Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

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Our strength is our membership. We need to take everyone with us on this journey

Our strength is our membership. We need to take everyone with us on this journey

I’m standing for depute leader of the SNP because I want us to win the next independence referendum. To do that we need to get active, get organised and reach out, building a new independence alliance.

The past few years have been a time of tremendous change in Scottish politics. Fresh ideas have emerged, and old allegiances changed. Tens of thousands have joined the SNP. We need to get our party match fit to lead and win the next independence referendum.

Whether a member for a couple of months or five decades, I want to see many more people active in the SNP. Our strength is our membership. We need to take everyone with us on the journey ahead. If we do not, we may stumble and fall as we face the challenge of winning independence for our country. Look no farther than the Labour Party to see what happens when leaders take members for granted.

That means changing how we organise at a local level. Making our meetings better. Communicating better. Training, educating, inspiring our mass membership. We need to look at the best practice that already exists and apply it everywhere.

But nothing happens by accident: we need to make this happen. That’s why I believe we need an organisational upgrade. A professional campaigning organisation of our size can’t rely solely on the voluntary efforts of busy people. What we need is a completely new structure for the challenges ahead.

We need full-time organisers backing up the efforts of local activists and branch officers. We need a central team at HQ focused on supporting branches – but most of all we need regional organisers on the ground, in offices throughout the country.

As I speak about this around the country, I encounter some wariness – fears that this might remove control from the membership and create party bosses who tell people what to do. So, from the start, let’s be clear that regional organisers should be servants of the membership not agents of headquarters.

With the support of volunteers, regional organisers can ensure that there’s a hub in every area where branches can turn for support. They can bulk buy campaign materials and offer printing services at rates cheaper than each branch could get by itself. They can organise training courses for activists across each region. They can provide support for selections and elections. And if a complaint or dispute arises they could mediate to ensure it is resolved quickly so we can focus on our main priority of winning independence.

They could also help co-ordinate the work of our MPs, MSPs and councillors. We need to ensure that Team SNP provides effective representation and leadership for local communities.

Regional organisers would, of course, be expected to deliver on overall objectives set by national conference. But on a week-by-week basis they should work under the direction of local members. Our existing regional structure could be developed to allow for a committee comprised of branch delegates in that region to oversee the work of the regional office. The regional organiser would be expected to draw up a work plan in conjunction with those delegates, which – whilst reflecting national objectives – would also take account of local priorities. While these are some initial ideas, I want to consult with branches on the best way to do this.

Crucially, these posts should not have any role in policy. So where a hot debate arises on a subject, say a major local planning application, or fracking, or land reform, then they should not take sides but facilitate debate and allow members’ voices to be heard through the party’s decision-making structures.

So what would it cost? I believe this new organisation network should be co-funded from members’ subs and other national fundraising. Perhaps eight regional offices might need £50,000 each with running costs and a central team maybe £150,000. That’s a lot of money. But it’s less than ten per cent of our party’s income last year. The question is not can we afford it, but can we afford not to.

Many members donate more each month than the quid they are asked for. I think if they could see that money being spent locally on the ground then they would be prepared to keep giving.

And, by the way, I for one do not think that our membership has peaked. So a new network of organisers would also have a role to play in promoting our party and recruiting members.

Mass membership has brought with it new funds. The SNP now needs to be prepared to invest more of that money in servicing and developing our membership. This will require a rethinking of priorities and diverting resources. It’s the right thing to do to get us in good shape to win indyref2 when it comes.

This column was written for The National - 20th August 2016

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Tommy's Blog Articles

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