Yet that is unlikely, for the SNP has learned – much more so than Labour – that the way to survive, and indeed thrive, is to adapt.

The SNP has been unafraid to modernise, reforming its internal structures much more readily than Labour: one member, one vote was adopted in the early 2000s; incredibly, Scottish Labour is only now considering such an electoral innovation.

The SNP revised its local party infrastructure to match Holyrood constituencies years ahead of Labour doing so. Party rules might currently require 13 months of membership before getting to vote on parliamentary candidates, but those rules were changed in 2011 to suit particular circumstances – and can be changed again. “Headquarters” just need a moment to realise why refusing a majority of members a say in choosing candidates might not be a good idea.

These are all challenges that can be overcome, while the rapid growth in membership should be recognised as the opportunity it undoubtedly is. The SNP has managed to accumulate the ultimate war chest: no party knows better the value and worth of people power, and how to motivate and mobilise it.

Adapting to the new reality of its mass appeal requires a shift in approach by the existing rank and file and elected representatives. But so long as the new members are welcomed into the fold rather than stubbornly resisted, then the SNP’s electoral strength can only grow.

Assimilation needs to be thought out, planned and above all, meaningful – but working out how to do that, as Nicola Sturgeon herself said, is a problem most definitely worth having.

• Kate Higgins is a political blogger. www.burdzeyeview.wordpress.com Columnist George Kerevan is on holiday