SNP members are more likely to feel good about meetings and campaigning. What do they have that the other parties lack?by Dominic Hinde / January 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, the former MP-turned-producer for Alex Salmond’s onanistic Russia Today talkshow described it as an “ inclusive party with a civic nationalism that puts nation first,” whilst another former senior campaigner with an insight into its upper echelons more disparagingly described it as a ‘cult’.
The SNP is famously a many-headed beast and its claims to be a progressive beacon depend on which of those heads is talking. But one area where it really is ahead of the rest is how good its members feel about it.
New research from Queen Mary, University of London indicates that SNP members—of whom there are still well over 100,000 despite a slight recent decline—are the most enthusiastic of any about their role in their party and what they can do with it. Not only are SNP members far more enthusiastic about leadership and the party policies than their rivals, just 5 per cent feel the party doesn’t have an interest in them, and a mere 16 per cent find activism boring—way behind the other big three, where boredom levels hover around 30 per cent.
SNP members have always been notably engaged in their cause, in part due to a resilient mentality developed in the 60s and 70s when it really was a fringe movement struggling against Labour and Tory hegemony. They have also been used to biting their lips and focusing on the prize despite some historic disagreements about political direction—the self styled centre-left social democratic party of today is a relatively recent invention.
When standing outside a polling station with a TV crew in 2015, a veteran member adorned with pin badges took great pride in explaining to me that they were the only party based and registered in Scotland, and that that alone was reason to choose them above all others.
For years this was many people’s experience of the SNP membership in general—and with a surprisingly high average age of 54 the SNP are still very much a middle-aged party. Yet the 2014 independence referendum caused a huge diversification in the type of person joining and the party now has penetration across the whole of Scotland. Even the staunchly Liberal Northern Isles, where the party has always struggled to make inroads, has a sizeable SNP team on the ground.
The SNP of today is like a cloth-cap football team that has set up in the shiny world of the Premier League: on the one hand dragging in the punter on the street with a sense of identity and working-class authenticity whilst simultaneously being entirely unapologetic about its sheer rampant commercialism and desire to succeed—something its members by and large seem happy to accept as the price of competing at the top.
The party also understands intimately the necessity of keeping its supporters happy and engaged, not least because financially it cannot rely on trade unions or the sizeable private donations that have bankrolled the Scottish Tories’ recent recovery.
To compete with the financial clout of its rivals to left and right it needs direct debits coming in—and just as importantly the ability to put bodies on the ground come election time. Although all parties continue peacetime campaigning, the SNP fight hard to stay on a permanent election footing.
How the SNP keeps its members sweet
The party management is extremely proud of its engagement with members, replicating a lot of the tactics deployed in the 2014 independence referendum in terms of gathering and using data, making activists feel involved and using their website and app to keep in contact.
At its HQ around the corner from the Scottish Parliament sits its digital engagement strategist, a veteran of 2014 whose job is to reach members and voters alike.
The party also gives people the chance to become registered supporters instead of full members, but only full membership gives you access to perks such as the Members Room at party HQ and the full range of social activities.
It may not always be glamorous, but the SNP has a lively nationwide social presence which elsewhere survives only in the dusty Conservative associations of Kent and Surrey and the dwindling number of Labour clubs, fostering a vital sense of community among its members.
A sense of something bigger
The other real advantage the SNP have is that in a country of just five million people it is much easier to make members feel part of something bigger.
Not only do SNP supporters regularly get the chance to press the flesh with senior party figures, they rotate conferences and events around the country and make full use of Scotland’s more informal political culture.
This is typified by Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s minister responsible for dealing with Brexit, who has developed an uncanny ability to make people believe each conversation is an act of sincere friendship.
The same goes for the First Minister herself, often referred to by first name alone even when members have never met her.
Eschewing both the ironic personality cult of Corbynism and the complete lack thereof around Theresa May, the SNP’s trump card is that almost everyone in the party likes “Nicola.” Even more fortuitously, the public tend to agree.
Many pundits would have you believe that without an independence referendum on the horizon the party and its membership will begin to wither, but the SNP still has a phenomenal sense of purpose for its members to unite around. One of the SNP’s former election slogans was the nebulous “be part of better”—and for their membership, that seems to be the one message that really matters.