Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon puts trust of her floating constituency to the test

Social media amplifies political division. It creates the impression that voters are now entirely tribal.

The First Minister isn't accustomed to experiencing this level of hostility from within her own party. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA
The First Minister isn't accustomed to experiencing this level of hostility from within her own party. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA

If you take any issue of the day and feed it into Twitter or Facebook, the responses of users of those platforms will be of the black and white variety. Social media is no great enabler of nuance.

But the truth is that huge numbers of people neither use social media nor feel the need to align themselves with a particular camp. The floating voter still exists, we just don’t hear much from her because she’s getting on with her life in the real world.

If you want proof that social media isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of political debate, consider the matter of Scottish independence. Spend even a few minutes on Twitter and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Scots think of nothing other than the constitutional question.

It’s undoubtedly the case that independence – whether of the Scottish or Brexit variety – is the major issue of our political times but it remains the case that other things matter, too. Not least among these important factors is the perceived competence of those who would lead us.

This is a truth that should, right now, be focusing the minds of those closest to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP came to power at Holyrood in 2007 not solely thanks to the votes of those in favour of Scottish independence. Rather, the nationalists enjoyed – and, to a lesser extent, continue to enjoy – the backing of voters who support the maintenance of the United Kingdom.

The most significant factor in creating this apparent contradiction was the widely held belief that the Labour Party had lost its way. Cast your mind back to the 2007 election and you’ll recall how then SNP leader Alex Salmond and his team went to great lengths to reassure Scots that a vote for the nationalists need not be considered a vote in favour of independence. Instead, insisted Salmond, a vote for the SNP should be seen as a vote for competent government.

That SNP reputation for competence may not have quite the shine it once had but – in part, thanks to Scottish Labour’s inability to mount anything like a serious opposition – it remains.

The First Minister’s handling of the allegations of sexual harassment levelled by two female civil servants against Salmond stands to destroy the goodwill that has kept the SNP in power for 11 years.

Last week’s Court of Session ruling that the Scottish Government investigation into these allegations was procedurally flawed was bad enough. The women who brought forward complaints have been left high and dry while the taxpayer faces a £500,000-plus bill after the government accepted it had failed to follow the process to the letter.

But more was to come.

We have known since the allegations about Salmond surfaced last year that Sturgeon met him on a number of occasions during which, she says, she made it clear to him that she could and would not intervene in the case.

During First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday, the First Minister was forced to expand on that.

It emerged, under questioning from acting Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw, that during the first of these meetings – of which no minutes exist – Sturgeon’s Chief of Staff, Liz Lloyd, was present. Lloyd – a government employee whose status as a special adviser permits her to act on party matters – was wearing her SNP hat that day, Sturgeon told MSPs.

The First Minister was adamant that what was discussed that day was not a government matter. I wish her good luck sustaining that line.

A meeting between the First Minister and her predecessor to discuss allegations of sexual misconduct raised by government employees is very much a government matter. To suggest otherwise is insulting.

This is a view shared by some who back Sturgeon.

“She should never have agreed to meet him. Simple as that,” says one party insider whose loyalties lie with the current FM rather than her predecessor. Another veteran activist, with identical sympathies, asks who in the First Minister’s team thought such meetings were at all appropriate.

These Sturgeon loyalists make the point that her handling of this matter is exactly the sort of thing that began to chip away at trust in Scottish Labour.

I’m bound to agree.

Sturgeon – who refuses, beyond saying that she told him she would not intervene in the case, to go into detail about the discussions she had with Salmond – is now testing the goodwill of voters who believed her to be competent and honest. Without minutes of the meetings, we can only take the First Minister’s word that she acted appropriately. That’s a big ask.

Despite the best efforts of Team Sturgeon to deny the existence of a civil war in the SNP over this issue, it’s perfectly clear that hostilities between supporters of the First Minister and supporters of Salmond represent exactly that. The SNP is now angrily divided. People have picked sides.

A number of high-profile Salmond supporters – former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, former health secretary Alex Neil and former presiding officer Tricia Marwick among them – have come out to bat on his behalf.

The response from the Sturgeon camp has been rather muted.

One party insider says: “Nobody on Sturgeon’s side is used to war. They don’t know how to handle what’s happening.”

That same source makes the point that, when Salmond was first minister, Sturgeon, former SNP communications chief Kevin Pringle and former MP Angus Robertson formed a tightly-knit unit that advised and, to some degree, controlled their boss, and asks who performs the same role for the current party leader?

It certainly appears that Sturgeon would have benefited from having people on her team who would have advised against meeting Salmond.

SNP infighting over the Salmond investigation will only get bloodier, while the First Minister’s role in matters can only further erode her credibility with the moderate mainstream voters she needs if the nationalists are to win the next Holyrood election.

We may now be witnessing the beginning of the end of the SNP’s dominance of our politics.