By Ross Walker
The SNP is still riding a huge wave of popularity likely to continue for a wee while at least. Unlike the Labour Party it is not on the verge of a split, the membership is by and large much more satisfied with its leadership. Hustings are reported to be courteous and non-confrontational with candidates often agreeing with each other. Political differences between the candidates are often blurred and emphasis is put on experience, internal organisation and even whether or not candidates will have time to carry out the role. However the differences in political background and reputation between the candidates are significant and will play a role in how the rank and file vote, despite attempts to de-politicise it.
Angus Robertson is already the Westminster parliamentary group leader and has been in the party for over 30 years. He was one of two MPs who submitted the pro-NATO motion to the 2012 conference. In his campaign launch he said “People joined our party because they have a radical vision for Scotland where there is no contradiction between the priorities of economic prosperity, successful business and our vision for social justice”. A typical expression of the contradictions in the SNP which tries to represent the interests two diametrically opposed classes. He also said “I believe that we all joined the party not to debate internal structures, but to look at what we could actually do to make all our lives better”, a clear dig at Sheppard’s pledges to democratise the party.
Tommy Sheppard on the other hand is a long time republican and ex Labour councillor who left the party after its rightwards drift in the 90s. He’s spoken at rallies in solidarity with Greece against austerity and is a staunch republican and anti-Nato. In relation to a new Scottish referendum he said “If we yield to a tax haven dream to win over a few bankers from the city of Edinburgh, then we will lose the argument and the people we really need to enthuse.” To be sure he’s also made the case for an SNP “consolidated on the centre left of politics” and has said that this is not a battle of left versus right. Despite this confused talk it’s clear his popularity is a reflection of the large amount of left leaning members.
SNP branches do not nominate deputy leader candidates. Instead, for a candidate to run they must have 100 individual nominations through a spread of 20 branches. On the 5th of August, it was revealed that Tommy Sheppard had received that largest amount of nominations with 317 across 91 branches, an impressive result for the non-establishment candidate. Sheppard’s campaign is very much focussed on membership engagement. In his pitch at his campaign launch he said “It is impossible to run an organisation with 120,000 members on the same rule book that we had for 20,000. We need an organisational upgrade. And I think the days of 200 branches sending 200 resolutions to a conference arrangements committee that then rules 90 per cent of them out of order are gone. I think that is very last century.”
As we’ve said before, the SNP is full of contradictions and in reality cannot afford full democracy. If the rank and file were to have a genuine input in the decisions it would inevitably come into direct conflict with big business party funders who still play a big role in the party. Full freedom of debate would either push the party leaders to become much more radical or would expose the weakness of their politics.
As Sheppard says himself, 80% of the SNP membership have joined since the referendum. After a mass campaign with clear anti-austerity, anti-imperialist and anti-British chauvinist elements, the SNP party machine has been unwilling to keep up this kind of interaction and would rather this rank-and- ile just pay their dues and sit back while the professionals do their job. However the rank-and-file will not just accept this bureaucratic party structure. The fact that Tommy Sheppard has clearly struck a chord amongst the membership shows that there is a mood for a change within the party.
Councillor Chris McEleny, who has the backing of longstanding left nationalist Jim Sillars, is by many accounts a more likely choice for socialists in the party. His impassioned speeches have proven popular at hustings. He states that his three themes are “stronger local government; giving more control over setting party policy to our party members; and promoting socialist policies at the heart of the SNP”. He’s a trade unionist who believes that Scotland is lacking a strong socialist voice. He states “I dream of a country with a fair and progressive tax regime, so that we have the best public services in the world”, but ends this with the typical SNP caveat “…but also encourage enterprise and innovation.” He is currently not predicted to win or come second. Partially this is because he is still a newcomer and relatively unknown. Also, importantly his more rebellious and bolder (though still confused) message is likely to be seen amongst a membership largely still happy with the party’s performance as too much rocking of the boat.
EU enthusiast Alan Smyth said in his speech, “My pitch is a simple one. Now’s the time. We must embrace Europe and put the European question at the heart of how we do business as a party at home, as well as in the wider world.” This pitch is of course popular just now with Scotland being taken out of Europe despite voting overwhelmingly to REMAIN. However under Sturgeon the SNP have already successfully portrayed themselves as the best party to take Scotland back into Europe without Alan Smyth as depute leader, so as much as the SNP’s predominately (but not 100%) pro -euro base may agree with Smyth, it’s likely unable to sway them enough to vote for him.
It must be stated that the idea of bringing an independent Scotland into a capitalist EU which is in a deep crisis is not going to solve any problems for the Scottish masses and will be exposed in time. Despite understandable illusions the EU does not have the interests of the predominately working class population of Scotland at heart, but only big businesses. The SNP are caught on an ever thinning ledge when it comes to pleasing their masters in big business and their working class electorate. They can’t please both forever and it is only a matter of time before these contradictions are exposed.
There are two common mistakes socialists make regarding the SNP. One is of course to label it as a socialist party. As Marxists we believe that socialism is the collective ownership and control of society’s productive resources to meet society’s needs. This can only be brought into being by a working class revolution against capitalism. It is clear that many in the SNP consider themselves socialists and we have no reason to doubt their sincerity, in fact we very much hope to win them towards Marxism. We also critically support any progressive reform that the SNP government can make to alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism, but the party leadership clearly works within the confines of capitalism and we cannot give any illusions in this.
The other mistake is to dismiss the party as simply a homogenous bourgeois nationalist party. It’s clear the party leadership is bourgeois. At the same time a working class rank-and-file to the left is putting and will continue to put more and more pressure on the party. It was revealed recently that the party is financially more than twice as dependent on membership subscriptions and half as dependent on business donors as it was pre-referendum, something which will influence its character. It is a very heterogeneous party and the rank-and-file must be appealed to.
A significant amount of class conscious workers and youth are of course not in the SNP, but support independence. The Radical Independence Campaign, which proved to be a successful poll of attraction for left radicalised people in the last referendumm, will be organising meetings in the next few months and may well become a rallying point in the next referendum.
By taking a friendly, comradely and appealing tone, groups such as RIC can potentially attract a large amount of the SNP rank and file without budging one inch from socialist and internationalist principles. Sooner or later the SNP’s commitment to capitalism, and all that entails, will be exposed. The slogan of a Scottish Workers Republic as part of an international Socialist Federation will gain more and more resonance in Scotland’s turbulent future.