Can you see how bad it is yet?

by | 28 Aug 2023

It may have taken a long time for the cracks to appear in the SNP, but they've been working their way through the party for years. And they're not done - the SNP must reform or accept a long, slow decline before it can recover.

I wasn’t the Rolf Harris generation – my hero was Tony Hart. But the old reruns in which (now disgraced) Harris seemed to throw random splashes of paint on a big bit of paper until it was a mess, out of which, suddenly, a picture would emerge were utterly compelling. When could you tell what it was?

I appreciate that, for those of you not in the trade, the crisis the SNP has got itself into wasn’t immediately obvious. As with many slow-burn crises, a lot of the damage was being done underneath, unseen. You had to look for it. But it was futile anyway because no-one in the party really believed that these little cracks could bring down that giant edifice.

That was a mistake of enormous proportions. The SNP is now like that giant aquarium in Germany that suddenly exploded – it looked fine until it didn’t. And then briefly when it didn’t look good it wasn’t clear that it wouldn’t work out OK in the end. And then it was a disaster.

If you looked carefully, the origin of all the cracks could be seen way back in 2015, but it was in 2017, after the General Election setback, that they started to spread silently everywhere. It wasn’t just the constant pretending that there was a big, secret plan to achieve independence which never existed, it was complacency about the SNP’s preparedness and frankly a shortage of talent and knowledge among many of those who were steering the ship.

The never-not-mentioned ‘slick campaigning machine’ of the SNP was true in about 2006-2011, but after the landslide 2011 election and especially after the referendum, complacency allowed it to dwindle. Cutting edge isn’t cutting edge for long in politics. Campaigning capacity was degraded and degraded.

And the basic efficiency of SNP HQ to do anything well was clearly lacking. People talked about Chief Exec Peter Murrell as if he was really good at his job, and yet HQ performance strongly suggested this wasn’t true. The gap between the mythology of what the SNP was supposed to be and what it was in reality was large, yet the myth held and people didn’t see it.

But can you see the size and the scale of this now? I’m not sure you can. I suspect many of you are still underestimating the crisis. The failure of party members (and indeed political commentators) to grasp this earlier is what allowed the problems to fester. They can’t be allowed to fester any longer.

If the cause of independence is to have any hope in the near future, someone has to take a grip on the SNP right now. Actually, more than that, they’ve first got to recognise that this is all real, that the crisis is real, that it’s not ‘just going to be OK somehow’. The current team’s strategy is performative PR to disguise denial and paralysis. That is clearly not going to work. It looks like people may need ‘scared into action’.

This isn’t any normal election, this is the one where they have to prevent the perception that power and momentum has flipped in Scotland from SNP to Labour

So let me give you ten points of serious concern, some of which are cracks still to become properly visible. First, the SNP campaign infrastructure is verging on poor. Complacent and trading on past glories, the SNP didn’t canvass properly and didn’t upgrade its campaign management software properly. Of the major parties, it is now the least-equipped of the big political parties in Britain.

Everyone else has better data (though I don’t know what their Scotland coverage is like). Everyone else is refreshing that data more regularly. All of them are using more powerful software to manage the whole process. The SNP isn’t competitive. And yet (let’s call this problem one and a half), the key figures don’t even understand how far off the pace they are. It is probably too late to turn this round for the General Election.

Two, the activist base has evaporated. It is the activists who made up the ground teams who are the ones who became most disillusioned and it was the inactive paper members who clung on. Entire constituencies lost their whole canvass teams to Alba in one go. Alba may not have pulled in the numbers they hoped, but they did attract a lot of experienced party workers.

Now you’re struggling to get an SNP branch meeting with double figures of participants. There isn’t much sign of anyone canvassing in Rutherglen who isn’t on the payroll. The SNP can’t turn out the kind of numbers it needs to overcome its branding problem.

Because that’s problem three – the reason the machinery of campaigning was allowed to decline so badly was that for a decade the SNP only ever ran elections on the basis of ‘Brand Sturgeon’. She was a synecdoche, a single part that was substituted for the party as a whole. The campaigns were won over the TV, not on the streets. When Brand Sturgeon went, nothing was left behind. Brand Yousaf doesn’t turn out voters.

That’s problem four – the SNP is now a small, constantly recycled group of people who just aren’t very good. Yousaf is a recycled leader that no-one wanted two years ago. He was only put there because Sturgeon had to do a runner when the police came knocking and they didn’t have another electable loyalist.

Repeat that point for most of the HQ team and many of the politicians, and add the fact that neither the SPADs nor a lot of the staffers are well-regarded. The SNP doesn’t have enough talent. The return of Murray Foote shows that. He is major problem five.

