No one – not even the SNP – predicted or expected the gains made in Glasgow on 5 May. I think I predicted that Nicola Sturgeon would hold Glasgow Southside and also that Glasgow Kelvin would fall to Sandra White. But Shettleston being taken by John Mason? Cathcart by James Dornan? Or the remarkable fifth seat and talismanic Anniesland, once held by Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, being won after several recounts by Bill Kidd? Not even in their – or my – wildest dreams. But on 5 May, dreams really did come true.
It is little wonder, then, that the party has now set its sights on toppling the Labour-held council in next year’s local government elections. The Herald and Sunday Herald are particularly excited by this prospect, devoting considerable time and space to talking up the battle already.
But if the Scottish election result has given the SNP a springboard for success, the groundwork has been all Labour’s. The spectacular demise of Stephen Purcell; the behaviour of Strathclyde Passenger Transport officials and employees; controversial school closures; the privatisation of key council assets through arms-length trusts; the snouts in the trough attitude displayed most publicly through ALEOS (though SNP noses aren’t entirely clean here either); more scandals involving councillors, not least one just newly elected to Holyrood, Anne McTaggart.
It’s like the modern-day equivalent of the fall of the Roman Empire, indicating a party out of touch with, and remote from the people; fiddling while the city it purports to serve burns. If ever a council was ripe for a political coup, Glasgow is it.
But the SNP still has its work cut out.
In 2007, it made significant gains going from 3 to 22 councillors. It might have had more elected, had it been able to field more candidates, for it only managed to find 22 to stand in the 21 wards. Yet in fifteen contests, its candidates proved the most popular, topping the polls in those wards. But in most wards, Labour fielded at least three candidates: in some, all were elected. This left Labour to clean up and emerge with 45 councillors and nearly 60% of the vote. If the SNP wants to govern alone with an overall majority, as Labour has done, the party will need to win at least 40 seats.
To be in with a serious shout of taking control of the city, the SNP will need to field a full suite of candidates in every ward – somewhere in the region of 56 – and persuade voters to transfer their votes. If that seems like a mammoth undertaking, its task just got a whole lot easier, thanks to common sense prevailing with the election of Cllr Allison Hunter as the Group leader on the council.
Cllr Hunter admits that she is unlikely to remain as leader beyond 2012. That statement makes plain the purpose of her interim leadership: to unite the group and to organise for victory. Cllr Hunter has form in this respect. She was election agent to the SNP Depute Leader and Depute First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon in 2007, propelling her to a first constituency win. Before then, she had been the SNP’s head of organisation. For years, she organised elections and by-elections, trained candidates and agents, oversaw the introduction of modern campaigning methods. Many of the current crop of MSPs and councillors around the country owe their election to this woman. They learned their craft at this woman’s knee, or more accurately, on her yellow canvass cards.
While the party’s campaigning organisation has moved on considerably since Cllr Hunter “retired”, the basic tenets of voter identification and engagement, of organising and delivering a campaign, of marshalling and turning out a vote, still hold true. And were largely introduced under her watch. She is a formidable organiser with a track record to prove it.
Moreover, she has undoubted people skills. If anyone knows where all the SNP’s bodies are buried, it is Cllr Hunter, and they will probably be buried with her. She’s seen and heard it all and has listened, acted, sympathised, mopped up tears and diffused difficult situations. A former primary school teacher, she was capable at silencing a room of squabbling activists with a look, never a raised voice; indeed, the skills deployed with querulous eight year olds probably stood her in good stead for her role as the party’s organiser. This woman was born to mediate and to smooth over troubled waters. If the rumours suggesting a group with some strife and factions are true, she is absolutely the right choice, not only to hold the SNP councillors together, but to mould them into an effective campaigning unit.
Cllr Allison Hunter has all the skills and experience required to deliver the victory that the SNP clearly covets. And Labour should be afraid. Very afraid of what the 2012 election might hold.