Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

Four great candidates, one great big decision – and members must make it

Four great candidates, one great big decision – and members must make it

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the first independence referendum. Getting ready for the second one is providing the backdrop against which SNP members are selecting a new Depute Leader.

Ballot papers go out in four days’ time to more than 100,000 members eligible to vote in the contest. Campaigning by the four candidates began six weeks ago, and the contest has certainly been thorough.

In my last column before the ballot opens I want to pay tribute to my fellow candidates who have made this a dignified and positive campaign, and to the thousands of party members who have attended hustings across the country.

But first, let’s talk about the job. SNP members can go online and check out the party’s website to see what the rulebook says about the post. They won’t find much. A single paragraph defines the role as to deputise for the leader (no surprises there) and to prepare the manifesto.

That’s why each of the candidates have put their own interpretation on the job and will, if elected, put a personal stamp on how it gets done. So members have to choose not just who they want to do the job but what job they want done.

For me, this is about more than standing in for the leader when she’s not available; it’s a job in itself. I believe our main challenge as a party is to consolidate the recent changes in Scottish politics and galvanise our new membership. That will require changing how we do things and I want to lead that change, aiming to give our party an organisational upgrade.

This isn’t just desirable, it is necessary if we are to get match-fit to lead and win the next referendum. Our mass membership is our strength.

Whether they’ve been a member for just a few months or a lifetime, I want many more people to be active in our party.

Over the last few weeks I’ve laid out in detail how I’d like to see our party develop. How we can refocus our branches, communicate better with ourselves, and involve our members in making the policies that will shape our future. Check my website at tommysheppardmp.scot if you missed any of this – it’s all still there. The SNP is, in electoral terms, already the most successful political party in Europe. But we can be better still. I’m seeking a mandate to begin the process of strengthening our organisation, diverting 10 per cent of our income to new organisers throughout the country.

But other candidates are available.

Chris McEleny is the leader of the SNP group on Inverclyde Council. He makes the not unreasonable point that our champions in local government have often been overlooked in our party’s structure and management. And he makes it well. Whatever happens I predict an enhanced role for councillors within our party at local and national level, all the more necessary if we succeed next year in controlling a majority of Scotland’s local authorities.

Angus Robertson, the party’s Westminster leader, argues the depute position would cement the links between our two parliamentary groups. He points out, correctly, that he has the edge over the rest of us in terms of internal party experience. The thing is, Angus is doing a great job as our leader in Westminster: why would anyone want him to be distracted from it by taking on a second party job?

Alyn Smith has represented Scotland in the European Parliament since 2004. Post-Brexit, he argues that Scotland’s constitutional future now centres on discussions with other EU countries. Being Depute would, he claims, give him the additional heft and status required to drive those negotiations forward. It’s a fair enough point, although Alyn will of course remain our main man in Europe anyway for the next four years.

Four great candidates. One decision. Like I say, you need to first decide what job you want done. At the hustings some have argued that the role of depute should be “whatever the leader wants”, others that candidates’ existing relationship with our First Minister should be a criterion. But if that were the case we wouldn’t be having an election. Whoever becomes depute will offer complete loyalty and support to our leader, and will work to their direction. But, unlike other posts, this one is not appointed by the leader. Which is exactly why Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear she is not endorsing anyone.

Others have pointed to their support from MPs or MSPs (the majority of whom aren’t declaring either way) as a reason to support them. But this position isn’t appointed by parliamentarians either. No, this is a decision for each and every member of our party. It is our mass membership who should decide what this job should be and who should do it. This election should reflect members’ views – no-on else’s.

SNP members have an opportunity in this election to add a new voice to our leadership team rather than stretch it. Watch out for those ballots in the inbox.

This column was written for The National - 17th September 2016

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