The SNP’s exceptional growth and power was very much in evidence this year at its party conference. But a much enlarged party has brought its own pressures – both in terms of how to handle the expectations of the membership and the desire by both outside organisations and members to meet with the new intake of MPs and Government Ministers.
The conference did have a few headline grabbing announcements, but on the whole, this was a conference focused on the Holyrood elections in 2016. The Party is keen to close down criticism on its domestic record and therefore it came as no surprise that many of the announcements were focused on bread and butter issues, like the NHS. However, Sturgeon also recognised the need to take emphasis from the indyref 2 and focus on delivering another majority for a referendum when the time is right. Her messages was clear – trust us and we will deliver – and by delivering better services, we will build support for the next independence referendum.
When we think back to how SNP Party Conferences used to be, the party has certainly come a long way. Gone are the little venues. Only a decade or so ago the party could fit snuggly into the Perth City Hall – today they are restricted to only the very largest conference venues in Scotland. If the size of the venue was one major change, the contents were too. Gone are the days of a small band of SNP branches advertising their tartan wears and offering lottery tickets. Instead the exhibition hall was crammed full of UK and Scottish organisations. This felt much more like the Lib Dem national conferences of old – and just as the Lib Dems lost most of their sandal-wearing brethren, so too the SNP have lost some of their more colourful characters even though a few tartan-clad members were still to be found.
Just as the look and feel of conference had changed, so too had the membership. Larger, to be sure, but also new and without many of the long-held affinities of the older members. The new party finds itself in awe of Nicola, constantly looking for photo opps with her. They are also hungry for change. A more leftist membership was looking for more radical changes to fracking, the BBC and land reform. It took careful management by the old guard to maintain existing party policy, but it will be interesting to see if this fragile relationship can be maintained, especially if any potential referendum date is pushed back and back.
With so many new MPs in Westminster and the Party riding high in the polls, it is little wonder that the conference has also become a magnet for lobbying organisations. The exhibition hall was brimming, as was the conference fringe meeting guide. The SNP remains a Party open to engagement, so it was little surprise to see most of the fringe events bustling. However, it may be harder for the Party to remain quite so open and accessible when so many – both outsiders and insiders – are eager to engage.
All in all, the SNP remains in very high spirits and the general ethos of the party remains very strong. They are completely committed to Nicola and her leadership. But there’s little doubt that the party has matured and with it, there are considerable pressures on the leadership to maintain order.