And it’s not because he was the author of ‘the Vow’ – he wasn’t the author, he was the janitor told to run it. The Vow was decided and agreed waaaaay above his head. Nope, the problem is that the SNP is in crisis because of bad financial management, bad management of internal HR, poor party management (certainly in terms of member services), lack of campaign expertise and a general cluelessness.

So to appoint a man to the job who has no financial management experience, no HR experience, no party management or member services experience and no proper campaign delivery experience implies that Murray Foote doesn’t know what he’s doing – but also that Humza Yousaf doesn’t know what he’s doing. He phoned a pal (or got no better candidates). What he didn’t get was a Chief Executive.

Six, these problems create a death-loop financially. Loss of members, loss of workers, loss of income, loss of seats; loss of seats, more loss of income, more disillusionment, more loss of members. The accounts issued last week show what I think any informed observer already knew; that the SNP has been bleeding members for years and hasn’t been telling the truth about it.

Now the SNP has to fight an election with no money. And this isn’t any normal election, this is the one where they have to prevent the perception that power and momentum has flipped in Scotland from SNP to Labour. With no money, no activists and a substandard campaigning machine.

The SNP has to choose whether it starts to pull itself together within one electoral cycle or whether it takes two

Then there’s seven; the Yousaf problem. The attempts to ‘write his story’ are not really working. In truth Humza’s story is an old one – he’s a privately educated man who at 38 has never had to do a job interview. He has been handed every single job he has had, and failed upwards each time, all the way to First Minister, cruising by on the honed charmed a private education provides.

People seem to sense this. The public don’t really like him (or at least don’t rate him). But that’s not the problem. It’s that his own voters don’t like him. He is the least popular politician in Scotland among his own voters, no more than a plus nine approval rating. By comparison, among his own voters, Douglas Ross is at plus 29. Being mildly popular with people who aren’t going to vote for you anyway is irrelevant if the people who should vote for you don’t think you’re good.

Then you’ve got eight; the choreography of all of this is a nightmare. Simply because of the various timings of what is ahead, the General Election is too far away and the Scottish Election is too close. The SNP were always going to suffer at this General Election, but the problem is the very short recovery time between that and the Scottish Election. There isn’t much time to regroup, refresh and relaunch.

Which takes us to nine, where no-one is enthused by anything on offer. The SNP has no viable plan for independence. They don’t have an obvious, popular potential alternative leader. They don’t have a plan for getting government in shape. Yousaf just tried to keep motions on independence off the conference agenda (in favour of one he would present on the day). The conference committee rebelled. He is losing control of his party. (But he did manage to kick the governance review into next year.)

Which takes us to ten – none of this would be anything but hellishly ugly even if more wasn’t to come. But it is. Lots more. First, the pipeline of governmental disasters is regular and reliable. The next two years will include many new disasters which are already baked into the machine. They will be impossible to prevent. Government has just been too shoddy for too long.

Second, election results and polls are going to go badly. Rutherglen, General Election, by-elections, opinion polls. Signals of failure will keep coming. And finally (not really, but I’ve got to stop writing sometime) the pipeline of potential Sturgeon disasters ahead is also formidable. There is Branchform. Then there is the police investigation of the leak of information to the Record. Then there is the perjury inquiry which I hear is expanding worryingly.

And then there is a major new book on the Salmond trial affair which will contain entirely new information. And then (I know a lot of people have forgotten this) Salmond is taking Lesley Evans to court, effectively to rerun the Holyrood Salmond Inquiry but this time without the Scottish Government able to withhold evidence or redact information. It is a string of nightmares for any leader who has not distanced themselves from Sturgeon.

There is no good side to this other than the ongoing constitutional divide (which will limit voter defection to Labour) and the fact that no-one in Britain likes Keir Starmer and he’s shaping up to be a shit prime minister.

Sturgeon fractured the foundations on which the SNP’s long term success was built and then left before the cracks appeared in the larger edifice. But those cracks are now impossible to miss. It’s a real mess. I’ve been trying to warn you about this for six years. I’m trying to warn you now that the SNP is still a good way from the bottom.

This can be saved – saved enough anyway. But not by the team in place. The membership are soon going to face a horrible realisation – that either they need to be brutal and remove Yousaf, reform the party and rebuild, or they go into decline further and begin that process once no-one can pretend any more.

And I wrote this on Friday because I am away to Skye to a wedding and to talk at All Under One Banner march (not back until Wednesday) but didn’t post it because I’d already written another article for Friday. God knows what will happen over the weekend.

The SNP can choose whether it is Labour 1987 or Labour 1992. It has to choose whether it starts to pull itself together within one electoral cycle or whether it takes two. If it takes two, the next election at which the SNP could be a dominant force is 2036. It is up to the party’s members whether they are that patient or not.

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