Robin McAlpine: There's a lot to worry about in the SNP's party conference agenda - here's why

The SNP's upcoming conference agenda is the kind of thing a party would create to "make sure that nothing of substance is discussed", warns Common Weal director Robin McAlpine

LAST week CommonSpace ran a series of stories based on having seen the agenda for the SNP conference in Aberdeen in October. It gives us the first sense of what will be discussed at that conference.

But isn't this just the internal admin of a political party? Is there any reason to dwell on it? I think the answer to this is yes.

As I've argued strongly , the Scottish elections in May next year are important. In fact, they're possibly the most important moment in parliamentary politics in Scotland in centuries (since the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the watchword seems to have been caution).

There really isn't anything you might describe as controversial on the list, and half of the conference resolutions come from MSPs and MPs rather than from branches or constituencies.

It's the first time a political party can approach that election knowing that it has built up the support and the good will to enable it to do pretty well what it wants over one term in that Parliament.

The SNP, and Nicola Sturgeon personally, holds in its hands sufficient political capital and the electoral arithmetic to transform Scotland (yesterday CommonSpace reported SNP support in voting intentions for Holyrood at 62 per cent). It only requires the will to try.

So it is hard not to look at the conference agenda to try to discern from it what signs of will power we can see. There is some cause for concern. Let's consider the picture it presents across three axes.

The first axis runs between 'open' and 'closed' (new politics and old). Here we might wonder if this agenda is any different than it would have been for any previous party conference, even though there are 70,000 new members.

There really isn't anything you might describe as controversial on the list, and half of the conference resolutions come from MSPs and MPs rather than from branches or constituencies.

The absence of any discussion of indyref one or two is, from my experience, out of step with what members would be talking about if it was up to them - for right or wrong (and I've been clear that I don't think pushing for a very quick second referendum is the way to go).

Across the whole agenda, items not being discussed at all include the economy, housing, tax, investment, austerity, banking, local democracy and health.

In an otherwise very entertaining article, last week a senior SNP staffer blithely announced that the SNP had rejected any question of increasing tax to deal with austerity.

It does rather feel that the hopes that the party could trust itself to have real substantive debate have already been at least downplayed. It seems that there is an assumption the same people will be making the same decisions.

I know the SNP isn't Podemos, designed from the ground up to be participatory, new and open. But there might have been more sign that it would like to move in that direction.

The second axis runs from substantive to presentational - is this a powerful policy-making event or a rally?. Here my concerns are greatest.

By one analysis, only three out of 25 resolutions directly call for a decision on a change of policy. Across the whole agenda, items not being discussed at all include the economy, housing, tax, investment, austerity, banking, local democracy and health.

Issues such as transport, criminal justice, education, poverty, inequality and gender equality are focussed on small and specific issues or are very general - and almost none seem based on any specific proposals.

Of course, there is now lots of scope for amendments and so on, but if you were creating a framework for a broad and inclusive discussion about Scotland's future, it wouldn't look like this.

Meanwhile, there are nine resolutions congratulating the Scottish Government for things it has already done and another 14 based on criticising its opponents.

There are nine resolutions congratulating the Scottish Government for things it has already done and another 14 based on criticising its opponents.

Frankly, when you're sitting at 62 per cent in the polls, you just shouldn't need to take a swing at your emaciated opponents or require a pat on the back. When you're as strong as the SNP you don't need cuddles.

The third axis runs from right to left, or from conservative to progressive or whatever term you wish to use. The problem here is that there is so little to judge on because there is so little substance. But I can pick two worrying examples.

By far the worst is a resolution on TTIP which would commit the SNP to pretty wholehearted support for TTIP so long as public services are protected. But the right for corporations to sue governments in secret courts for seeking to enshrine human rights or protect the environment would become SNP policy.

This seems to me to fly in the face of party opinion, never mind the views of the wider Yes movement.

The other is the resolution on the EU. After the way the European Commission treated the Yes campaign you'd think there might be some sense of critical engagement.

But the resolution on the EU is a rallying cry for the full SNP support for the EU with a cursory nod to unspecified 'reform' which is not even put forward as conditional for support.

You'd think the humiliation of Greece never happened. If European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had written the resolution, one wonders if it would have looked any different.

By far the worst is a resolution on TTIP which would commit the SNP to pretty wholehearted support for TTIP so long as public services are protected.

I know all of this is reading tea leaves. I realise that some of these resolutions could conceivably provide a platform on which to talk about serious policy issues - perhaps particularly those on poverty, food, gender equality and the living wage.

It's just that they could also lead to an insipid, stage-managed parade of soundbites.

As a very young man I worked for the Labour party in London in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. I resigned with eight months to go to the vote. I realised to my horror what was happening.

The Blairites were taking all the hope and belief in change and preparing to cash it in for personal power. Even in 1996 it seemed obvious to me that they had no intention of using that personal power to deliver on the hope that handed the power to them.

They rode to power on other people's hope and then quickly forgot about it. It was barely 18 months later before this feeling of betrayal really started to sink in, with the NME's headline 'ever had the feeling you've been cheated' crystallising things in many people's heads.

It has now been nearly 20 years since that time and that is how long it has taken us to get back to a moment where the desire for change has created sufficient momentum and support in the hands of one electoral vehicle.

There are many of us who are very much hoping for leadership from the SNP - but leadership, not management. I don't believe that we can afford to mess up this opportunity.

It looks a bit like an agenda you might produce if you wanted to make sure that nothing of substance was discussed, if you wanted to leave all policy decisions to the 'suits in the office'. And if you wanted to get your party to back TTIP.

Its conference in October is the last chance for the SNP to draw on the amazing resource it has among its members to have a real, open, brave debate about Scotland's future and how to change it.

Those of us not in the party watch on in hope. It's just that this conference agenda is not one on which you'd want to build a new Scotland.

I'm afraid it looks a bit like one you might produce if you wanted to make sure that nothing of substance was discussed, if you wanted to leave all policy decisions to the 'suits in the office'. And if you wanted to get your party to back TTIP.

Those of you who think I'm being a bit of a Cassandra might be right. But that's what a lot of centre-left people said in 1996 when asked if the drift of Labour policy didn't give them any cause for concern. 'Don't you worry about it - it'll be OK' was always the answer.

In May 2016 I hope it will be OK. But October 2016 will be too late to do anything about it.

Picture: CommonSpace