Having never been part of a political party, an area where Wings lacks expertise is in understanding the nuts and bolts of their operation, and how a party’s rules can be used to usurp their members’ power. We’re delighted to have someone equipped to provide a valuable insight into how that’s happened to the SNP in the last two years.
“National Conference is the supreme governing and policy-making body of the Party.”
The line above is a definitive statement in the SNP constitution, but it is in practice no longer the case. The 2018 redraft of the constitution centralised power in the Leader and in the NEC. The party Leader has sole power over policy, both in the manifesto and in government, and the NEC has sole power over who represents the party and what they are allowed to say.
So in effect, since 2018 the party elite – not the membership – has ruled the SNP.
(At present the centralisation of power is compounded by the fact that the Leader’s husband is CEO and can use the party administration to enhance his wife’s position.)
Communication between party branches is strictly controlled through top-down party structures. Remarkably, it’s only through ad-hoc social media that branches and members are able to find each other and interact. (There’s no reason why a branch directory could not be provided with contact details of office bearers. There are many ways to do this which avoid GDPR or data protection issues.)
The National Conference notionally remains the supreme policy-making body, in that policies passed by conference become party policy, but there is no linkage between party policy and policies in the manifesto. There is no mechanism for members to force policies into the manifesto.
The manifesto is written by the Deputy Leader and signed off by the Leader, giving the leadership total control. There’s no requirement for the SNP to follow party policy when in government, and contentious policies like self-ID of gender and the Hate Crime Bill were never passed by conference. As policies are not required either for the manifesto or for government, conference has become a carefully stage-managed PR event as opposed to a policy-making body.
(The obvious solution being that the policy committee’s remit should be expanded to include responsibility for the manifesto.)
In between conferences, the party’s governing body used to be the National Council, a large body representing all wings of the party.
But in 2018 the National Council was replaced by regional steering committees and National Assemblies. The remit of the steering committees is not to hold the executiveto account, nor is it to develop policy – their focus is on campaigning.
The National Assembly, meanwhile, is a networking event, devoid of any power. The party is happy to have the members deliver leaflets, but not to make policy.
The constitution gives the Leader the tools to ensure her supporters are promoted and any potential rivals or rival groupings can be disadvantaged. This is done through the party machine, run by the CEO. Supporters are rewarded with early vetting decisions, involvement and promotion at party events and paid party positions.
By appointing the Business Convener, the Leader effectively controls speaking spots at conference. Elections to most internal positions take place during conference, so the Business Convener can allocate numerous slots to leadership favourites to increase their profile and give them a significant advantage over other candidates.
These elections could instead take place prior to conference ensuring that all candidates have a fair and equal chance.
Only 30% of the NEC’s members are elected by Conference. With the rest not elected by and therefore not accountable to Conference, it’s difficult to claim the NEC is a proxy for Conference compared to the hundreds-strong National Council.
The NEC wields total power over who can stand for election for the SNP. The NEC appoints the vetting committees and sets the parameters under which they work. The NEC also controls vetting appeals – despite the fact that there’s already a separate Appeals Committee, elected by Conference, which would obviously be the legitimate entity for the job.
During vetting conflicts of interests can arise, with candidates for selection sitting on (and even chairing) vetting panels that vet their potential rivals, as happened during the recent round of selections. Clearly it’s just basic common sense that no candidate should serve on a vetting panel with the power to block their own rivals.
The NEC has the power to alter any rules not explicitly reserved to Conference. This even includes altering the NEC’s own Standing Orders. Other rules they can alter include the elected members’ Code Of Conduct. This runs the risk of the NEC inserting conditions into the COC that an elected member would find impossible to accept, and therefore the elected member being forced out of the party, without those changes ever having been approved by conference.
The voting of the members of the NEC is secret, which is plainly bad for accountability. There should be no secret votes or SurveyMonkey polls – the NEC seeks consensus, but when votes are taken the members’ voting record should be added to the minutes.
There are nine affiliated party organisations, who each have a seat on the NEC. The affiliate also gets a minimum of six delegates to conference (the minimum for branches is just two). The constitution makes it very difficult to remove an affiliated organisation – they can only be disaffiliated by a conference resolution brought by the NEC, of which they are a member.
No minimum membership is needed for an affiliate, and given their disproportionate power they’re an easy vehicle for entryism and for a faction to consolidate control of the NEC even though it may represent only a couple of dozen people.
Rather than wait for the Deputy Leader’s report, which is being produced by a working group very heavily weighted towards a certain faction of the party, it would be best for branches to take the initiative and propose a resolution to change NEC membership by removing affiliated organisations. The affiliates can continue to propose resolutions and to socialise.
Another source of great friction, and accusations of bias in all directions, has been that the National Secretary receives all complaints about member conduct and then, on his own authority, decides which ones to pass to the Conduct Committee. This usurps the role of the Conduct Committee, who were ostensibly elected to do that job. Changing this would require only an e-mail address and some administrative support.
The issues above only scratch the surface of the issues with the 2018 constitution, but the core problem with it is tha the focus is on maintaining the power of the Leader and her supporters, as opposed to the primary aim of the constitution – independence.
The constitution exists to protect members’ rights and to protect party democracy, and when that fails we’ve seen that the result is a party making bad decisions.