There are positives in the leadership race – if you look for them

by | 7 Mar 2023

Most people have found the SNP leadership election dispiriting, but if you look closely there are reasons for hope. Party democracy, a collegiate indy movement and a better scrutinised Scottish Government are still up for grabs.

As I keep having to remind myself, I didn’t get into public affairs to be miserable or pessimistic. Absolutely the opposite – I believe in the power of politics to make the world a better place. So let me take just a second to pause in the middle of the SNP’s leadership election to find some positives. Because there are some.

To start let me look at the likely outcome (all of this can of course change). At the moment Kate Forbes is going to be the next First Minister of Scotland. Humza Yousaf may or may not be ahead on the basis of name recognition and dodgy dealings, but if (unrepresentative) polls are right I would expect pretty well all of Ash Regan’s second votes to go to Forbes making her the winner.

There are major implications of this. Kate Forbes is fiscally conservative and solidly neoliberal in her economic outlook. She seems pretty clearly out of step with her party on this to the extent that she’s had to come out and explicitly say that her leadership won’t represent a lurch to the right.

It is also worth saying in this context that given that the SNP and Scottish Government have the fiscally conservative Growth Commission as their fundamental independence prospectus and neoliberal madness like Freeports, ScotWind and PFI for Trees (an appalling new policy I will return to soon) in their current policy plans, there is limited scope for a lurch to the economic right. A lot of SNP policy is already there.

So as left-winger why am I seeing a potential new leader with a lot of hard questions to answer on her economic positioning as a positive? It’s exactly because she does have hard questions to answer but won’t be able to avoid answering them.

In her first term in charge Nicola Sturgeon passed most of her economic policy based on the votes of the Scottish Tories and in her second term economic policy was clearly right-of-centre (in as far as she had any). But because Sturgeon had the media convinced she was left wing she didn’t get properly challenged on this.

For example when I tried to explain to people how right wing the Growth Commission was it was incredibly hard. People virtually degenerated into saying ‘Does Not Compute. Sturgeon Good. So McAlpine Wrong. So Growth Commission Good.’

There is no way Forbes can do that. She will have to prove that she’s not dragging the party to the right on the economy and she will have to do it over and over. It will be much harder for the party to pursue the fiscally conservative, neoliberal economic agenda it has been without scrutiny. That is actually a step forward.

Scotland’s journalists have had a massive blind spot to impropriety in the SNP

That end of the delirious, frankly embarrassing love-in between Scotland’s commentators and its First Minister will also enable much more open scrutiny of the SNP as a party. Once again the media framed events in the SNP on the basis that ‘Sturgeon is not a crook therefore nothing she presides over can be crooked’. So Scotland’s journalists have had a massive blind spot to impropriety in the SNP.

But there is a bigger factor which is going to enable that scrutiny – and deliver many other benefits. And that is the return of democracy to the SNP. Throughout the devolution era the SNP was a party with one dominant figure who was hero-worshiped by members. There was an expectation that that person would make the key decisions, not the party’s democratic processes.

It meant that the SNP has, for well over 20 years, lost a lot of its democratic tendencies. Manipulation of conference, the blatant stacking of the NEC and the universally-accepted idea that the party leader would simply ignore votes carried by conference as desired all grew very significantly in the devolution years.

No current candidate coming in as leader will be in anything like that position. The natural progression of things would be for the party’s democracy to reestablish itself. So for example Kate Forbes campaigned on a Growth Commission vision of independence, but she now has negligible support in the party for that position.

This isn’t a governmental policy where the Scottish Government leads rather than the party. The only reason the current policy hasn’t been reversed is that for the last three or four conferences HQ has kept a motion adjusting the currency position as it stands off the agenda (it would have passed comfortably). All that should be much harder to get away with now, so policy ought better to reflect the party membership.

And of course perhaps the most positive thing about a Kate Forbes leadership (even moreso Ash Regan) is that she is coming in as a reforming leader and at least nominally is intending to clean up the SNP’s major governance issues. She doesn’t even need to do much – so long as she supports conference producing a package of democratic reforms and demands their implementation, the SNP becomes a different party overnight.

We are where we are; either we accept the death of the SNP as a positive vehicle for change or we find scenarios which make that possible and fight for them

Among the big-ticket items are the position of a Chief Executive (how anyone can be expected to be leader with the former leader married to the Chief Executive is a question I don’t think can be sensibly answered), the constitution of the NEC and various of the other key committees and the decision-making structures outside of conference (which is to say the restoration of National Council).

On all of these it is basically a race between Forbes’ genuine intention to undertake reform and the nature of the friction of trying to do that the longer you are in power. Gradually she will become dependent on the machinery and suddenly capturing it can look better than fixing it. But if she comes in with purpose it could change everything – for the better.

And for me one of the biggest wins is that she is willing to open up to the independence movement and see it as a partner and not a threat. If she focusses on government and allows much more of the work of campaigning for independence to be coordinated with her through the movement, I think that’s the best route to progress.

In addition there are some issues on which Kate’s policy position is quite good. She is likely to be much bolder on land reform than Sturgeon and her position on housing and support for SMEs (rather than corporates) is encouraging.

Now this may not happen. Given how much jiggery-pokery has gone into shoring up the Yousaf campaign it would be naïve not to recognise he could win. And a very strong performance by Ash in the televised debates could alter all the arithmetic.

If Humza gets in Peter Murrell is safe (until police investigations progress), the awful NEC is safe, the party stays unreformed, the independence campaign will look exactly like it has for eight years, he will lead a failing government, lose his Westminster contingent a lot of their jobs in an election rout next year and then he’ll probably be challenged for leader within two years.

If Ash gets in the benefits of the reform agenda above are greatly enhanced and the risk of drifting (or lurching) to the right are gone, but among other questions is whether her parliamentary colleagues will actually let her govern.

So for my money there are many potentially positive scenarios ahead if either of the female candidates win and positive possibilities about two years after Humza does. None of them are anything like guaranteed and it doesn’t detract at all from the reality that this campaign would make you cry for poor Scotland.

But we are where we are; either we accept the death of the SNP as a positive vehicle for change or we find scenarios which make that possible and fight for them. For now just celebrate the fact that there are such scenarios – if you look carefully.

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