“Almost everyone in Scotland will now know somebody who’s in the party.” Photo: Getty
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One in 50 adults in Scotland is now a member of the SNP – what does this mean for its future?

The party is acutely aware that it needs to keep hold of its 90,000 new members.

For decades, a fixture of SNP campaigning were membership recruitment drives. Some, such as that led by the late Billy Wolfe in the mid-Sixties, attracted thousands of new members (including my father), others – particularly during the party’s long years on the fringes of politics – were only modestly effective.

All that’s changed since the emergence of the SNP as a party of government over the past decade. Shortly before last year’s independence referendum it had around 25,000 members, but in the weeks following the No vote, it more than doubled to over 50,000, making it the third largest party in the UK.

But it didn’t end there: by March 2015 the total had passed 100,000, meaning it entered the recent general election two-thirds the size of the Conservatives and half the size of Labour. That figure now stands at 115,000, meaning that around 1 in 50 of the adult population in Scotland is a member of the SNP – equivalent to the UK Labour Party having a million members.

This quadrupling in less than a year occurred without a concerted effort or strategy, although the creation of a centralised membership system when John Swinney was leader back in 2000-04, was an important reform. This removed the need for local branches to keep re-signing up members, thus liberating the party machine to concentrate on campaigning.

“Logistically in the mid-Nineties the party wouldn’t have been able to cope,” says an SNP insider of the recent dramatic growth in membership. “But after the referendum our technology helped greatly: most of the new members signed up online, so it then became a big processing job.”

But the party is also acutely aware it needs to keep hold of its 90,000 new members.

In that context a rolling cycle of elections helps. In less than a year’s time there will be elections to the Scottish Parliament, and after than an EU referendum and local government ballots. Social media also enables new members to feel involved, while they receive a weekly email from the party’s hugely popular leader (and Scottish First Minister) Nicola Sturgeon.

“By joining the SNP you can have a say in making Scotland all that it can be,” declares the party’s slick website, examples including voting for “the selection of parliamentary candidates and the party leadership”, and attendance at its annual conference and thus the opportunity to “take part in SNP policy making”.

The modern SNP, however, isn’t really much more internally democratic than its UK counterparts, and these days its two annual conferences are carefully stage-managed to avoid public dissent (an exception was the party’s 2012 debate over Nato). A motion at the most recent conference for the number of delegates to be scaled back was defeated, so they’ll continue to be large affairs.

“The activist base is very important to the SNP,” says a party insider. “The referendum showed how important local campaigning could be, as did the general election.”

And although Nicola Sturgeon is currently trying to play down talk of another referendum, the party knows how important its membership would be in a rerun of last year’s historic battle. “You need a lot of members to have a large campaign,” says the insider, “and although it would be bigger than just the SNP, we will always bring the bulk and numbers to another referendum.”

At the same time there are potential drawbacks to such a big influx of new members (although as Sturgeon once joked, it’s a “problem” she’s happy to have). Although the data is thin, it’s widely assumed many are significantly to the left of the SNP’s generally moderate leadership, perhaps more republican, and most likely more impatient for another independence plebiscite.

But, as the SNP insider points out, “almost everyone in Scotland will now know somebody who’s in the party; a member of their family, a colleague, or someone they know from bingo or bowling”. Not only will that “humanise” a party often caricatured by its opponents, it’ll help an already formidable campaigning machine cope with the electoral challenges ahead.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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