Steve Daley: Where the SNP has gone wrong and how it can turn things around

SNP activist and politics graduate Steve Daley warns the SNP will be in big trouble if it doesn't recapture the radical spirit of Yes

THE SNP was never going to do as well as it did in 2015, that much was clear. On top of that the Tories were always going to pick up 4-6 seats as a result of their 'no indy' stance and the relative popularity of Ruth Davidson. 

But let there be no doubt that the result last week for the SNP was terrible and there can be no spinning away from that fact. While we won 35 seats, our majorities were all slashed apart from Ian Blackford. But there are positive things we can learn from this big setback.

The first thing to say is that if we are truly honest with ourselves, the last four campaigns (Scottish Parliament elections 2016, EU referendum, council elections and GE2017) we have fought have been uninspiring, to say the least.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, the last four campaigns we have fought have been uninspiring, to say the least.

We won a minority government in 2007 and a majority in 2011 because we had fresh ideas, popular policies and made Scotland the best it could be with the limited powers we had, while advocating for independence and more powers. 

From scrapping bridge toll fees, tuition fees, offering free personal care and free prescriptions to selling Scotland abroad, people who were for and against indy happily voted for the SNP as a result of our record. 

The 2014 indy referendum happened and we lost, but the campaign was inspiring and empowered an entire nation, especially young people. That same energy and passion engulfed the SNP via more than 100,000 members, and Nicola Sturgeon went on a national tour offering hope with the perception that she was going to be more to the left and radical than Salmond. 

We had the General Election in 2015, when we were offering to prop up a stale Labour party and be its radical mentor, offering a fully costed, ambitious manifesto. The momentum was with us and our positivity was attracting vast members of the public who had voted No but wanted Scottish interests to be met at Westminster. In the end we won 56 seats

Where things began to go wrong

Having cemented our power in both Holyrood and Westminster, the summer of 2015 was the time to build on our positive and good record and be bold and ambitious. Instead what did we offer at the 2016 Scottish election? Elective surgeries, more money for the NHS, "standing up for Scotland", etc. 

The strategy was John Swinney’s "steady as she goes" and "do not rock the boat". It was uninspiring, relying on Sturgeon's personal appeal to fuel the activists, but it was a wasted opportunity. We should have been more radical, offering common sense policies such as ending charity status of private schools, offering a land and property tax for those who have and hoard vast amounts of land, and a bolder approach to rent controls.

These policies would have shown we had attempted to address the inequality in our country with the limited powers we have, which would be appealing to the new members we took from Labour post-indyref, and build on the support we got from students from our free tuition policy . 

Had we done that, people would see the need for the transfer of more powers from Westminster to Holyrood to make Scotland fairer, instead of seeing us demanding powers for the sake of it.

We should have been more radical – ending charity status of private schools, offering a land and property tax for those who have and hoard vast amounts of land, and a bolder approach to rent controls.

This uninspiring 2016 Scottish election campaign continued and got worse when it came to the EU referendum. I said at the time that the SNP campaign was uninspiring, negative and downright stupid. 

There was no problem with the SNP supporting EU membership, the problem was the strategy and arguments. Every argument we used was similar to those the Better Together campaign had used against us. Did we not learn anything? It was full of doom and gloom. 

There was no explanation why Norway - which has full access to the single market – was happy outside of the EU, the fisheries issue was not addressed and there was a lack of what the SNP wanted to reform in the EU. Its campaign forced me to vote and campaign to leave the EU.

Fast forward to the snap election in 2017 and we offered nothing but empty, outdated slogans, and had a negative campaign based on "vote for us because we are not the Tories" message. 

This timid, cautious strategy has now caught up with us and has to end if the party is to survive. Just a few weeks ago, Sturgeon was mocking Jeremy Corbyn, despite his rising popularity. This was unwise and came across as sneering. 

The irony is that the Yes campaign, and our 2015 campaign, have parralels with Corbyn's campaign. He has used many of our past policies in his manifesto and we have been right to highlight that, but it’s not enough to rest on our past achievements – we need to change. 

How can things be turned around?

Here are a few points on what needs to change.

1.) Be more radical with the powers we have

As mentioned above, scrap the charity status of private schools, and introduce property and land tax. These are the right things to do and the people who believe they'll be adversely affected by them are not the types who'd ever vote for us anyway, far less vote indy. 

We need to have foresight and seriously research new issues and problems. For example, the party and government should be looking into a Citizen's income.

2.) Our messaging needs to improve

The media and strategy team needs a complete revamp. Not only has the party message been inconsistent and struggled to cut through, but our rebuttal to critics has been poor. 

For example, if the reason we cannot put income tax up to 50p for top earners is due to not having powers to tackle tax avoidance, then keep saying that to the media and public, and demand Westminster grant them. That should be done with all the things we want to do but can’t because the power lies elsewhere. 

There was also the failure of selling the Named Persons policy to the public, even the term "Named Persons" was awful and sounded sinister. 

I personally would like the party to bring back Kevin Pringle to handle media and comms - he knew what he was doing and we had a far sharper media operation when he was at the helm.

3.) We should make better use of the talent within the party 

Not only do we not use our vast membership to effect other than for canvassing, we don't use our MPs and MSPs enough for media and public appearances.

We see the same faces on Question Time, politics shows and the breakfast shows all the time. We have talent old and young who are from different walks of life and not your standard career politicians. Mhairi Black, Hannah Bardell, Angela Crawley and George Kerevan (who has just lost his seat) are just some of the politicians that are criminally underused. Use them!

4.) The SNP party power structure needs to change

Power and decision making is concentrated in a far too few hands in the party. Our members and our politicians from all walks of life have expertise in various fields, we should therefore form policy hubs for the party where members alike can engage and come up with solutions and ideas and where we can engage with the leadership team and their advisors on what we think of their decisions and the overall direction of the party. 

It should not just be left to the leader, chief of staff and advisors. We are a movement, it can no longer be the Nicola show.

Final thoughts

The party can improve, be bolder and inspiring again. I was inspired by Sturgeon in the indyref campaign; she was bold and brave as all of us were. 

The Hilary Clinton strategy/behaviour she has adopted recently doesn’t work and is unappealing. Presidential campaigns are uninspiring and are not effective (see the SNP 2016 elections and results and Theresa May 2017 election and results). It is positivity and policies that win and inspire people to vote and campaign.

Finally, it is not 'middle Scotland' we should be worried about, but the Corbyn effect on the Yes activists. We need them and need to build upon them, as without them there will be no indyref 2.

The decisions Sturgeon will make in the next few weeks will determine both the fortunes of the party and any future prospects of independence. 

She needs to listen to the grassroots and be more open. I just hope she is listening.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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