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20 October 2015

Seven Lessons From Aberdeen: SNP Party Conference

Written by: Robert Henderson, Senior Account Executive at Edelman

Government Affairs

Thanks to its landslide result at the General Election, sending MPs to Westminster in 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, this weekend the SNP held the biggest Conference in its history. So what did I learn in Aberdeen?

1. Confident: The SNP is a party on the march. Defeat in the referendum a year ago was barely mentioned in speeches, with the leadership determined to instead use the conference to celebrate their dominance of Scottish politics. MPs and MSPs concentrated on the triumph of The 56 and ambitions for the Holyrood elections in 2016.

2. Fractious: However aligned the leadership was, some of the party faithful were less on-message. The First Minister tried to put a lid on ambitions for a second referendum, telling delegates that she respects the result of last year’s poll and that a referendum will be called “when there is clear evidence” of a change in public opinion, but many of the delegates I spoke to joined the party after the referendum, and are itching for another one.

3. Friendly: Many commercial and media observers told me this was the most relaxed party conference they attended this year. In contrast to the brooding negativity at Labour or the bunker mentality at Conservative, MPs, MSPs and delegates in Aberdeen were refreshingly open and friendly.

4. Approachable: Despite the sudden surge of outside interest in the conference following the General Election, the party still maintained the atmosphere of a small conference. With so many fresh MPs and members, everyone was still learning the ropes – many front benchers had never addressed conference before. But critically, the tone of a conference is set by the leadership, and the First Minister was constantly out and about on the fringes, often besieged by selfie-seeking delegates. Her MPs and MSPs dutifully followed suit, giving the impression of a party at ease with itself.

5. Not so friendly: This friendliness did not extend to the SNP’s colleagues in the Conservative and Labour parties. Unsurprisingly, the Tory-bashing was relentless, with MSPs and MPs caricaturing the Government as the out of touch purveyors of ideologically-driven cuts. More surprising was the delegates’ reaction to Labour’s lurch to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. Rather than seeing him as a threat to SNP vote share, the hall dissolved in laughter every time his name was mentioned.

6. Disruptive: Alex Salmond may have vowed to never take an Uber, but the SNP is keen to portray itself as a disruptive force in British politics. Callum McCaig MP, the Energy Spokesperson, told delegates that unlike the SNP in Holyrood, Westminster MPs behave like “animals” and Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP said that London is “running scared” from the SNP.

7. Future: Taken together, these observations set out two key challenges for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP in their aim of achieving a “historic third term” in office next year. Firstly, with the unifying issue of independence off the table for now, they must find a way to galvanise new members with disparate political views in the far less interesting task of campaigning for devolved assembly elections. And secondly, as much as this week was about portraying the SNP as an anti-establishment force in Westminster, the SNP had been the party of government in Scotland for the past eight years. Defending their record in office will be a much bigger challenge.

Although the SNP leadership has an eye on the 2016 race for Holyrood, at Edelman’s London office our primary focus is Westminster and here there are immediate challenges. How long will the post-referendum surge last? How will The 56 meet the wide-ranging demands of their diverse supporters? Can they maintain a united voice in Westminster despite these pressures? 

SNP Westminster Group Leader Angus Robertson told a fringe event in Aberdeen with The Times (client) that the primary challenge facing his MPs was inexperience, with the new intake outnumbering the old guard almost ten to one. Mentoring his new charges, instilling loyalty, and deploying them effectively across select committees and other parliamentary groups to hold the Government to account on key issues will raise the party’s profile. The first major opportunity to do this will come today when the House debates the Government’s plans to reduce to tax credits. With the Government under pressure from its backbenches and the media to drop the reforms, and the Labour Party’s economic position in disarray, the door is open for the SNP to portray itself as the unofficial opposition – the true anti-austerity party in Westminster.

Image: Donald Bowers Photography / Shutterstock.com

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