Currently chugging their way up the A9 or clogging a railway carriage or ten, the SNP has been on the move this morning. Some arrived last night; the HQ team has been there all week getting ready, and business proper starts today. Three days of speechifying, networking, politicking, gossiping, and of course carousing.
Inverness is the city that the SNP loves to love. Kicked out for a few years while the Eden Court theatre underwent a refit, the party was like a forlorn nomadic tribe, searching for an oasis in the desert that was big enough to accommodate its needs, yet small enough not to swallow it up whole. Of course, it managed but it didn’t feel, or even seem to outsiders, properly like conference.
This will be the first SNP conference I’ve attended in some eight years. I’ll probably only know about half the folk there, if I’m lucky, but there will still be plenty of old friends to catch up with, and a few new Twitter ones to meet in the flesh. Half the voluntary sector will be there so it will also be good to catch up with chums I work with.
I have no intention of trying to beat my conference record of ten hours’ sleep over three days – and that wasn’t the conference with the all-nighter. I’m sure that that kind of thing doesn’t go on anymore, anyway…..
It will be interesting to be there as an observer rather than a fully-fledged participant. I suspect, given that hope did beat fear, it will all be rather jolly and celebratory, though there is serious business to get on with and down to. Frankly, I’ll be amazed if there is as much chat about the referendum as there is on Kenny Farquharson’s Twitter feed. Ironically, the SNP is much more relaxed about the what and when than anyone else.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Far be it from me to offer the SNP, conqueror of all electoral land it surveys, a little advice. But when did that ever stop me?
1. The local government elections
David Berry, a candidate for the internal post of Vice Convenor Local Government – I wish him well – pointed out that in his Conference handbook foreword, the First Minister omitted mentioning the 2012 council elections. It was a telling slip. Eck doesn’t do the wee stuff well and the party has always had a bit of an issue with local government, not really seeing its worth, often viewing it as troublesome. Some SNP led administrations haven’t exactly been helpful with the implementation of Scottish Government policy: you can see how that might frustrate Ministers.
Moreover, with his eyes firmly on the big prize, it’s easy to see how grassroots politics might be beneath the First Minister’s sight line. This would be a mistake, for as David Berry points out, the 2012 elections are the last nationwide electoral test before the referendum. Any stuttering here would open up chinks in the electoral armour, allow doubt and doubters a platform and put the party on the backfoot. These local government elections matter, as they have never mattered before, not least because so many of the cuts will happen at this level, and it would be good to see them given their proper place at this conference. Not least to see dues paid to some of the party’s least celebrated, yet longest serving elected foot soldiers.
2. The roadmap to independence
Scheduling Angus Robertson’s session might just be a cunning plan to ensure a conference full house right up to the finish, but I hope it offers more than that. Since May, we’ve witnessed some tactical skirmishing – a little too much at times – but the strategy remains hidden. Personally, I’d like to see and hear how the party will prepare to win the argument, on how independence is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The roadmap could establish some internal policy development forums on key areas like defence, tax, welfare, Europe etc, all the areas where the Scottish people might have questions and the party will have to answer. Not now, to slake the thirst of a bored and restless media, but as part of the referendum campaign.
I can emphatically declare that there won’t be a date announced – I’m not the Bran Seer of blogging for nothing, you know.
3. Statesmanlike Eck not Smart Alex
Old habits die hard and on occasion, the First Minister has been unable to help himself, most recently slapping down the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster for having the temerity to announce an inquiry (inquiries?) into independence and the referendum. First, Eilidh Whiteford (and the rest of the Westminster group) doesn’t need the FM doing her job for her. She is more than capable of poking holes in the committee’s activities all by herself and it would be nice if she was given the chance to do so. Also, the more Westminster is talking about independence, the better. It can be as pejorative as they like, for there ain’t no one listening. Let the Scottish Labour MPs work themselves into a lather apropos nothing, with Dr Whiteford and the other SNP MPs tossing in the odd hand grenade to stir things up now and then. It will keep them busy if nothing else and provide a useful dress rehearsal for the kind of arguments likely to surface again in the campaign proper, giving the SNP plenty of time to prepare to rebut them.
Meanwhile, Eck should do what the Scottish people like him doing, which is being statesman-like. Standing up for Scotland, focusing on governing, on the things that matter to them and their families now, like jobs and the economy. His job is to do all that – competently – but also set the mood music for a referendum. And no one can do it better.
4. Focus on the real enemy
Recent polls contain more than a sense that negative connotations might propel Scots towards independence. By that, I mean that Scots aren’t liking having a Tory government back at Westminster. They are fearful of their and Scotland’s future prospects and independence no longer seems quite so scary after all. It’s less why and more like why not? The SNP Government should concentrate on exposing how awful life is becoming thanks to Cameron and his little Lib Dem helpers. Which is one reason why it needs to take ownership of the welfare reform bill scrutiny process recently established at Holyrood. And find more ways to pick big fights with the UK Government on Stuff That Matters.
It can ignore Labour. The Scottish people currently is, so why should the SNP bother?
5. Enjoy the moment
The next one won’t come for a few years, until after the independence referendum, when it will either be the party to end all parties or a wake. The SNP achieved a truly astonishing election result in May. Such moments should be cherished and celebrated, in an appropriate fashion, of course. And it would be nice to hear all those MSPs returned and newly-electedcourtesy of their hardworking activists, saying thank you.