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22 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:25am

How the SNP’s deputy leadership race could pave the way for a pro-Corbyn pact

Popular outsider Tommy Sheppard was once a Hackney councillor. 

By James millar

Lots of new members with a fundamentalist tendency having a disproportionate influence on the outcome of a leadership election – Labour doesn’t have the monopoly on such scenarios. Slipping under the radar in this summer of political turmoil is the Scottish National Party’s deputy leadership race.

It’s provoking its fair share of poison within the party and there will be implications for Westminster. The SNP’s approach to independence and the leadership and direction of it’s large group of MPs will both be coloured by the outcome of this election.

The leader of the Westminster group, Angus Robertson, remains favourite to replace his long time colleague Stewart Hosie as Nicola Sturgeon’s number two. But the entry into the race of Tommy Sheppard (pictured), one of his backbenchers and an SNP member for less than two years, has shaken things up.

Robertson has led the SNP at Westminster for nearly a decade. That job changed significantly when the party went from six to 56 MPs last May and gained all the rights, responsibilities and taxpayer cash that goes with being the third party in parliament. 

He’s been broadly judged a success in the role. His turns at Prime Minister’s Questions each week have been lauded. He’s been more effective than Jeremy Corbyn in discomfiting the PM, but that is not something to crow about given an actual crow could show up Corbyn.

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Robertson favours the gradualist, managerial approach to politics and to winning independence. The tactic that has served the SNP extremely well so far.

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But that is not the banner to which nationalists have flocked since the 2014 independence referendum. 

The party membership has increased by nigh on 100,000 in the last two years, quadrupling in size. And the vast majority of those new Nats signed up in frustration at the referendum result and in pursuit of independence.

Robertson knows that and it’s why his campaign has focused on separation and how to turn the previous defeat (which, despite claims by the continuity Yes camp, was not close) into victory.

Having masterminded a string of SNP election campaigns, he’s got the chops for that particular task. But as with Labour, the membership may not be interested in sensible, electoral and electable politics, and prefer instead Sheppard’s more hot headed approach.

When Robertson suggested the party ought to respect voters’ views and then seek to persuade No voters that their concerns are unfounded, Sheppard insisted he couldn’t see any downsides to independence.

One approach will impress the political set and persuade the electorate. But the other may play better with the selectorate and, as with Labour, it’s this latter group that matters in this contest.

Fissures are opening within the Westminster group on this very issue. SNP MPs are finding their tongues loosened by frustration. One of the party’s star performers over the last 12 months described a colleague as “not right in the head” after he attempted to derail a debate by focusing solely on independence. 

“There’s a time and a place” for indyref talk, insisted another. But for many of the tens of thousands of new members Scotland is the place and that time is now.

Those people are unlikely to be attracted by the other runners in the race. Councillor Christopher McEleny appears only to be trying to raise his profile and bag a ticket to Holyrood or Westminster down the line. The MEP Alyn Smith’s profile was rocket-boosted by a speech to the European Parliament in which he implored his “cher colleagues” (because he speaks French you know) to recognise the will of Scots to stay in the EU. Smith’s candidature in particular is only likely to hurt Robertson’s run, given they share a European background and are thought to favour a similar sort of high-profile overseas posting in the event of independence.

A win for Sheppard remains an outside chance, but these days in politics outsiders often end up as favourites. Should this happen, it would be a humiliation for Robertson and a bother for Nicola Sturgeon.

The zeal of her new party members that she’s so far kept a lid on would suddenly be in her face.

The depute leader role is largely a campaigning one. Sheppard would inevitably be champing at the bit to call Indyref 2. For how long could the First Minister resist his mandate?

Meanwhile, what of Westminster? Robertson would likely stay on leading the group, but for the first time he would have to handle a serious rival within it. 

And given Sheppard was once assistant general secretary of Scottish Labour (he only joined the SNP immediately after the independence referendum) and used to knock around with the likes of one Jeremy Corbyn when he was a councillor in Hackney in his London days, his election to a senior SNP role would only fuel talk of an electoral pact between Labour and the nationalists. Such a prospect was indeed recently raised by shadow Scottish Secretary Dave Anderson.

The result of the Labour leadership fight won’t calm the chaos in their ranks. When the SNP deputy leader result is announced at their party conference in October, the turmoil on the opposition benches could spread.