Analysis: What the SNP's NEC results mean for Nicola Sturgeon

The currents coursing through the SNP are worth paying attention to as the party sits on the precipice of another five years in power.

The national executive committee (NEC) – the heart of the internal war – controls in broad terms the SNP’s national political strategy and oversees the organisation and administration of the party.

This means any change to its composition is important, but not necessarily fatal, to a leader battling internal disagreements and does not inherently lead to changes in policy.

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Andrew MIlligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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The results are, however, a manifestation of the online debates and dissatisfaction around a plan B for independence and on the Gender Recognition Act.

High-profile positions including the women’s and equalities convener roles, have gone to critics of the GRA reforms proposed by the leadership, with the NEC also now home to Nicola Sturgeon’s loudest internal critic in Joanna Cherry.

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The influence of the Common Weal Group, which recommended a slate of candidates including Ms Cherry and controversial MP Neale Hanvey, now a member of the conduct committee despite being suspended for anti-Semitic social media posts, is also clear with 11 endorsed candidates elected onto the 42-seat board.

Labelled a “faction” – the banning of which famously led to former leader Alex Salmond leaving the party in 1979 – by opponents, it is part of what one former parliamentarian described as the “dissatisfied left” and those who “want independence yesterday”.

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It is, however, also dominated by a thread of small C conservatism, reflected in their general opposition to the GRA reforms.

You would forgiven for thinking, therefore, trouble is brewing for the First Minister.

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However, speaking to SNP figures, the view is mixed.

Common Weal supporters have their tails up and believe they can bring about internal change and increased accountability.

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They see it as a chance to change the lethargy and centralisation of political control within the SNP.

Meanwhile, moderates are confident these elections are not fully representative.

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The appointment of Michael Russell as president, a position with a large moral authority, and Stewart Stevenson as national secretary – both despite challenges – is viewed as critical to retaining control and influence on the wider membership.

But one senior figure admitted the results were a warning shot to the moderate arm of the party who must now realise they must be as organised to ensure the it does lose to such an extent again in future.

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In any case, as several moderates pointed out, Nicola Sturgeon will likely in May have the support in Holyrood of a large, more traditional SNP caucus compared with the NEC.

That selection process already undertaken, many argue, is a clearer sign of the direction – gradualist and progressive – of the party than the NEC results.

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Fundamentally, they argue, the First Minister is most successful leader in the SNP’s history and is approaching her apotheosis as independence support grows larger than it ever did under Alex Salmond and the prospect of a winnable referendum grows.

A large Holyrood victory would, they believe, lead to complaints fading into the background.

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While this is no Momentum-esque takeover, the results instead further raise the stakes of Holyrood 2021 for Ms Sturgeon.

That election is now not only critical for the future of Scotland, but for the control of her own party.

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