Rescheduled from mid-September to coincide with the school/parliament autumn recess later in the year, I regretted the SNP conference no longer being blessed by indian summer weather as I thrashed north in the rain. Surprised to find we’re now famous enough to get the street outside closed off for security reasons, after negotiating the usual chicane of exhibitor stalls I’m into the magnificent Perth Concert Hall to hear His Eckness launch the event. He did not disappoint.
“”I trust this conference to operate in the best interests of achieving independence for Scotland. I trust this conference to debate the big issues in a comradely manner. I think it is fantastic, I think it is great that we are the only political party in these islands with the confidence to take substantive issues to our annual conference.” He declared, before going on to quote a poem from George Robertson, brother of Hearts legend John Robertson: ““Eat well my trusty, honest friends, in 2014, the nonsense ends.”
While everyone is geared up for the right old rammy of a debate on NATO today, it came as a surprise to me that the private session on constitutional changes launched as fierce and well argued a debate as it did. At stake were three motions:
- Appointing a National Women’s Officer
- Electing one male and one female MSP to NEC under separate ballots
- Electing three male and three female ordinary members to NEC under separate ballots
The first sailed through nem con, but the latter two were wrapped as a single debate and caused the session to be stretched a half hour beyond its allotted time.
As a member of the party’s National Executive Committee, Julie had been tasked with pleading a sub-group to present a report on how a gender balance could best be struck at all levels of the party. This was the result of ten years of ‘wait-and-see’ following the 1999 conference in Aberdeen when earlier attempts at changing the party’s rules to encourage female participation were struck down by members. The motions were a distillation of her report and had NEC support.
Julie’s argument, supported by the now-sole female member of NEC Tasmina Ahmed-Sheik as second, revolved around the statistical evidence that, not only was the SNP not making progress including women at all levels of the party but in some prominent instances, such as the MSP group and NEC, the proportion was actually slipping back.
It was surprising to me both the number and deep passion of those speaking against the change. Elaine asserted that the male dominance of the platform underlined the need for action, but that this was not it. She wanted to be elected on merit, not on the fact that she was a woman and warned against the equal risk of “electing three male numpties” if the candidates on the male side were not the best either.
She was backed by well known Renfrew activist Audrey Doig, who railed against the lack of consideration for women having conference in a school holiday week and for not providing a creche, whereas a much smaller party used to. Up-and-coming tweeter and BBC Question Time veteran Natalie McGarry underscored both Audrey’s and Elaine’s points.
When it came time for Derek Mackay, Business Convener chairing the session but obviously seeing a tight vote ahead, to make articulate please to consider that this may not be the full solution but it was a considerable advance towards where we needed to be after a number of years effective stagnation, the scattered, as opposed to full-throated, applause made you wonder as to the result.
At first, it appeared that things might be still on-track. Voting on the direct negative (by the newly formulated rules of voting) did not find a majority so many—including former National Secretary Alastair Morgan and NEC member Jerry Fisher—thought that decided it and even called for points of order to query this procedure. However, when the convener asserted order, he moved to the vote on each of the two substantive amendments, both of which required a 2/3 majority to pass.
Despite senior member and full NEC backing, neither even achieved a standard majority, let alone the required 2/3rds. With the party in fine debating fettle and the bit apparently between its collective teeth after Angus Robertson MP’s stowed-out Scotland on Sunday lecture last night on “Updating SNP Defence and Security Policy” there should be even bigger bouts of passion in the hall around 3pm today. Then the party is to debate “SNP Foreign, Defence and Security Policy Update” a.k.a. To NATO or not to NATO.
Expect fireworks and probably the best debate any party has had in public in years.