In these heady days of new frontiers for their parliamentarians, SNP activists may be forgiven for sidelining the work of volunteers elected to the SNP’s National Executive Committee. As with other political parties, the NEC is theoretically the supreme body of the party. But, unlike Labour’s, the SNP is new to power: their NEC has not yet faded to an adjunct to parliament and the leadership there.
Labour claims its NEC “oversees the overall direction of the party and the policy-making process” but most insiders know better. A half-century of power and limelight puts control firmly with Labour’s parliamentarians and officials at Victoria Street. But another, more practical reason for the SNP’s NEC still having relevance and power is that the SNP has few big funders and, consequently, a very small staff. Whereas Labour (and even more so the Tories) rely on salaried officials to turn the party’s wheels. The SNP, by contrast, still has an active, engaged membership whose enthusiasm reaches all the way up to the NEC.
And on the SNP NEC, many posts carry significant national responsibilities without any remuneration. Aside from National Secretary and Treasurer, the Organisation Convener runs the support structure of campaigns and the Local Government Convener is tasked with the cohesion and training of SNP council groups across the country. Such responsibility comes with no staff, no funding, no facilities and no support organisation beyond the equally self-motivated and unsupported Association of Nationalist Councillors.
Eight years ago, the ANC was barely functional and the LGC post had been eliminated from NEC. The result was the 2003 local election in which the SNP made barely any progress. From 2005 on, both shortcomings were addressed, with the ANC reviving its role in communication and leadership: conferences, training seminars and newsletters reached out to the 180 SNP councillors and to as many more keen to stand. The LGC played a major role in explaining the importance of councillors to the rest of the party and overseeing the vetting and training of hundreds of would-be councillors.
The result was the 2007 local election victories. While most media focussed on the Parliament and the SNP minority government’s successes and travails, though doubling their numbers, SNP councillors joined the administration of twelve councils and formed the main opposition in most of the rest. They also revolutionised CoSLA from being a Labour mouthpiece into representing councils in general and worked with the Scottish Government to achieve more in two years than Labour could do in eight.
For four years now, half of Scotland has been impressed not just with their new SNP government’s innovation but also with what councils have done for them locally—frozen council tax, built large number of affordable homes, implemented single status, introduced efficiencies and dealt with the post 2008 financial squeeze. Some Labour councils have gone their own ways but they are the ones now paying millions in staff redundancies. While the press has followed Alex Salmond’s government in its march to even bigger victory in 2011, SNP councils have been quietly showing people at street level how dedication and professionalism can benefit even the smallest community.
These next seven months will see another local election, this time with no other distractions. It is the chance for the SNP to consolidate the huge gains of 2007, just as the parliamentarians consolidated in 2011. While the momentum is with the SNP (its membership is quickly rising past 20,000 and activists are well motivated) it will still fall to a small, dedicated volunteer team to organise and co-ordinate the 2012 election. With many new candidates to train and ambitious growth within groups to support, perhaps the most key position to boost SNP councillor numbers further and spread our vision for Scotland on a breadth our relatively few MSPs can’t match, is the Convener for Local Government.