A Conference of Historic First Steps

What are the challenges for the SNP and what can “first timers” expect?

The 81st SNP conference in Aberdeen this weekend will be historic. Easily the biggest in the party’s history it will also be Nicola Sturgeon’s first speech to annual conference as Leader.

She will arrive to find a party in rude health – with over 120,000 members, dozens of new MPs and polling figures unheard of for a government in the dying days of its second term.

Her main opponent north of the border, the Scottish Labour Party, is in disarray following a near wipe out at the election in May. Despite the UK Labour Party taking a turn to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, polling suggests there is much work to do in the wake of his victory. The Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives are suffering as they continue to duke it out for third place bumping along with poll numbers in the low teens.

Given these factors the mood for many will be celebratory even though it is just over a year after the party’s defeat in its raison d’etre. Such is politics.

Challenges ahead

However all is not rosy. A bigger party can mean bigger challenges. Tensions that may have been papered over due to sharing a common cause were easier to manage with a set referendum date. In the absence of one, new policy divisions emerge.

In the short term these are focused on ‘fracking’ but in the longer term pressures around a “new date” for the referendum and how the Scottish Government will use its “new powers” will potentially dominate. Although still not totally defined the UK Government are doing their best to shift the narrative to a polarised debate between more welfare spending with higher taxes or the status quo. It will be in this political space that the policy argument for the election in 2016 will likely be fought.

So far the SNP has only had to deal with attacks on its record which according to polling have largely been ineffective. The clever play at this conference would be to, as far as is practicable, announce what the SNP would do with these powers. Arguments about the fiscal framework are important but they are ‘process’ issues. People, and delegates, want policy and to fire the first real shot in that debate and challenge Labour to do the same at their conference at the end of the month in Perth.

First timers

Many companies and third sector organisations will be going to the conference for the first time and may be wondering what to expect. For many it is a case of better late than never – they are playing catch up with those who forged relationships with the SNP long before their meteoric rise. SNP politicians will of course look favourably on those who took the time to engage earlier so ‘newbies’ to the market should bear that in mind. Most crucial to understanding the party is understanding devolution itself. Many big players are woefully ignorant about what devolution has delivered and what is in the pipeline. This is bread and butter stuff for the SNP so it’s important to be prepared to make the most of your time during meetings and fringe events.

London isn’t the enemy

Since the General Election in May there has been an overt outreach by the First Minister and Westminster Leader Angus Robertson MP to engage and start a dialogue with ‘London’. While some have seen this as a marked change of tone from the previous First Minister it is better understood using simple arithmetic. The SNP with a huge cohort of new MPs has the ability to make its presence felt and forge new relationships across all sectors like never before. Engagement previously was limited by capacity – no such constraints exists now and do not forget that as third largest party in the UK the SNP will have ample opportunity to make its views known in all policy areas – not just ‘devolved ones’.

Never before have the SNP been such a dominant force in Scotland while at the same time a major player in the UK Parliament. High expectations make for high stakes – and this conference is the first hand in a brand new game.

(Original article posted by Weber Shandwick Scotland: http://blog.webershandwick.scot/think/conference-historic-firsts-snp/)