Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

SNP's structure could make the difference for #ScotRef


This is a piece about the SNP’s constitutional review. Exciting, huh? Well, maybe not, but important all the same.

I know – at least I hope – no-one joins a political party to debate its internal structure. And set against debates on Indy, Brexit and the World War III this is unlikely to get anyone’s political juices flowing. People are motivated by ideas and feelings, powerful emotions that propel us to action for change.

But the victory of ideas needs to be organised. None of us can achieve change by ourselves – we need to band together. So, the way we organise ourselves is crucial – it can make all the difference between winning and losing.

The SNP is finally getting around to catching up with itself. The dramatic and unprecedented surge in membership after the referendum changed the party. Not only are there many more members, they have different expectations.

The post Indyref surge brought many people into the ranks of the party – and whilst it resulted in many more active members, they declined as a proportion of the overall membership. Ask any branch organiser and they’ll tell you that whilst they may have four or five times as many members on paper as in 2014, they’d be lucky to have twice the number of people willing to take action of any kind.

But just because someone doesn’t want to attend a meeting doesn’t mean that we cannot harness their knowledge and experience. So, the challenge is to find ways that allow members democratic control of their party and also encourages new forms of participation from less active members.

Every one of the SNP’s 200 odd branches could submit a proposal on pretty much any aspect of this review – nothing is out of bounds. Maybe we’ll find suggestions for beefing up our youth and student organisation or changing the way black and minority ethnic members are represented.

But the biggest area of debate – and possibly the most contentious – will be how a new regional tier of the party might work.

There’s a growing consensus inside the party that we need something between the branch as a basic unit of organisation and headquarters. There’s less agreement on how this might work in practice.

This is a debate about both organisation and governance. Firstly, there’s the professional staffing structure. Most large membership organisations, not just political parties, see the need for staff in the field. Locally based staff can provide more immediate and effective back-up to volunteer activists on the ground. They can run training programmes, co-ordinate campaign materials, help move people from one area to another, and provide a physical public presence for the organisation. That could happen now. None of it requires a change in the party constitution.

New rules are only required if regions are also seen as part of the democratic structure of the party. On this level regions offer better opportunities for party members to express views, direct resources and press interests at national level. They represent grassroots democracy rising upwards rather than an organisational structure being implemented from the centre. And the real trick is to see how we can marry these organisational and democratic aspects together so that local activists feel more empowered and the same time are better able to understand and respond to the requirements of the national party.

Agreement can probably be easily reached on some matters, particularly if we build in a mechanism for review recognising we might not get everything right first time.

But opinion is divided on how the regions should be constituted in the first place. Some argue that regional assembles (meetings, events, call them what you will) should be gatherings of all individual members in that area. An alternative is a regional conference comprising delegates elected by each branch in that region.

This is more than a matter of detail. Direct democracy involving meetings of all members at this level is fraught with problems. A good turnout would be a logistical nightmare and a chaotic way of making decisions. A low one a bit of a damp squib. Either way, it’s hard to see more than say 300 of Lothian’s 12,000 members turning up to a weekend meeting.

If only two or three percent of the members attend a meeting no-one can argue that they represent the whole membership. In turn that means resisting the regional tier having any control over party policy or resources. The event becomes a talking shop. There’s nothing wrong with talking shops, but they are not a substitute for democratic representation and they do not augment the governance of the organisation. Aggregate meetings like this give the members no power and allow control to be held at the centre.

A delegate-based event at least requires the intention that the people who gather in the name of the party should represent its members in that area. It instantly gives the conference more authority and will allow branch officers to feel that the structure has some accountability to them.

Regional structures will cost. Some of the funds could come from a part of the membership fees which currently go to branches. Local branch activists will be happier to support paying over some money if they feel they have control over it. They need to be careful they don’t lose both.

Written for The National - 2nd May 2018


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