Twelve short lessons from the SNP leadership campaign

by | 13 Mar 2023

The main campaign is over, the polls are open - but prior to the results coming in in two weeks, what have we learned so far based on 'all the campaign you're going to be allowed to see'?

And so there you go; in a flash it was basically over. Voting is open in the SNP leadership contest so the party can start to decide who will ascend to the polyester throne (it’s not going to be very comfortable and it will definitely make you sweat). What have we learned?

Actually this campaign has turned out to be a little bit better than it should have been, or at least a little bit more useful. It was designed to try and prevent debate in the party and lead to a coronation – and yet a debate has broken out anyway. That is at least helpful. Was it a good, well-informed debate? Look, in the modern SNP you can only take what is on offer…

So how can we learn lessons from this shrink-wrapped micro-contest? First, don’t look at the campaign strategies, look at how the campaign strategies have changed. That tells you what the candidates themselves think is happening. Regan has become more fundamentalist suggesting she thinks its working, Humza has spent the whole campaign back-pedalling on ‘continuity’ which means he doesn’t. It doesn’t mean they’re right, but they both seem to think the same thing.

Second, quantitative information isn’t that helpful (polling party members is horrendously difficult to get right) but qualitative information is. It’s what people are saying – a surprising number of people are saying ‘this is my heart vote, this is my tactical vote’. Which means no-one has captured both.

Doing that for myself I think I can identify 12 tentative conclusions.

1. Disruption wins

This is easy – two of the three candidates came in on fairly status-quo like campaigns and one was a disruptive campaign. The disrupter is now more disruptive and the other two quickly moved in that direction. Camp Humza in particular scrambled to escape ‘the continuity curse’ they set for themselves. Either they are all wrong or the SNP members want change.

2. Long would have been bitter, but short wasn’t sweet

The original plan for a coronation for Humza was sound strategy for his camp; another two months of this and he’d be polling single figures… They just couldn’t make it short enough not to expose him to scrutiny. The other two have grown in stature (a bit). Humza is the Murrell candidate and had the rules designed to fit his limitations. It doesn’t seem there was enough of a way to mitigate them. His camp are panicking and they’re right to.

2. Terms and conditions don’t apply

This isn’t really that much of a learning point but it has been nailed home – there isn’t really any pretence going on that this is a fair fight. There is absolutely no way the Humza team are delivering this campaign within the rules and within the budget, and everyone knows it. The fact that it is being done more brazenly than usual also suggests panic.

3. The SNP lacks talent

There isn’t a strong candidate in this race – Humza is inspiring absolutely no-one, Kate is a massive risk to take because of her faith (and is massively less experience or tested than people think) and Ash is unschooled. This is a result of Sturgeon paranoia.

People who she perceived as a threat were sent to Westminster and people who were promoted in Holyrood were all tame. Keep your talent under lock and key and promote your weakest, keep all good media to yourself and never let anyone think anyone else has any clout – do that for a decade and, well this is where you end up.

SNP members want a much more vigorous approach to independence but are culturally committed to a poised, professional leader – half Ash, half one of the other two

3. Objects in the rear view mirror may be smaller than they appear

The SNP expects about 58,000 people to be eligible and likely to vote. A while back I pointed out that someone I know estimated party membership based on membership income and guessed it was at mid- to high-50,000s of paying members. That is substantially fewer members than the SNP had in the 1970s.

SNP HQ has been hiding management and financial data from party members for a long time now (leading to resignations from the Finance and Audit Committee). I have long suspected that is because the picture it shows isn’t a healthy one. If sub-60k active, paying members is anything like right, that’s half the party gone since 2015. And half of its non-parliamentary income gone.

4. Members want a poised fundamentalist

My reading is that SNP members want a much more vigorous approach to independence but are culturally committed to a poised, professional leader – half Ash, half one of the other two. They seem mostly interested in government seen through this lens.

5. This ain’t over yet

I suspect that we are not looking at any stable leadership coming out of this campaign. Either Ash or Kate will be fighting a constant internal coup in the parliamentary group (like Corbyn) while Humza will certainly disappoint. It means they’ll all still be very vulnerable in a year or so – which is when the General Election is due.

I always expected losses at that because the dynamic of Scottish politics just now basically dictate that that will be the case irrespective of leader. I think Humza could lead to a rout, but none of them are likely to hold all of the seats. That combination of instability, hostility and a trigger-point election means we may be doing this again soon.

