“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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.