Ahead of SNP annual conference tomorrow, Living Rent tenants’ union are delivering their Tenant Manifesto to the SNP’s party HQ in Edinburgh. They’re calling for proper rent controls, after the Scottish Parliament introduced Rent Pressure Zones in 2016 that councils have been unable to use, due to the cost of data collection requirements placed on them to even make a bid to Ministers’ for an RPZ. In Edinburgh, where private rents rose 45.9 per cent from 2010 to 2020, the SNP-led council described RPZs as “unfit for purpose”.
The failure to introduce rent controls in this Scottish Parliamentary term despite passing legislation can be added to a long list of disappointments of the 2016-2021 government. Even just in this pandemic crisis alone, we have had a series of howlers that would have placed any other government under severe pressure: the care homes scandal, the SQA debacle, and the student accommodation fiasco stand out as the top three. Alongside that is the ongoing saga of the Holyrood-Salmond inquiry and the Bifab failure. The SNP internally is more divided than any time in memory, with the candidate selection process marked by an incredible amount of rancour. Yet, despite all of this, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon comes towards the end of the year in a stronger position than when she started it. Polls show the SNP coasting to victory in the 2021 elections. Is Sturgeon invincible?
Step back from the fray of Scottish politics and the bigger picture illuminates why Sturgeon’s SNP, despite all of the above, remains dominant. Brexit was a fundamental polarisation between British and Scottish politics, in which the SNP leader became the representative of the Scottish Remain majority. The narrative of Sturgeon being a leader of something bigger than her party was deepened even further by the pandemic, in which Scots’ rallied behind the First Minister rather than Boris Johnson as the person they looked to in a major national crisis. I could write five essays about how Sturgeon actually followed Johnson’s lead in all the most important decisions at the beginning of this pandemic, a move which proved to be disastrous, but the perception matters more than the facts when it comes to the narrative of the past year.
It’s this big picture which one has to keep in mind to understand the present moment, but that doesn’t mean the damage described above does not matter. Because when the big picture becomes less favourable, as it inevitably will at some point, you need something stronger than a party apparatus to fall back on. There is eventually a cost to every leader of giving up the goodwill of activists and the party cadre. The letter by senior SNP CND activists expressing their furyabout the undemocratic organisation of the party conference this year and the snubbing of their motion on the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shouldn’t be taken lightly. These are people who have been in the party for decades and have seen it all. They’re not prone to kicking up a stink just for the sake of it.
In these strange times we live in, in a strange moment for the SNP, it will be a very strange virtual party conference this weekend that will probably fade out of memory soon after. But all the details matter.
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