SNP numbers at Westminster

The SNP Depute leadership contest

Published: 5 September 2016

The public could be excused for being unaware that the SNP is currently electing a new depute leader. James Mitchell looks at the candidates. This post originally appeared on the Academy of Government blog.

The public could be excused for being unaware that the SNP is currently electing a new depute leader. Past SNP leadership contests have been significant events when the party has confronted major choices in strategy and style. But this is not such a contest despite the party facing some challenging strategic issues including the timing of a future independence referendum.

Valiant efforts have been made in the press to portray this campaign as significant – falling back on the observation that the last five SNP leaders had been depute. But this ignores the fact that not all deputies have become leader (under 30% of those who were depute went on to become leader since the post’s establishment) and the SNP has had a habit of electing deputies who it is difficult to imagine become leaders. And the office of depute leader in the SNP is little different from that in most parties or the depute chief executive in government. One American Vice President crudely described the office as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’. Whether that is true of any depute post depends largely on what the incumbent makes of it.

Margo MacDonald was one of the most notable depute leaders (1974-79) of the SNP who did not become leader. Her media profile was far higher than that of Billy Wolfe, the party leader at the time though Wolfe was an unusual leader. He had no qualms about being eclipsed by his depute and interpreted the role – formally ‘chair’, later ‘convenor’ before becoming ‘leader’ in 2004 – in keeping with what we would now call ‘shared’, ‘collaborative’ or ‘distributive’ leadership. Indeed, the party’s constitution had been designed to create such a collegiate leadership. It made sense when the SNP was essentially an ‘amateur activist’ party and relied on leaders who were not full-time politicians. Spreading the leadership load was not only sensible but necessary. Gordon Wilson (1979-1990) was the first full-time politician to hold the most senior office in the SNP and that was burdensome enough given that much of his time as an MP was spent in Westminster while his party was based in Scotland. In 1960, Arthur Donaldson was able to devote himself to the leadership from retirement, replacing James Halliday who had been elected aged 29 four years before.

Alex Salmond redefined the role and assumed the more typical leadership approach evident in other parties even before the formal change occurred in 2004. But he was still constrained by the party’s constitution and the array of leadership offices elected annually by SNP conference. The prospect of at least one of the many national vice convenors having a very different view on policy and strategy from the party leader was considerable – there were few occasions when the annual conference returned an unambiguous message of support for the party leader in these elections. One of the few occasions was in 1990, the year in which Salmond was first elected leader and even then one of the vice chairs was anything but ‘on-message’. The reform of the SNP’s constitution under John Swinney’s leadership saw the most significant shift in power in favour of the leader inside the party since the early 1960s. It came too late for the Swinney himself but his successors have been major beneficiaries.

It is notable that no candidate for depute comes from within the group of SNP MSPs. To all intents and purposes the real depute leader is likely to prove to be John Swinney operating as Deputy First Minister given his role in government and access to the party leader/First Minister.   In common with other parties, the office of party depute leader tells us little about where real power lies. Sturgeon was unusual in her dual roles as depute leader and Deputy First Minister.

Past leadership contests have witnessed serious policy and strategy debates – Salmond vs Ewing (1990); Swinney vs Neil (2000); Salmond vs Russell vs Cunningham (2004). Nobody was willing to take on the current incumbent not least as the party was more at ease with itself despite suffering defeat in the independence referendum. A contest following resignation after an electoral defeat can usually be expected to provoke soul-searching and debate on the way forward. The last time the SNP had a serious internal debate on strategy was in 2004 though it has had a few significant battles – on NATO membership most notably in recent years. And the party does not appear to be using this contest for soul searching and debating strategy. The reason is simple: the membership and parties elected members are generally fairly content.

It is possible in the SNP for the party membership to return a depute who differed significantly from the leader but that appears unlikely in this contest as none of the candidates appear to be offering anything approaching a challenge to Nicola Sturgeon. Indeed, they compete with each other to show their loyalty.

The outcome of this depute leadership contest is unlikely to tell us much about the SNP given the lack of major divisions. It appears to be more about style than substance. It will be interesting to see how many members are willing to support a candidate (Tommy Sheppard) who is relatively new to the party. It will be difficult (until the findings of a major new ESRC study of party membership are published in late Autumn) to assess the views of members who joined since the referendum compared with those who have been members for much longer. Such evidence as exists suggests we should not expect much of a difference between new and older members.

Turnout will be interesting. The candidates have attended hustings across Scotland that have attracted large numbers of people but still only a tiny fraction of the party’s total membership. The absence of major divisions and relative (and understandable) lack of media interest point to a low turnout. Two key considerations follow from this. Hustings often make little difference to the outcome of a contest as a small proportion who have a vote attend these and of those who attend hustings have already made up their minds and are often unlikely to be swayed. But on this occasion, the hustings might make a difference – the candidate perceived to have performed best, assuming a clear and consistent best performer emerges, will have an advantage. But the key will lie with those who have a vote but who do not attend these hustings or even engage much with the party (the largest proportion of members in almost all parties). These are the members who will determine who becomes SNP depute leader and for them the choice is likely to come down to familiarity.

Cllr Chris McEleny, SNP Group leader on Inverclyde Council, is at a clear disadvantage and he has done well to have made it onto the ballot. This has given him a platform and if SNP history tells us anything this could be a good base for building a future at national level in the SNP (assuming he performs well in hustings even if he does not win many votes). He is likely to attract support from those who may not expect him to win but see his candidacy as a means of sending a message that the party needs to shift to the left.

Alyn Smith damaged himself in 2012 with his contribution to the debate on NATO, despite being on the winning side (winning and losing, as the SNP knows well enough, are not always straightforward). But his powerful speech in the European Parliament will have helped him enormously and the centrality of Brexit over the coming years gives him added relevance.

Tommy Sheppard has been a breath of fresh air both in the SNP and Scottish politics but he is still relatively unknown amongst the SNP’s large membership. There is a precedent for a relatively new member being elected to major national office in the SNP. Jim Sillars became SNP Vice Chair for Policy in 1982 having joined the party the year before. But the SNP was a very different party then and Sillars was a very well known figure. The contest was also then restricted to delegates to the party’s annual conference rather than the wider membership. But his message that he can appeal to a wider electorate will have some traction.

But the favourite is Angus Robertson. Robertson was an SNP foot soldier back in the mid 1980s when still at school and has worked his way up the party. He stumbled badly during the debate on NATO but the SNP members can be forgiving especially when someone has put in the time as he has. But it is his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions that give him an advantage over the others. In his capacity as leader of the group of SNP MPs, he has taken on the Prime Minister at these weekly jousts and is widely acknowledged to have performed very well. The membership will likely agree with commentators, even those who oppose the party, who describe him as the ‘unofficial leader of the Opposition’. The members want to believe it and get sufficient evidence to believe it.

The probability is that whoever is elected depute leader will not go on to become party leader. At present Nicola Sturgeon’s standing in her party is such that she has little to fear from any of those competing for depute. If she was to be replaced – perhaps following an unsuccessful second independence referendum – she would be replaced by an MSP.

This contest is about finding someone who complements her and can reach parts she cannot. That too points towards Robertson, as the only candidate from outside the central belt.

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