As the SNP conference approaches, it’s hard not to dwell on what has happened in the last year as a result of last years’ conference. The picture is unedifying – to say the least.
Since 2008 the SNP has been undergoing a process of relentless centralisation, de-democratisation of the Party and accrual of power by HQ and the Leader’s Office. This has been something of a culture shock to long-term SNP members, because the SNP had traditionally been a highly democratic and member-driven party. So there was some pushback.
The form that the pushback took was that the SNP’s Common Weal Group put forward a slate of reform candidates at last year’s conference. The SNP CWG is simply a group of party members who want to encourage the Party to look at Common Weal policies and is (or rather was) entirely independent of the think tank Common Weal (though with good relationships).
The SNP CWG became the home of many of the Party’s independently-minded members and it was them who drove the idea of a ‘democratising slate’. All on the slate stood on the basis that they were going to work to reform the Party – return power to members, increase transparency, reduce control by HQ, make the Party’s complaints procedure work properly and so on.
They won overwhelmingly – the person elected to the NEC with by far the most votes was on the CWG slate. It was a stunning victory for Party democracy – and it caught the SNP hierarchy completely by surprise. The ill-natured response from perma-insider Alyn Smith was indicative of their attitude.
But the surprise didn’t last long. Within days of the outcome of the vote I was told reliably that there had been emergency summit meetings at Party HQ to work out how to undo the vote and make sure that it could never happen again. I discussed this with people at the time. Some said ‘I’m sure they’ll calm down’. But they didn’t.
A combination of procedural obstruction, rule-breaking, rule-changing and intense bullying has been pursued with vigour
Over the last year a combination of procedural obstruction, rule-breaking, rule-changing and intense bullying has been pursued with vigour by the SNP hierarchy. The shenanigans were endless – new members of committees were told that they were not allowed to call meetings of the Committee, only HQ could. But then HQ refused to (in contravention of the constitution) so meetings couldn’t happen formally.
When the members of the committee tried to meet informally they were told this was against the constitution and would not be recognised. People were refused crucial information they needed and were entitled to have. Decisions made by Committees were ignored. Committees that wanted to make proposals to the NEC which the leadership didn’t like were simply prevented from giving reports to meetings.
Senior figures would turn up at NEC meetings and, if there were agenda items they didn’t want to discuss, would have them put at the end of the agenda and then would ‘time out’ the meeting with long, sprawling presentations so the agenda item was never reached.
And the bullying was intense. Terms such as ‘terf’ or ‘white supremacist’ were thrown around at meeting. This is clearly against the members’ code of conduct, but complaints were simply ignored. The online bullying was relentless, all organised via the same ‘affiliated organisations’ who had been used to pack the NEC and prevent members from getting a majority say on the party.
At times the media jumped in on the attacks, referring to the feminists and socialists who’d just been elected as ‘reactionaries’ or worse. A number of those targetted (who were largely women) received direct confrontation in the street where they lived. Complaints to HQ about this were studiously ignored.
One resigned because she’d been forced to accept a decision against legal advice and feared liability. One resigned because her committee could not meet. A whole group of people resigned because of being prevented from seeing the financial information crucial for them to enact the role they were elected to. Others simply resigned because they couldn’t take the relentless attacks any more.
There was almost total attrition, with the people elected by conference largely replaced by the people they were elected to replace. There is no route of appeal, line of recourse or means of reviewing what happened to them because the people who were doing it were also the people in control of the entire party machinery.
To list exhaustively what happened is virtually impossible. The cynicism of the manipulation and ferocity of the bullying was so blatant – but who cares when the media seems little interested and there is no-one to stop you.
A year of total obstruction and punishment beatings has done its job – anyone not in the leadership clique is scared to step forward
Some of those involved swear they will never be involved in politics like this again. Some are simply so shaken by events that they are scared to put their heads up and say anything about it. And of course the people behind the ‘counter-revolution’ in the party are now trying to rewrite the rules once again to reduce the power of members such that member-led reform of the Party is simply impossible in future.
This year I had a brief conversation with someone who was thinking about standing for office this year. I was asked what I thought. I could only reply that I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. It proved impossible to get anything at all done and the toll it took on people’s wellbeing means I could never again encourage anyone in good faith to try and take on this machine from inside. It isn’t possible.
The results of this year of aggressive suppression of dissent is easy to see. For a party which supposedly has 120,000 members, they could only get 500 to their last conference. At this conference there are no nominations for 12 of the elected positions because there is only one candidate – people are afraid to step forward and challenge the chosen faces.
Another two positions on the NEC will not be balloted on at this conference because they received no nominations at all. Not a single member of the entire of Mid Scotland and Fife or South of Scotland region wants to stand for these positions. Another two places on committees are also not being voted on as there are no candidates.
This must surely be unprecedented in the history of the SNP. A year of total obstruction and punishment beatings has done its job – anyone not in the leadership clique is scared to step forward, afraid of the consequences or aware that they will be totally powerless.
This is the modern SNP, in the form it has been beaten into by the current regime. If this is the start of a new country or a ‘new politics’, god help us.