I didn’t make it to the SNP Conference in Perth, much to my disappointment. But it all seems to have gone swimmingly. Delegates are in good heart, Ministers have been on good form, and there have been plenty of populist announcements to keep the media happy.
The stage is set then for the First Minister, Alex Salmond’s address to his party faithful. Unlike Ed Miliband a few weeks ago, how Alex Salmond’s speech is received by his party matters less than how it is perceived by the listening and watching public and of course, the media. It is no exaggeration to suggest this is one of the biggest speeches of Salmond’s long and distinguished political career. His, and the SNP’s, future fortunes depend on it.
There hasn’t been one conducted recently, but the SNP has been trailing Labour in the polls for the Holyrood election. The al-Megrahi affair continued to dog the Scottish Government over the summer. And the country is on tenterhooks waiting to see how and where the axe will fall in John Swinney’s Scottish budget proposals. The SNP has had to work hard at this conference to move from defending the agenda to setting it, and Salmond’s speech must continue that momentum.
The party appears to be staking everything on a presidential style election campaign with Alex Salmond occupying centre stage. It is crucial that his speech successfully launches the process of winning a second term of government for the SNP. That will mean developing the nascent theme of “being part of better”, particularly in terms of reaching Scotland’s “squeezed middle”. Previously, these were aspirational voters and undoubtedly, the SNP benefited from their electoral support in 2007. Hanging on to them in very different circumstances will be much more difficult, but not necessarily unachievable, so long as the platform and pitch is right.
Moreover, some of the vested interests that the SNP Government so carefully and effectively courted in the early days of its administration may now find themselves in the firing line of cuts and public sector reform. They will require careful handling in the weeks and months ahead. And then there is the endemic problem of Salmond’s appeal to women voters: more needs to be done to at least neutralise the potential havoc they could wreak on slim majorities. The right approach and strategy could yet pay dividends, for while women’s votes are notoriously conservative, they are often also oddly fickle.
But there are other, seemingly less weighty issues that need to be addressed, for there are some bad smells lingering around Salmond, and they are proving difficult to eradicate. Today’s splash in the Scotland on Sunday resurrects the controversy over the Trump decision. The stushie over funding for the Gathering and the First Minister’s precise role in it is also not going away any time soon, not if Hugh Henry, Convenor of the Public Audit Committee has anything to do with it.
It may seem like flotsam and jetsam, but such trivia has a habit of derailing campaigns and even leaderships, as Henry McLeish and David McLetchie could no doubt testify. If the plan to run a campaign that effectively pits Salmond the statesman against Gray the novice is to be successful, then these issues must be expunged. They must be tackled head on, and not left to stew. Or there is a danger that the media – as is their wont – will find a way to re-introduce them into the fray when the SNP and its campaign team least expects it. If Salmond is to be the SNP’s biggest electoral asset in this Holyrood election campaign, the party simply cannot afford for him to be Trumped and Gathered.