In Part 1 of this two-part post, Your handy guide to some SNP candidates (and non-candidates), I looked at some of the SNP’s candidates for the 4 May council elections in Scotland, as well as some of those who might have been. My thanks to people who provided me with information or checked facts for me. As a result, the examples now cover exactly half of Scotland’s 32 council areas with, I suspect, more to come. The question is, what does it all tell us?
To clear one thing out of the way, not one of the facts I presented has been challenged. I was needled over the nature of the research (someone else’s word, not mine) I’d done – ‘So you didn’t even leave your screen?!’ – as if somehow I should have tramped the mean streets, notebook in hand. In fact, apart from informants who alerted me to local issues, I was able to rely on the media (all duly credited) for the facts I used. All I did was something the media haven’t done – pull together a national picture from many dispersed sources.
More than one report suggested that the SNP were struggling to put together a list of candidates in some areas. Given the size of their membership this was intriguing. One possible reason is that size does not correlate directly with number of good potential candidates. For every hundred members in any party a large proportion (90%?) will never want to stand for election. Of the remainder that do, the party would probably not touch a substantial proportion with a bargepole for various good reasons. Those that remain still have to stand and then get elected.
Another reason for the apparent struggle to find candidates may be that many SNP branches seem to be riven by dissent between long-standing and newer (post-2014) members. A substantial number of councillors who have served their communities faithfully over a long period appear to have been rejected in favour of Johnny-come-latelies. As a result, a fair number are standing as independents.
That itself seems to have given rise to a theory that some of the independents standing in many places are in fact a clever ruse by the SNP to get more pro-separation candidates elected than they could muster themselves. I’m not sure about this myself. A combination of voter ignorance about candidates described as ‘independent’ and the vagaries of the single transferable vote system could cancel out any perceived advantage. Administrations formed across party lines after 4 May might give a clue as to whether that particular theory holds water.
I deliberately included some examples (there are many more) of candidates who already have some paid role within the party or support MPs/MSPs funded (quite legitimately) from the public purse. If you’re short of candidates (see above) or want people who’ve already proven their loyalty, these people form a handy pool of biddable talent, certainly more biddable than the long-standing community activist who, in more traditional times, might have been noticed by the party and asked ‘’Er, how do fancy standing for [name of party]?’ (this happened across all parties locally).
One reason existing party workers are biddable is that, like all parties enjoying electoral success, the SNP seem to attract mainly young, educated people to work on the bottom rung of the political ladder (the same thing happened with the Tories under Thatcher and Labour under Blair). Many of them will not want to hang around doing an MP/MSP’s case work: they will be ambitious and want to start climbing the greasy pole. A stint as a councillor is a good next step before they look for a parliamentary seat at Holyrood or Westminster at the earliest opportunity, their chances bolstered, they hope, by early success at the local level.
The contrast of this professional tribe to the more traditional community-based councillor could not be starker. Working in a council area is one of two qualifications for standing for election there (the other is residence). The only link of some of these people to the area they are standing in is the fact they work for the local MP/MSP, maybe not even full-time, and thereby qualify to stand. Their commitment to the place will probably be relatively modest (I’m being polite) and they are more likely to follow party lines dictated nationally. It may be good for their careers and for the party in the short term. It’s unlikely to be good for councils and communities.
In fact, a substantial number of them, if they get elected, are likely to be frustrated by council work, especially if they’re in opposition or don’t get the preferment of office as the chair or vice-chair of a council committee. And the big challenge for the SNP in councils is that the one thing they want above all else, separation, is least relevant to this lowest level of government. If they are in a governing administration, they’ll also find that the cause of many of the challenges they face, for example funding constraints and a mediocre education system, can be laid directly at the door of an SNP government now in power for ten years. Their council opponents won’t let them forget that.
However, the most depressing although not entirely unexpected aspect of trawling through a raft of information about individual SNP candidates or near-candidates is how often the modern, civic mask slips. It might be simple boorishness, the casual use of inappropriate language or images, tasteless and unsustainable comparisons, or an anti-Englishness, coded or not so coded. Worst of all is the apparent alignment of a few candidates’ sympathies with Sinn Fein and its violent precursors. It’s not enough to excuse those sympathies with, as someone said to me online, ‘He’s Irish!’ as if that were OK. Other Irish political parties, North and South of the border, are available. An irony too in what seems like a growing SNP sympathy for a party whose main aim is to unite an island when theirs is to divide one.
I won’t end this post by patronising readers with advice on how to vote in the forthcoming council elections though I’d urge you to check Part 1 before you decide. Me? You won’t be surprised to know I’m as likely to vote SNP as I am to tweet ‘The Ra on tour’ the next time I set off on a weekend break.