Little learned from weekend conferences

by | 13 Sep 2021

Both the SNP and Alba had party conferences at the weekend but neither told us anything we didn't already know

There were two party political conferences at the weekend – the SNP online and the fledgling Alba party in person in Greenock. These have generated much noise but it isn’t obvious that we learned much over the weekend.

The easier analysis to make is for Alba. Its purpose just now is to consolidate and grown. It needed an old-style party get-together to start to coalesce into something coherent and that’s what it put on. We know Alba is heavily reliant on the personality of its leader and the rank and file probably got what they wanted out of the weekend.

The rest is equally predictable, from the policy direction to the way the party is treated by commentators. But realistically, at this stage, that will probably be considered ‘mission accomplished’ by most of the membership. Whether this project can begin to radiate influence beyond its core though remains a very open question.

The SNP conference was a trickier affair for its leadership to navigate and in part it did this by limiting spontaneity with liberal use of pre-recording and controversial topics for the most part kept off the agenda.

It is to be noted that this was not a well-attended affair, with seemingly fewer than 600 people involved over the weekend (which is surprisingly small considering the size of the payroll vote in the SNP alone). That also makes it slightly surprising that there were probably four motions that passed which the leadership almost certainly wish didn’t.

The vote against Free Ports would have been unwelcome given that the Scottish Government’s Green Ports model is based on them (a port becomes a ‘Free Port’ first and then signs up to become a ‘Green Port’). The commitment to rapid Trident removal is almost certainly more rigid than the leadership would have wanted.

The National Transport Company vote (another Common Weal policy) will have joined a range of other policies such as an Energy Development Agency, a National Statistics agency and a National Infrastructure Company which are party policy but not Government policy, a differentiation it has not always been comfortable for the party leadership to manage.

But it is the vote on the National Energy Company which should be causing the most discomfort among the leadership – this is a policy which was only dropped by the Scottish Government last week but overwhelmingly supported by the party membership the same weekend. That is a source of embarrassment if nothing else.

The party/government fault line is not one the First Minister will wish to see growing further

And together these votes do make the membership of the party look less ‘tame’ than some feared would be the case after sizeable defections to Alba. The party/government fault line is not one the First Minister will wish to see growing further.

(The prominence of young speakers from the SNP Socialists may signal another problem for a leadership suspicious of being dragged to the left but is potentially a positive sign that plurality is still in existence in the SNP.)

This made the leader’s speech an interesting affair. Given all the hype in the build-up to the speech it might have been expected that there would be some tangible (if modest) steps forward offered to party members in that speech – but at first reading it appears if anything to go in the other direction.

The word ‘referendum’ was only used twice in a 5,000 word speech, and both references came at the end. Of those only one was about a future independence referendum and that was presented only as an ‘intention’ and heavily caveated. Otherwise the language choice around the question of a vote on independence was subdued, referring to ‘choice’, democratic imperative and cooperation.

Unusually for a conference speech this seems very heavily orientated to an audience other than the party membership. It seems designed more for those softly hostile to an early referendum. It may work in terms of government approval but whether the membership will is satisfied is less clear. (The mention of ‘voluntary union’ may have been designed to dog whistle to the membership but it was hardly at the forefront of the speech.)

The rest of the speech could have been mistaken either for a standard First Minister’s speech in the Scottish Parliament or one of her Covid briefings and contained very little new information.

In recent years the SNP leadership has seemed to see Annual and Spring Conferences as a burden. This is unsurprising – the leaderships of most political parties see their conferences as a burden. But also, over recent years the SNP leadership has tended to respond to this by inflating expectations, even if only modestly. It is hard to see many signs of that in this conference.

Whether people see this as quiet and prudential planning for a major escalation next year or as stagnation and delay will probably be decided almost wholly on how they saw the issue going into the conference.

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