Robin McAlpine: No-one wants to be SNP deputy leader – which should worry you

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine is concerned at the apparent lack of enthusiasm from parliamentarians to join the SNP leadership

AS a non-party supporter of independence I've tried to follow through on my decision not to join a party by limiting how much I comment on their internal matters. But I can't be the only non-aligned indy supporter who is at least a bit alarmed by the SNP deputy leadership race.

You can argue that this race could have been about any one of four things.

It could be about the policy direction of the party – is the Scottish Government reflecting the wider party's hopes for the policy agenda it wants to see in Scotland? There is no doubt that there is plenty of internal debate.

We've got to the position where this deputy leadership election seems to be about nothing at all – which at least partly explains why no-one really seems interested.

It could be about internal party organisation – does the administration and the democratic openness of the party match the aspirations of its members? There is no shortage of SNP discussion of this issue at the grass roots.

It could be about have a proper debate over independence strategy – what is the party's role in the big picture? What should it be doing? How should it be working with others?

Or it could be about 'next generation' – succession. It's all very well having a dominant leader, but no leader lasts forever. What next? You might think an election for deputy would be a chance to explore the depth of emerging talent.

Now, there are perfectly good reasons why you might not agree with or particularly want to see any individual one of these come to pass. I personally fear that trying to arrive at independence strategy in this kind of forum might lead to a Dutch auction for who will promise the fastest, earliest referendum and I'm not sure that's a good idea.

But we've got to the position where this deputy leadership election is about none of them. In fact, it seems to be about nothing at all – which at least partly explains why no-one really seems interested.

So far there are only three candidates in the running, and the most high profile of them is former transport minister Keith Brown. His challengers are MSP James Dornan and party worker Julie Hepburn.

For a party in a commanding position in government and still well ahead in the polls to have so little serious interest from credible candidates is, well, somewhat abnormal.

Don't imagine that this is a normal occurrence – for a party in a commanding position in government and still well ahead in the polls to have so little serious interest from credible candidates is, well, somewhat abnormal.

You might then make the Blair-Campbell argument about apathy and decline. When New Labour started to shed the enthusiasm people had for it and the voters it could motivate were in serious decline, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell tried to reframe this as success.

This is because (the theory went) the big drop in people taking an active interest in politics during their reign was an expression of overwhelming satisfaction.

Hmmmm. It was unconvincing then and it is even less convincing now knowing what we know.

So yes – the SNP is still well in the lead in polls and the opposition parties (for various reasons) just don't look like they're going to dent that lead much. In particular, while it is still early, the Leonard era in Scottish Labour doesn't look like turning things around any more than the Murphy or Dugdale eras.

Almost everyone knows there remain problems with party democracy and its administration and organisation. Some of the comments I hear would curl your hair.

And there may have been sharp declines in polling on positive attitudes towards the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon but, broadly, they remain ahead of the others.

Sure, this is all true. And if you're a party member and have moments of nervousness about the general direction of things, these are legitimate arguments to offer you immediate comfort.

I would just like to suggest that the last time I heard these arguments expressed so explicitly was in 2007. In a slightly uncanny parallel, Gordon Brown had just taken over from a long-standing, successful leader. He had briefed (via 'sources') that he was going to be bold and hold a big election – but then he bottled it and the vote never happened.

For a while afterwards he look weakened and damaged but the Tories were still at the early stages of rebuilding. David Cameron was only two years into the leadership job and he continued to face plenty opposition to his modernising agenda. The Tories did not become competitive immediately.

That was why Brown quite fancied the 2007 vote – and even for quite a while afterwards it still seemed a good bet that he'd win an election a bit later on. And then it looked like he might not win an election a bit later on. Then he lost.

I'm pretty sure that the bulk of the party membership wanted a proper debate this time, or would at least have wanted to see it contested between people they think of as 'heavyweight'.

I'm certainly not offering this as a direct parallel – the Scottish party which seems to have got its act together is the Tories and despite Ruth Davidson's 'detoxification' attempts there remains a pretty low ceiling for Tory expansion in Scotland.

But then again, right to the bitter end Brown was still hoping he could piece together a coalition or a minority government somehow or other. For the SNP it's much more binary – either there is a pro-independence majority in 2021 or there isn't. And right now the polls appear to suggest there won't be.

So if you're not a party insider, what should you make of all this? Is this just SNP discipline on a steady ship which is sailing confidently towards a destination and whose captain isn't in need of a sidekick?

I'm invited to talk at a lot of SNP branch and constituency meetings and I think that's an optimistic reading of mood. Almost everyone knows there remain problems with party democracy and its administration and organisation. Some of the comments I hear would curl your hair.

There is lots of worry that independence strategy feels like it is drifting. And there is undoubtedly a substantial body of opinion that would have liked a more radical policy agenda in government – the education reforms in particular are discussed with great discomfort (if at all).

So why is that not happening? It seems people feel that having any influence, any real purpose, would involve a constant fight with what is ferociously centralised control.

I'm pretty sure that the bulk of the party membership wanted a proper debate this time, or would at least have wanted to see it contested between people they think of as 'heavyweight'.

So why is that not happening? Potential candidates often have many reasons for standing or not standing, but the sense that the last thing the leadership wants is anyone second-guessing it is strong. It seems people feel that having any influence, any real purpose, would involve a constant fight with what is ferociously centralised control.

I'm not suggesting that the party is in uprising and it's reasonable to point out that last time round, Angus Robertson won on a platform which was almost explicitly 'go away, nothing to see, no reform needed, just get back in line'.

But rather a lot has happened since then, and not much of it is good. I don't know all that many activists left who still hold to the 'All You Need Is Nicola' line. I think there is a growing awareness that we're not going to 'loyalty' our way across the finishing line without some other kind of contribution.

And that's where my alarm comes in – two lines are diverging. Lots of SNP people are drifting towards other forms of expressing their support for independence, like the substantial revival in local groups.

I don't know all that many activists left who still hold to the 'All You Need Is Nicola' line. I think there is a growing awareness that we're not going to 'loyalty' our way across the finishing line.

So there are those who still say that anything other than loyalty is treachery and others who say 'I've given up on the SNP leading us'. But in the end, both lines are denial.

The SNP needs to sharpen up, develop a proper plan, act with more urgency – and lead. The movement needs to be much more organised and extend its reach on the ground, but it also needs a much higher degree of professionalism.

And on both fronts our biggest threat is a delusion of adequacy. We can't 'work around' what's there or try and bypass it or just augment it. We can't just pretend everything is fine and going well. But we can't have a debate if no-one will stand up and start a debate.

So people like me look on impotently. What should be dynamic looks moribund. What ought to be discussed is muffled and muted. And the party which seeks to lead doesn't seem to have enough people who want to be part of its leadership.

We can't afford to be Gordon Brown, only noticing it's slipping away after it has already slipped away (a sort of tragic summary of his whole political career).

But I chose my path and it leaves me outside these decisions. So I watch on, wondering what the hell is going to happen, rather worried that I can guess.

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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