I’m not standing for depute leader of the SNP.
There are a range of personal factors that have influenced my decision. We are all of us very good at talking about a work life balance but often do little about it. I’m content where that balance is for me at the moment and for now I’ve no desire to alter it. There’s plenty I need to be getting on with on the front bench at Westminster, as a local MP and as part of the wider campaign for independence.
In making this decision I’ve given a great deal of thought about the role and what I’d want to see put forward by those who do choose to stand.
In recent weeks some have suggested that this internal election offers an opportunity for the SNP to review its strategy and policy direction. This implies that there’s some underlying tension within the party which can be resolved by electing a new depute leader.
That argument doesn’t really hold up. Yes there are differences of opinion within the SNP as there are in any party. And yes the current Brexit induced political chaos and inertia is creating a lot of frustration and impatience. But these differences are not existential. There’s no schism running through the membership which divides us left from right, fundamentalist versus gradualist, or any other lines.
Resolving differences are for our internal democratic structures and as in any large organisation that sort of change takes time. Maybe sometimes political differences can be resolved – or in any case fought out so there’s a winner – by a leadership contest. But not when electing a number two. A depute must accept that he or she will operate within strategic parameters which are already set.
That said the depute leader of the SNP does have a role in policy formation. In fact, that’s about the only guidance the rulebook offers in terms of defining the post. The key task here is to modernise our policy making structures so that our mass membership can have much more of a say, and the considerable talent and expertise that lies within our ranks harnessed. The role is less about the content of policy than how we make it.
If I’m honest I’m much more at ease as a protagonist than a referee. I want to be to free to contribute and lead debates about the policy we should advocate and that’s harder if you’re running the policy-making machinery. And I think we’ve had some success here. On fracking, the National Investment Bank, and other policy areas we’ve seem grassroots policy working its way through branches and conference to end up as party and government policy. I intend to continue to work with others to similarly shape our future policy agenda.
Nor is this contest about when the next independence referendum will be. That’s not a decision that can be deputised. We should hold another referendum when there is evidence that a significant number of people have changed their minds from last time – and when there is a reasonable expectation of winning it. Given the volatility of UK politics at the moment that opportunity could present at any time. Whenever the referendum is we need to be a lot better prepared than we are.
I’ve argued before that in any organisation the leader and deputy positions should complement each other, with the leader being the outward face of the party and the deputy facing inwards to the membership. The role of depute is in many ways to act as a lightning rod for the aspirations and concerns of party activists, making sure these views are articulated, represented and heard at the top table. For that role to work that person must not only have the support of the activist base but also the ear of the existing leadership team.
In 2016 I stood for this position with a manifesto centred on organisational reform, arguing that we needed to revise our rulebook to take account of massive changes in the party. I didn’t win that vote but a lot of the things I proposed then are now happening.
The SNP is in the middle of a consultation exercise with its membership on modernising its constitution. We’re looking at new ways to involve grass roots members both in making policy and campaigning for it. In particular there is a growing consensus that a new regional structure is required and that officers in the field will make us a much more effective political organisation. These debates will culminate at a special conference in June where delegates will get the final say in what should change. Working with colleagues on the NEC I intend to press through these reforms although the final decision is now in the hands of the members.
So, I’m sitting this one out. But I have every confidence that our members will have a choice to make between a range of excellent candidates. I’ll be happy to work with whoever they choose.
Written for The Sunday Herald on 4th March 2018