Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

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SNP members must decide if they want to expand or stretch the leadership

SNP members must decide if they want to expand or stretch the leadership

We're nearly there.

The SNP Depute Leader contest is in its final phase. The last hustings debate is in Inverness tonight and most members have already voted. So this week, I want to reflect on what the job might mean.

The SNP rulebook makes little mention of the post. It is defined as responsible for just two things: deputising for the leader (OK that’s quite a big one) and preparing the manifesto. In explaining the importance of the position in the ballot information to members, HQ also grafted on the task of convening National Assembly, a function exercised by previous incumbents in days of yore.

Let’s examine these jobs in reverse order. There is no better illustration of why the SNP’s rulebook needs updated than the National Assembly. This is an aggregate meeting to which every party member is entitled to turn up and has been convened with mixed results over the years. Folks tell me it was at its best when focused on a single issue and helped clarify competing positions.

The point is every member is entitled to attend. Now, most never will. Never did. But how many might. Let’s assume five per cent tops. When the SNP had fewer than 20,000 members it was possible to contemplate a big meeting to which 1,000 might come. Ambitious, but possible.

We now have 124,000 members. Anyone seriously think it’s possible to get 6,000 people together for anything other than a rally? A National Assembly to which every member is invited is just not possible unless you either (a) restrict places and say first come, first served or (b) select which members are invited. Either of those approaches is likely to upset and alienate the majority of the members who don’t get to come. So, I confidently predict, whoever is elected Deputy will not be convening National Assembly.

If they are smart they might well aim to change National Assembly into something more fit for purpose. Say a series of regional assemblies all members could attend in their own area, or a new national policy body made up of elected representatives.

What about preparing the manifesto? The local elections next year will be fought on a series of 32 local manifestos and whilst I think we ought to have a series of national campaign themes and activities, you would be hard pressed to call this a manifesto. If we had regional assemblies discussing policy they would enable members to be heard locally. But with the next national manifesto not due until 2020, it’s unlikely that anyone who gets this job will be overtaxed on that front for the time being.

And then of course there’s deputising for the leader. Now, I’m confident that whoever wins this election will prove a loyal and able deputy to Nicola but let’s not overstate what is involved here. The SNP is lucky to have the most effective and energetic political leader in the British Isles. Nicola is unlikely to require anyone to step in for her very much. And in truth, the largest part of Nicola’s workload relates to her job as First Minister, rather than party leader – and we already have in place a remarkably good deputy FM in John Swinney.

All of this is why I’ve argued throughout this campaign that the job needs redefining – and in fairness, each of the candidates has aimed to do just that.

It is important to remember that unlike some other positions in the SNP this one is not appointed by the leader. Neither is it selected by members of (either) parliament. It is a decision for each and every member and we all need to reflect not just on who we want for the job but what job we want done.

For me, this is not just a title, but a job of work. Experience of life outside politics tells me that big organisations work best with a leader who faces outwards and acts as the public face speaking to the country, and a deputy who looks inward, checking that the organisation is working as well as it should.

So, if elected, I would aim to cut back on other commitments, prioritising my legal duties to my constituents, but freeing up time every week to help develop our party. Spending time with senior staff, but most of all getting round the country talking to branches and volunteers.

Anyone taking on this role on top of another leading position is unlikely to be able to do both jobs justice. That’s why I believe SNP members’ real choice this month is whether to expand or stretch our existing leadership team.

This column was written for The National - 1st October 2016

Independence is still a simply capital prospect
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