6. An Ash will win the next one

If I’m right about the last two points, a more poised, more ministerial Ash will win the next one (if she does a lot of personal development work it could be her). I had thought that Joanna Cherry might have not been a contender because of her trans positioning but Kate is showing that isn’t going to be a barrier. It could be hers to take if she wanted it. If not, offering a fast, credible route to independence but looking like a First Minister will win it for you.

7. The SNP is mostly left wing but doesn’t care – for now

Once again, unless all three camps are wrong, the SNP membership are looking for a much more radical left-of-centre agenda – because the candidates are throwing offers of that sort around like confetti. Sturgeon did the same but then didn’t implement. The party was just about OK with that, and now it looks like it is OK with electing a leader many suspect to be pretty right wing.

That suggests that the SNP is apolitical if independence is at stake, or at least it is for now. How far they can be pushed if it’s not being fronted by Sturgeon is a question I don’t think Forbes in particular wants to be asking. Even she is now pretending she was always against Freeports. Can the SNP keep talking left but acting right? I think it is risky for a non-dominant leader.

If someone like me is voting for a party of government not pushing for independence it certainly wouldn’t be the SNP

8. The SNP may become a tool with no task

That last point above is why Ben Macpherson’s article at the weekend appeared so hapless. Simply put, if someone like me is voting for a party of government not pushing for independence it certainly wouldn’t be the SNP. If the whole independence thing is off for 20 years then I’d be looking for an actual left-of-centre, democratic political party to vote for.

The SNP has become neither insurgent nor establishment but both. Suggesting it drops the insurgent part altogether shows how weak the SNP position is. That is why Sturgeon played her long game of ‘referendum any time now’. Voting SNP for its own sake is not going to keep this party in power.

9. Hubris costs salaries

There is panic everywhere now. The ‘coronation model’ was supposed to keep everyone who has a job in the job and prevent anyone looking into what has actually been happening in the SNP for the last ten years. There was an assumption that this would work just fine like it always did. But it hasn’t, and lots of people are now in real trouble of becoming marginal.

I’m told reliably that this is a real disaster for some people who thought that doing as Murrell asked and scorching the earth in favour of his candidate was a safe bet. Those people may be staring ahead at political Siberia. Don’t get me wrong, that is a very good thing indeed, but it is just more cause to believe that the SNP is becoming inherently unstable – unless someone can give it some momentum.

10. SNP politicians have literally no idea what the independence movement has been doing for eight years

Humza doesn’t even have a basic-level understanding of the massive amount of work done on currency. Ben Macpherson doesn’t seem to know how much work has been done on the transition to independence. Few if any of them are in touch with the thinking that has been done on campaigning for independence. They really all have been living in a little Holyrood bubble.

11. Hatred may not be too strong a word

Some of the comments made about various of the candidates during this campaign are extreme. These are not comments which come from tactics but from incredibly deep animosity. There are people in the SNP who hate each other and it seems unlikely that Mahatma Gandhi could keep the peace. There is no sign of compromise. That is becoming the price of ‘broad church’ and it is really, really hard to deal with.

12. Scotland’s commentators only care about culture wars

Lastly, I’ve finally concluded that many of Scotland’s professional political watchers don’t really understand politics – or probably more accurately don’t care. What they’re really engaged in is culture wars. Traditional left-right positioning seems no longer to be part of their thinking and instead they are fighting totally different fights that are to do with the tone of politics they personally like.

Describing Humza as ‘left’ is quite remarkable. Using ‘progressive’ as if it means ‘left’ is weird. Then ignoring policy platforms and using the trans debate as a proxy for absolutely everything is also weird. To be clear, Ash is to the left of Humza and Kate is on his right. But some commentators are still fighting Salmond in their heads, others are fighting against independence, more again are working on the basis of symbols.

The result is that Scotland doesn’t have a single political party that is serious about poverty or economic reform but the commentator class doesn’t mention this. Instead it dances around a load of obscure questions about the difference between sex and gender and which meaningless symbolic date is set for the end of oil and gas (despite nothing serious being done to reduce Scotland’s dependence on oil and gas). The extent to which you are in ‘their club’ symbolically seems to be how they judge politics now.

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