Is this leadership election normal?

by | 16 Mar 2023

Current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon says this leadership election is being run like all other elections in the SNP and doesn't see what the objections are about. Does either claim stand up to scrutiny?

Today SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon made two claims to the media in response to the turmoil over the procedures being used to elect her replacement. The first was that the ‘complaints’ from the candidates were not specific. The other was that this is no different from any other SNP election. Do these claims stand up?

In both cases there is a lot more which needs to be unpicked than there is space for in a short analysis piece like this so it shall instead look at a limited number of issues. First, specificity of candidates’ requests.

Both Ash Regan’s and Kate Forbes’ camps have issued requests in relation to the current campaign in the last two days, sometimes collectively. They are broadly the same. The first is to know the size of the electorate which is voting for them. That is not only very specific, it is binary – either you do it or you don’t. It is pretty hard to get more specific.

The second is that some form of independent audit of voter eligibility should be put in place. Again, this is hardly an unfamiliar practice in the world of democracy and is often simply assumed. The whole concept of the ‘presiding officer’ at a national election is precisely for this purpose. In fact it is a matter of law for a trade union balloting for industrial action – what is happening in the SNP would be illegal if it was a trade union.

So the idea of independent audit of voters to ensure both their eligibility to vote and that their votes have been accurately recorded is standard practice – there is absolutely nothing vague about it. And again, it is binary – either there is an independent auditor or there isn’t; it is hard to see how Forbes or Regan could be more specific without asking for a specific auditor.

The request is also entirely reasonable. SNP HQ has been heavily pushing the line that an independent company is counting the votes cast, but again that isn’t what the request is about. The request is about transparency and oversight of who has been given a ballot in the first place, not only how they use it

For example (without any kind of suggestion of any sort that this has happened), what if Peter Murrell issued himself 10,000 ballots all under assumed names? Online voting only requires that you can prove you have a right to vote, not to confirm that you should have been given a right to vote.

There is nothing obvious to stop him casting every vote for Yousaf; the company counting the votes would have no reason to suspect foul play. That is precisely why it is standard practice to have independent oversight of the process and not just the result.

Forbes and Regan don’t have to specify their reasons – they are entirely within their rights to request that the norms of electoral processes should be put in place

It would seem that Sturgeon’s issue is that they haven’t explained in detail why they want these steps put in place, but that is again a complete distraction. They don’t have to specify their reasons. They are entirely within their rights to request that the norms of electoral processes should be put in place.

So Sturgeon’s first suggestion – that they have been unclear – is entirely without merit and appears solely to be a tactic to imply unreasonableness or ‘conspiracy theorising’. So what about her second claim, that this being run like any other SNP election?

First, that should not be considered a high threshold of confidence. That an organisation has done something before in low-stakes elections does not mean that it is suitable for high-stakes elections, or that it was of a sufficient standard even for low-stakes elections.

However, let’s take Sturgeon’s argument at face value – the election process is the same as that used for electing, for example, candidates to represent the SNP at an election. What is true is that those too fail to have independent oversight of voter eligibility. But that does not mean it is a suitable process or that other aspects of the campaign are being run in the same way.

Two examples should suffice to demonstrate this. When a candidate stands to become a candidate for the party in a General Election, they are given not only a list of all the eligible voters in the area but names and addresses. Nominees have been known to do doorstep canvassing of the electorate. They have never been denied knowledge of the size of their electorate.

But there is perhaps a more startling way to show that this is not ‘a normal election process’. When a nominee stands to become a candidate in a General Election they are granted one all-member mailshot to send a manifesto or a candidate statement to all electors. The same was true for the last deputy leadership election.

This also is not only normal practice it is expected practice – parties standing in elections get a taxpayer-funded leaflet mailing to all constituents and at least one Party Election Broadcast of their own choice.

Utterly remarkably, in the SNP leadership election candidates have been prevented from having any contact whatsoever with members. They have not been permitted a mailshot to all members to send a candidate statement or manifesto – or anything else.

They have been restricted to one three-minute video – which had to be filmed by SNP HQ itself rather than allowing candidates to make their own videos. That is the complete sum total of the communication between the candidates and the full electorate in this entire campaign.

It is worth considering what this would have meant if the election’s organisers had got away with everything they tried. It would have meant that members had to make a decision based solely on one three-minute video and a series of hustings which were in inexplicably small venues and were ‘sold out’ almost immediately with some people attending multiple hustings, which would have had a media blackout.

That, literally, would have been the sum total of the information for members facilitated by the election’s organisers. For 99.9 per cent of members that would have meant only a three-minute video and whatever appeared in the media in a two-week campaign which was only extended to three weeks after a strong objection was made at the NEC meeting that decided the rules.

It is therefore simply untrue for Sturgeon to say this is being run like other elections. It is not.

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