‘Cherrymandering’ may back-fire on the SNP leadership

With the long-weekend behind us, Source Direct is coming late to the SNP bunfight. The room is being tidied up, and the National Executive Committee are nursing hangovers, as well as one or two bruises. Why did it happen, and what does it mean? First, for those of you who missed all the fun and […]

With the long-weekend behind us, Source Direct is coming late to the SNP bunfight. The room is being tidied up, and the National Executive Committee are nursing hangovers, as well as one or two bruises. Why did it happen, and what does it mean?

First, for those of you who missed all the fun and games, a summary. The NEC – the party’s ruling body – met on Thursday evening and ruled against dual mandates, where politicians can be both MPs and MSPs at the same time. Those who are selected as candidates for Holyrood next year will have to announce their resignation from their Westminster seat in time for the by-election to coincide with the Scottish Parliament election, there-by saving the party cash on an election campaign. The decision led SNP MP Joanna Cherry to announce that she was pulling out of the race for the Edinburgh Central seat, as she was unwilling to see her staff made unemployed, possibly permanently, by resigning her Westminster seat before a Holyrood one was won. That led to all hell breaking loose on social media, an unprecedented backlash from grassroots party members who perfectly reasonably suspected the NEC decision was a stitch-up. Few with a straight-face could say that the decision would have been taken if it was Sturgeon ally Angus Robertson, who is also competing for the Edinburgh Central seat, who was still an MP, and not leadership-critic Cherry. The Robertson v Cherry contest was billed as a proxy to be front-runner to replace Sturgeon when the SNP leader decides to hang up her boots, presumably before seeing out the next parliamentary term. Cut up SNP membership cards were not difficult to find on Twitter.

When news filtered through that the NEC had also decided to effectively bar James Dornan MSP from seeking re-nomination for his seat, by making it an all-women shortlist, NEC-critics could even be found among Scottish Government Cabinet ministers, with Mike Russell and Humza Yousaf voicing their concerns. Dornan, the MSP for Cathcart, had indicated he was planning to step down early in July, but reversed his decision weeks ago. National Secretary Angus MacLeod hastily over-turned the NEC’s decision, deciding that it was in fact unconstitutional to prevent a sitting MSP from standing again. The U-turn was a huge embarrassment to the leadership body. NEC representative and party women’s convenor Rhiannon Spear, who had backed the move for an all-women’s shortlist in Cathcart, sought to pin the blame on MacLeod in a leaked e-mail, questioning why he was “incapable” of doing his job and stating that she was “losing confidence” in serving on the NEC with him at the helm. 

The Dornan U-turn only emboldened those demanding that what has been dubbed the ‘Cherrymandering’ dual mandate decision was also over-turned, with figures not known as leadership critics, such as Phillipa Whitford MP, coming out strongly against the move, arguing that “no one ever mentioned this before any of us stood for Westminster”. Duncan Ross, the SNP’s National Secretary from 2006 to 2009, also said: “This looks spiteful and directed at one person. In my view a terrible idea.” Angus Robertson, perhaps in fear of becoming synonymous as the establishment stitch-up candidate, sought to distance himself, also coming out against the NEC’s decision. And a new candidate threw their name in to the hat. The former Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi said he would be standing as a “unity candidate”, claiming to have been backed to do so by members in the constituency who had been in both Cherry and Robertson camps. Biagi could yet ruin Robertson’s (widely muted) hopes to be Sturgeon’s successor, even if Cherry has been thwarted.

Or has she? There is no rule in the party (yet) which says MPs can’t stand to be party leader. The danger for the leadership is that all they may have succeeded in doing is reinforcing an ‘establishment v the members’ dichotomy. As Dani Garavelli has pointed out, this will have been confirmation for many in the party who see the Sturgeon-Murrell regime as “too cliquey, too controlling and unwilling to brook dissent”. Meanwhile, Cherry’s image as a party rebel with a cause has been bolstered; an advocate of open debate including on indyref strategy, she now has the feather in her cap of appearing to be feared by the leadership, who do not seem to believe they can win in a straight contest against her even when one of their heavy hitters in Robertson, who won the deputy leadership of the party with 52.5 per cent of the vote 2016, is the opposition. While Garavelli describes the divide as being between the “mainstream party” and “the fringes”, if the fringes have significant enough support among the membership as to be such a threat that bureaucratic manoeuvres are required to stop them, are they really the fringes? 

With Gender Recognition Act reform delayed by the Scottish Government until the next parliamentary term and Holyrood’s Salmond Inquiry only just getting started, the debates which animate this conflict have no obvious end in sight. But ultimately these issues are the surface level representation of a deeper structural division in the SNP: it is a party that straddles two positions simultaneously, which are increasingly in conflict. On the one hand it is a party of the state, which has been in power for 13 years consecutively, and like all parties of government it is chiefly concerned with preserving its own power at election time. On the other hand, the SNP remains the leading force of a mass movement to break up the British state and establish an independent country. Most of its membership joined the party following the experience of the 2014 grassroots Yes movement. They expect the SNP to not be a normal political party, but to have a commitment above all else to an idea; independence. Those members see a leadership that does not appear as committed as they are to using the huge power the party has accumulated to fighting for that cause, and that frustration plays itself out through looking to other possible leaders who could potentially play that role. Put it like this; if we were heading for an indyref this year, we would not have seen the open internal warfare in the party on show over the weekend. 

Independence remains the key to understanding how the party has (uniquely among major parties) managed to maintain internal discipline until now, and why that unity is now breaking apart.

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