SNP Spring Conference: Membership Moving Left

Ross Walker, IMT Edinburgh

The SNP’s 2017 spring conference came the same week as Sturgeon announced plans for a second referendum. This of course gave the event its main emphasis and themed how it was reported on by the mainstream press. However other factors were at play at this conference. Under the surface, the class contradictions that characterize the party were very present. A look at the conference can give us a clue into how Scotland’s very turbulent future will pan out.

A variety of motions were passed showing the left leanings of the SNP membership. For example, on the first day a motion to back a National Investment Bank as an alternative to “The failed Private Sector” was passed. The motion said Scotland’s economy and future development left “solely in the hands of our private banking and financial sector will be detrimental”. The National Investment bank falls far short of full democratic public control of banks but is nevertheless a move that will raise the sights of the SNPs predominately working class membership and support.

Along with this the conference unanimously backed a motion to extend voting rights of EU nationals. The discussion referred to how EU migrants couldn’t vote in the EU referendum despite the impact it’d have on their lives. The SNPs reaching out to migrants is seen as a breath of fresh air to Scotland’s most class conscious workers, in contrast to the xenophobic politics associated with Brexit and Trump.

The conference also saw a step forward for the TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) campaign. This is a campaign set up to change Scotland’s schools to see them teach about the full range of human sexualities and sexual and gender identities in society, and also take firmer measures to monitor, report and prevent homophobic bullying and abuse. The conference voted in favour of setting up a working group between the campaign and the government to make sure this was carried out.

It’s worth noting the fact that this motion was forwarded even after its support was passed in Holyrood. In contrast to the image often attributed to the SNP membership by their opponents as ever loyal and uncritical, this shows that much of their membership aren’t willing to just let the “professionals” do their job. This discussion around the motion was telling with delegates expressing frustration with the fact that TIE legislation hadn’t already been implemented and one delegate saying “The time for talk is over, now is the time for action”.
Discrimination towards LGBT+ people is an engrained part of capitalist society, dividing the working classes and oppressing LGBT+ folk. It is clear that the TIE campaign has had an effect on the SNP leadership who will need to go further than the usual anti-homophobic soundbites given by most politicians.

The conference was also described as a milestone for the land reform movement. An amended motion was passed calling for a tax on land ownership ending the feudal land system in Scotland. When delegate Graeme McCormick spoke to the amendment boldening the original motion, the conference gave him a standing ovation. Another delegate said that the rich landowners must meet social responsibilities and “if you don’t the people of Scotland can take it back”. This policy has clearly come about through pressure from within and outwith the party. In 2015, the membership successfully rebelled against the leadership, emboldening their policy and plans for land reform.

On top of this a motion was passed calling on any councils the SNP win in May to introduce participatory budgeting. This was moved by left councilor and Depute Leadership candidate Chris McIleney. He said:

From Peebles to Peterhead, from Oban to Dunbar there is a burning desire for communities to have a far bigger say in how their communities work in relation to their councils… in May I want the SNP to win control of councils across Scotland so that we can then give that power away – to the communities across this country that we are elected to serve…We all agree that decisions about the future of Scotland are better made in Scotland by the people that live and work here.

Similarly, decisions about local communities across the country will be better decisions if more autonomy is given to people to make those decisions…Empowering local communities to have more control of local resources, more control of local decisions and ownership of their own facilities will be the biggest transformation to the political environment in generations.” This vote also committed SNP councilors to work in the spirit of the Community Empowerment Act to increase the stock of land and buildings owned by local authorities, among other measures.

Of course, the subject of a new referendum and Brexit played a big part in the conference. Parliamentary and Depute Leader, Angus Robertson started the conference with a clear message to Theresa May saying that she had better not block another referendum. One veteran member said “If the British government tells the Scottish people you’re not getting a referendum, then the whole of Scotland will erupt. Even the people who are sympathetic to Westminster control.” This impassioned statement although exaggerated carries an element of truth in showing the dilemma that Theresa May is in and the potentially backfiring affect a refusal of the referendum could have.

Similar sentiments were shown by other delegates including the SNP youth convener Rhiannon Spear who in another impassioned speech said “May said yesterday she was acting on behalf of the whole of the UK, but she’s not. She’s just another Tory leader isn’t she?”

The mood wasn’t enough to drown out any practical questions and it wasn’t long before the predicament of the EU was brought up. The SNP, since the Brexit vote have very much leant on the EU. The fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain but is still being dragged through the Brexit process exposes the limits of Westminster’s so called democracy in front of the whole population, and it’s no surprise that support for independence spiked after the vote.

However, there are many other factors at play here. The EU and the Euro are in a very deep crisis. The EU may have progressive connotations to many in Scotland but elsewhere in Europe it is seen very differently. The implementation of capitalist austerity particularly in Southern Europe by the Troika has dramatically shattered illusions in the EU and shows how things will pan out if Scotland were to be allowed membership. Scotland’s membership is of course far from certain, with many such as Spain’s Rajoy against it because it could have on small nations within the Spanish state.

Delegates such as Spear admitted that they have to work out how to appeal to the significant minority of Brexit voters. Toni Giugliano, of the SNP’s national executive, put forward that “independence first, and then if you want to campaign to get out of the EU that comes after, that is a matter for later”. However, this line cannot hold forever and the closer Scotland gets to a referendum, the more people will start looking to the party for a straight answer on this question.

With capitalism in such a deep crisis, the only straight answer to the European question would be to propose a United Socialist States of Europe, but this is not an answer that will be given. The SNP leaders are wedded to capitalism. This was very clear by the corporate influence at the 2016 conference. The closer Scotland gets to being independent the more capitalist pressure will apply as the ruling class hedges its bets and tries to turn the party into a safe pair of hands for Scottish capitalism.

In the ideological battle between liberalism and xenophobic protectionism, the SNP leadership have been firmly in the liberal camp which allows them to speak of inclusiveness and internationalism as opposed to the Brexiteers and Trumpists. This allows for them to sound left wing on social issues such as immigration and LGBT rights. When it comes to economic questions they currently have the convenient excuse that Westminster is preventing Scotland from reaching its full potential. In this sense the SNP is currently able to hold a mass party together whilst facing both ways and looking very confident while doing it.

Ultimately this situation is untenable. The Westminster card will only last so long (particularly if independence is achieved) and with time it’ll become increasingly clear that you can’t truly tackle discrimination and have an inclusive society without addressing the economic problems of jobs and housing on which bigotry thrives. The SNP leaders need to appeal to their left leaning rank and file. Allowing left wing motions to pass at the Spring conference has likely raised the sights and confidence of left wing elements within the party, who will look towards their leaders to implement what they’ve been democratically mandated to do. They cannot do this whilst also being a safe pair of hands of Scottish capitalism. This is the recipe for dramatic ruptures in the party which will shape Scotland’s political landscape.

The only way to really solve the problems that Scotland faces and create a thriving and inclusive society that many are looking for is to overthrow capitalism and implement a Scottish Workers Republic. A democratically planned economy as part of a Socialist World Federation. As time goes on this idea will become more and more appealing to the Scottish working classes including those in and around the SNP.

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