How democracy was stripped from the SNP

In recent years democracy inside the Scottish National Party has been curtailed and diminished, greatly reducing the power of the members of what used to be a member-led party. How was this done and what does it mean?

Before the Parliament

The SNP operated as a member-led party for most of its history, with a substantial constitutional process required to create policy or make strategic decisions which involved members at every stage. In relation to its members, it was one of the most democratically accountable parties in Britain. Statutory ‘Political Education Officers’ liaised between branches and constituencies and the decision-making bodies – Annual Conference and National Council. Decisions could not be made without the consent of the membership.

The early devolution years

The culture of democracy had changed in the party in the first decade of devolution with an expectation that members would broadly accept guidance from the leadership on what approaches to take and a recognition that some decisions had to be taken faster than would allow for a full conference debate. But the architecture of the democratic structure of the SNP remained in place and the constitution continued to place power in the hands of members.

The Governance Review

In 2017 the Party announced it would undertake a Governance Review. This was carried out and assessed solely by Party HQ. There is a substantial difference between what was promised and what happened next.

The demise of National Council

In spring 2018 the news was sprung on the final National Council that the National Executive Committee had decided to abolish National Councils, which were already being marginalised. The members of National Council were unprepared for this (it was sprung on them at the meeting) and they were promised that a new structure of ‘Regional Assemblies’ would be powerful.

The rise of Regional Assemblies

The National Council met twice a year on an constitutionally-required basis. There is no clear record of how many Regional Assemblies have been held, but they have no constitutional power and they are, by their very nature, fragmented and poorly linked to each other. There were no more than a handful held.

The demise of Regional Assemblies

There are now proposals to scrap even the Regional Steering Committees and to replace them with vaguely-defined ‘gatherings’ which would be comprised mainly of elected politicians from the region, effectively cutting the members of the Party who live in the region out of decision-making. Members would still get to vote for regional representatives to be on the NEC but it would be much harder for them to coordinate.

Neutering Constituency Associations

Further rule changes in 2018 reduced the powers of Constituency Associations and transferred them to the Regional Committees – which don’t contain direct representation from the Constituency Associations

Controlling conference

A series of changes were made to reduce the powers of delegates at conference and to increase the power of Party HQ on the structure and agendas of Annual Conference. Conference is the last remaining decision-making body on which the membership is directly represented (other than the NEC),so controlling what is discussed at this conference leads to control of what the membership can decide.

Stacking the National Executive Committee

Again, at around the same time the structure of the NEC was altered. It had traditionally been a body of about 12, elected mostly by the party membership. But it tripled in size as ‘affiliated groups’ were added who nominate members without reference to the wider membership. This has left the NEC with a strong in-built majority against the wider membership. Some of these ‘affiliated groups’ do not have constitutions or rules and many do not report on the size of their membership.

Policy power taken away from members

Another step which was taken at this time was to change the rules so that the Party Leader has sole discretion over the content of the party’s manifesto. The SNP can now pass policy at conference but the power to reject that policy or to make up entirely different policies is the sole preserve of the Leader’s Office.

Turning the screw

From this position there is little that the Party Leadership or the Party HQ cannot do. They are now in control of all communication in the Party, have a stacked, pliant National Executive Committee with powers to adjust the operating practices of the Party without reference to Conference and much more.

Hand-picking the party

At this point the elected politicians have greatly increased power in relation to the membership – so the new powers are used to hand-pick those selected to stand for Parliament. Both the vetting of candidates and the eligibility conditions are now set by the NEC, for example forcing MPs to resign first if they want to stand as MSPs or setting quotas or manipulating the ordering on regional candidate lists.

Policing the new system

The only remaining check on the power of the party apparatus is – the Annual Conference they now control and… themselves. If rules are broken the route of complaint and appeal is to Party HQ. If that is not addressed, or is ignored or rejected, the only route of appeal is back to the Party HQ. A very small group now not only controls almost every aspect of the Party but also acts as the sole check on its own power.

Everything is not enough…

Membership unhappiness about the continual erosion of its power led to a rebellion in 2020 when a slate of candidates was elected to the NEC on a ‘democratic reform’ ticket. They won overwhelmingly. So the NEC was stacked further to ensure they were in a minority and most were gradually forced out of the NEC or the roles to which they were elected. So unhappy was the Leadership with this turn of events that it proposed to respond by… reducing the number of representatives to the NEC that the Membership could elect.

All control forever

This was proposed with another package of draconian measures, including the ability for the NEC to appoint a Committee which could change the constitution of the Party without asking the permission of Annual Conference. This would mean that leadership-controlled bodies can change any rule they want any time they want without reference to the membership – total control forever. This caused such a backlash in the Party it has resulted in a delay in them being put to the membership. If they are passed, there is no remaining route practical or theoretical for the membership to hold the Leadership to account.

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