A fable about respect

by | 4 Oct 2023

While the SNP will deny it, there is a very worrying lack of active members stepping forward to do the important work of maintaining a political party. That is not a situation it can afford to endure.

When I look at the present-day SNP I keep thinking that this is a tale good old Aesop would take an interest in. I can imagine him out canvassing in Rurtherglen or browsing the SNP’s conference agenda (not really) and thinking to himself ‘there must be a fable in this’.

It is a tale of how, if you keep taking the people you rely on for granted for long enough, it comes back to bite you. And once it starts biting, it keeps on biting. Let’s have a look.

First, Rutherglen. I’ve spoken to people who have been there canvassing and their story is consistent with others I’ve heard and also with media reporting. First, they are struggling to get activists out canvassing and are relying on the payroll. We know that the SNP has been hiring commercial zero-hour contract companies to deliver leaflets. In fact, internal memos showed that party elders were begging the payroll to turn up and help.

The leadership denies this (or more accurately, it ‘laughs it off’ performatively). But the leadership isn’t telling the truth. Nothing like enough people want to canvass for the party in this crucial by-election and the party is struggling as a result.

Why? Well naturally I’m only speculating, but I can also tell you some things for certain. First, the ruthlessness with which the SNP turned on Margaret Ferrier after her mistake has not played well with everyone locally. She made a mistake, she’s accepted that and paid the price. But there was no malice involved in her actions and no personal gain. This wasn’t a calculated act but a stupid one.

And she was a hard-working local MP (one of the hardest working Scots MPs at Westminster) and she is a kind and well-meaning person. She was quite liked locally and no-one is greatly enjoying watching SNP grandees ripping into her, demanding people support the recall petition and so on.

In fact, one person I spoke to told me that they had more than one unhappy doorstep experiences with people who were SNP voters but weren’t backing the party for this reason. The SNP isn’t going to come a cropper because of mass defection to Labour but because it’s own vote is demoralised and demotivated.

But more than that, it is also a lesson about quantity/quality. I have been around party politics all my life and, roughly, I can tell you the kind of person who puts leaflets through letterboxes and knocks doors for parties. And having been around media politics most of my life I can tell you, roughly, who posts on social media a lot. These are absolutely not the same people.

The SNP has filtered for shiny, approved, social-media-friendly members who don’t criticise. The result is an awful lot of inactive paper members, rather too many careerists and self-promoters – and many too few people willing to put in the long, unglamorous hours of being an activist for no real reward.

To my eyes it doesn’t really make any difference what delegates vote for at conference, they’re going to get exactly the same election campaign either way, give or take a word here or there

I’m sure the SNP leadership will ‘laugh it off’, but I’ve been getting reports from all over the place about branches which can’t get anyone to stand for key office bearer positions, and a local branch which, back in the 1980s was getting 70-plus people to its AGM had barely over single figures at its most recent AGM.

What isn’t helping is constituencies getting emails that say ‘HQ has cancelled our candidate-selection hustings for tomorrow night and will shortly inform you of who your candidate is’. Senior, respected activists are being rejected from going on the approved candidates list for the most spurious of reasons. Members from two other constituencies told me that they had been told who their General Election candidate was before any of the required process had been gone through.

There is a knock-on effect from all of this – I have had at least three constituencies or branches which have told me that they can’t get enough people willing to take up their allocation of conference delegates. Two of those (I am told) have never failed to fill their allocated delegate numbers before.

The story is always the same – they’re holding their conference in a place that is very expensive for people to get to. And it looks to a lot of them like another waste of time. It won’t be an Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre bursting at the seems next weekend.

Which takes us to the conference. Earlier in the year I had a couple of people telling me (with ‘a high degree of energy’) that my scepticism about the party was wrong and the open, discursive nature of the (the-upcoming) Dundee event would prove it. When that turned out to be a rally and little more, the same people told me (no lower degree of energy) that of course it wasn’t discussed at Dundee because the correct forum for a full and frank debate was party conference.

Well, let me put it to you like this – I have invested significantly more time to the consideration of pieces of minor tactics than has been allocated at conference for members to consider the entire SNP strategy. This is complex, nuanced stuff. There are many complex issues. It takes a long time to think the issues through. The runtime of a short movie isn’t enough to do that.

What we have is ‘that’ll do’ motions without the hinterland of content to actually flesh out some pretty bare-bones headlines. I mean, ‘running a de facto referendum’ is pretty much like ‘building a house’ – it can mean an awfully wide range of things. At the moment the party is going to run a referendum based primarily on the deeply unpopular Growth Commission and an ‘if you don’t support the EU, don’t vote for independence’ message.

These haven’t been debated or considered. This is all just noise. It is wasting delegate’s time. To my eyes it doesn’t really make any difference what they vote for at conference, they’re going to get exactly the same election campaign either way, give or take a word here or there. Party conference isn’t going to change anything. This offers as little room as possible for the members.

A party which has successfully maintained monopoly supply of winnable pro-independence candidates is able to present itself as still strong despite a decade of eating away at the internal structures which were holding it up

What ought to be changing at this conference but isn’t going to be changing is party democracy. This was the subject of another ‘energetic conversation’ I had with an activist who told me it was wrong to imply for a second that the promised review of governance wouldn’t be discussed. It’s not being discussed. That’s going to go to a proper conference where it is more appropriate to…

And I’m not going to complete that sentence because it is literally what I wrote twice in the paragraphs above, each in the past tense. Every window for party democracy gets rammed as tightly shut as is possible while just leaving a hint of a breeze so the pretence can continue.

But not really. Because while there isn’t time to discuss decentralising decision-making in a party that has been captured completely by its tiny elite, there is plenty time to discuss further centralisation, with (as I predicted way back) the branches’ own money being redirected to bail out a party with massive financial problems.

Of course, Mr Aesop would probably quickly realise that if you are losing members because they’re demotivated and feel under-valued, taking away their agency over their own resources might not be the genius solution you think it is.

The SNP chose to accept its own centralisation. The problem is that this operates like the formation of a star or a black hole – the logic behind the centralisation (it’s own gravity if you will) draws more and more towards it in a feedback loop. Quarantine members – force those who express inevitable dissent from the party – see reducing resources – take more from members – dissent increases – crack down more – impose your own candidates – dissent increases..

And round and round it goes, a party which has successfully maintained monopoly supply of winnable pro-independence candidates is able to present itself as still strong despite a decade of eating away at the internal structures which were holding it up.

The bookies have it at 95 per cent likelihood of the SNP losing in Rutherglen. The party conference may either be half empty or fractious or both. The leader will probably have his strategy motion overturned publicly. It might not be long after that before people are charged as part of Branchform. And from there, it’s a straight run into the New Year with only a war with Scotland’s arts sector and a litany of government failure to deal with.

By the weekend the First Minister will be laughing all this off. “Very unusual circumstance in Rutherglen” he’ll say as he tries to blame Maureen Ferrier for his problems. They’ll then have the whole week to prepare statements about how it ‘was*’ [*check against delivery] the most energised and optimistic conference they’ve ever had. Low turnout? Don’t make the FM laugh…

Perhaps that’s what Aesop’s fable would be, some delusional woodpecker chipping away at the branch on which he’s standing, laughing in the face of every sympathetic person who stepped forward to tell him it was a terrible idea.

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