Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

Developing a proper regional structure would make the SNP a more responsive, inclusive and accessible party

Developing a proper regional structure would make the SNP a more responsive, inclusive and accessible party

And so the election of a new depute leader of the SNP is underway. Indeed, if previous contests are anything to go by, most people may already have voted.

I’ve made organisational reform the key plank of my campaign. Central to this is developing a regional structure for the party, providing a bridge between the party leadership and branches on the ground.

I’ve argued strongly that we need to invest in our organisation, employing more staff at HQ and in regional offices throughout the country to back up the efforts of busy volunteers. This will cost money – our money – and I believe we should divert 10 per cent of our annual budget to this end.

Regional organisers would provide support and advice to branches all year round, not just at elections. But to be effective they need to work under the direction of local members. That means that the SNP needs to consider what sort of regional structure it should have.

And that’s what I want to discuss this week. As ever, these are ideas. Moving in this direction can only be successful if we take members with us and they help shape the new structure.

We don’t really have a regional structure at the moment. What we do have are liaison committees. Our rules state that the party must “ensure that there is a committee structure to cover every electoral area in Scotland”. These committees are intended principally for the conduct of elections and often are dissolved shortly after polling day – as was the case in the 59 Westminster Committees in the 2015 election.

But some, particularly those which mirror local government boundaries, have acquired a semi-permanence, continuing between elections to bring branches together across council areas. In only one instance, Glasgow, does the liaison committee also reflect the regional Holyrood parliamentary boundary. It would be fair to say that there is a lack of consistency and clarity to the structures which aim to provide an intermediate link between the NEC and over 220 branch parties. It would be hard for it to be otherwise since these structures reflect local government boundaries which were bequeathed to the country by Michael (Lord) Forsyth.

The Tories carved up Scotland a generation ago for their own ends leaving 32 authorities of vastly differing shapes and sizes which often bore little relation to people’s sense of place and community.

I believe it’s time now to look at putting in place a proper regional structure throughout the country. I wouldn’t say the Scottish parliamentary regions are perfect, far from it, but they are as good a place as any to start. And they have the benefit of being fairly equal in population size and therefore are likely to have roughly similar amounts of party members.

I think pretty much everyone in the party will agree on having a discussion about this.

A resolution to our conference next month in the name of two national officers should get the process started. It calls for a wide ranging review of party structures including policy making and campaigning.

For some reason branch amendments seeking a deadline for action have been ruled out but I trust a timescale for review will be agreed.

The more I think about it the more a regional structure seems to be the stone to kill multiple birds. For starters in our rich and diverse country it would allow geographical differences to be recognised.

Whilst we have national polices and principles the manner in which we campaign for them should reflect local circumstances.

A regional structure would allow members in the Highlands and Islands to set different priorities, illustrate policy with different examples and use different materials than members might choose to use in the central belt. A regional structure also provides an ideal vehicle for our members to organise sectorally, much more accessible than the national level, and with a critical mass it’s hard to get in individual branches. So our women, young and LGBTI members may find it much easier to organise on this basis – indeed, SNP youth are showing the way already.

Thirdly a regional layer would enhance our party democracy, allowing many more members to get involved, and providing the framework within which our regional offices and staff can operate.

Finally a regional structure could be harnessed to enhance our policy making with regional forums allowing much greater members’ input, not only giving them a stronger voice in national decisions but affording the opportunity to seek national support for action in their area.

So the only question is how this structure should be established. The current rules say that liaison committees should be made up of branch delegates in line with their annual conference entitlement.

I think we should stick with something similar and I can see a lot of merit in the same people acting as regional and national delegates over the course of a year.

This column was written for The National - 24th September 2016

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