How to save the SNP

by | 7 Jul 2024

Written the morning after the General Election, here is a first few suggestions for how the SNP can dig itself out of its current problems.

First published by The National

There are no simple or comfortable answers to a political implosion. In fact there is no single, simple cause. The SNP just accumulated too many voters who had too much discontent.

Some are unhappy with how policy has impacted their lives, some who are unhappy that rhetoric has stretched beyond delivery, some unhappy with independence strategy, some unhappy about centralisation, some unhappy with their perception of the tone and ‘personality’ of the party.

Put simply, you can’t stack up that much discontent without consequences – it starts out as pockets here and there and then it joins up. The corollary of that is that you can’t fix the problem with one single solution.

The worst case scenario for the SNP now isn’t that it loses Holyrood but that it wins narrowly with a reduced cohort of declining quality that forms a lame-duck government which then goes on to lose in 2031. That potentially makes independence a 15-year project.

Avoiding this means action across all the realms I outline above. First, the SNP must stop making things worse. For example, it is about to try to force through damaging care legislation which is opposed by almost every stakeholder in the care sector. If it continues it will create another large cohort of discontented citizens.

Parliamentary dominance has let the Scottish Government push through bad and unpopular legislation against the serious concerns of stakeholders. It has to stop and do something new; it has to listen to sympathetic people who are criticising aspects of its proposals.

Next, it needs to come up with a popular policy agenda. This is still possible, but only if it moves outside the realm of lobbyists and powerful vested interests. The Scottish Government cannot ‘manage’ or spin its way out of this problem. It must create real ‘facts on the ground’ which people perceive as improvements in their daily lives.

There isn’t space to consider independence strategy here, but above all the SNP has treated independence as its life vest, the issue which keeps it afloat at elections when other things go wrong. It has now reached the point where rather than independence lifting up the SNP, the SNP will start dragging independence down with it. It must open up a proper discussion on the way forward, or at least support that discussion when organised by others.

This is a radical and risky proposal, but at the moment I don’t think there is a cautious and safe option that has any chance of working

Next, the tone and personality of the party. This is crucial. The SNP is seen as too centralising, too controlling, too quick to blame everyone but itself for its problems and just too arrogant. It needs to signal a break. A good, fast way to do this would be to develop (rapidly) a Decentralisation Bill both to give citizens and communities more power and the sense they are trusted but also to challenge the impression of arrogance.

However it goes well beyond that. The SNP just looks too complacent and it keeps sending out the message that it refuses to change or acknowledge error. When you have a ‘personality’ problem (which the SNP has), you need to signal real change if you want people to think again about you.

That creates a significant problem; you cannot cling to continuity and signal change at the same time. People have a very high sensitivity to ‘fake change’, and I’m afraid the current team has promised to ‘go away and learn the lessons’ far too many times to be able to do it again and be taken seriously.

What follows is a radical and risky proposal, but at the moment I don’t think there is a cautious and safe option that has any chance of working. Because, put really simply, it seems impossible to me to overcome all this discontent if all the personnel associated with the causes of the discontent remain in place.

Voters that the SNP has lost in this election seem to me unlikely to return if what they see is a party unchanged other than talk. The SNP keeps presenting voters with the same thing and telling them it’ll be different this time. I am afraid that, good man as John Swinney is, he embodies this problem.

Do I have a suggestion of a brilliant alternative leader for you? No, but that points to a bigger problem. Put simply, the SNP lacks talent among its elected cohort at Holyrood and it is seen as having a talent deficit. This isn’t entirely fair, but nor is it entirely unfair. The party desperately needs to regenerate itself at this moment and I’m unconvinced it has the personnel to do that.

I therefore believe that the SNP should, as of now, take an ‘open selection’ approach to every Holyrood seat. The party needs both a significant injection of new talent and to be seen to create a decisive break with the recent past.

I would tell every constituency that they should behave like they have no incumbent candidate for Holyrood in 2026 and go on a headhunting search to find the very best, very most talented, very most able person that can be found to contest every seat in the country. That could be the sitting MSP, or it could be a (now)-former MP, or it could be someone from inside the party – or it could be a process of recruiting someone really great into the party.

Think of it like a football team – individually the players won’t get all that much better than they currently are, so you need a transfer window. I fear the SNP may only have one remaining window before things get even worse.

Finally, to achieve any of this or anything like it, the membership must regain control of the party. The people who led the Sturgeon era are the same people who led the Humza Yousaf era and are the same people who led the SNP to this electoral catastrophe. I do not believe that they can be allowed to try to lead the party out of it, but nor to I believe they will step aside voluntarily.

It is the top-down SNP that led to this moment; it is a bottom-up SNP which has the best chance of escaping it.

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