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The Depute: Runners and Riders (part 2)

The Depute: Runners and Riders (part 2)

This is the second of a 2-part blog post by Marco Biagi on the SNP Depute Leader contest. The first can be read here.

The contest to be the Depute Leader of the SNP – Nicola Sturgeon’s titular number two – is in full flow. Nominations have closed and each of the candidates has been invited by the media to take the stage and make their pitch – Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP, Europhile MEP Alyn Smith, Yes campaign favourite Tommy Sheppard MP and traditional grassroots champion Cllr Chris McEleny.

Angus Robertson is the pundits’ tip to win the contest. As leader of the third largest group in the House of Commons he has the opportunity to grill the UK Prime Minister every week. There he isn’t just seen as more effective at it than the official Leader of the Opposition – not exactly hard – but as effective full stop. Robertson has also rather visibly won the backing of more MPs than his Westminster colleague Tommy Sheppard.

Under Alex Salmond he was entrusted with senior posts similar to the sorts of roles given to deputy leaders – like campaign director for the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. He would be a male MP representing a rural northern constituency, number two to a female MSP representing an urban central belt constituency. And for a party that has aimed to reach all of Scottish society rather than just narrow class interests – the Team Scotland approach – many will see value in that symmetry.

Electing Alyn Smith on the other hand, whose parliamentary billet is in Europe rather than Westminster, would be a statement – and he knows it. In what has become one of the world’s gayest political parties it’s easy to forget he was the SNP’s first out LGBT parliamentarian, but his campaign is more centrally trading on the argument that investing the party’s depute leadership in a Brussels representative will show Europe that the SNP is serious about staying. The standing ovation he received for his European Parliament contribution on the subject in June catapulted him into the limelight across media and social media.

Anyone who dismisses the political effect of one powerful speech should rewatch the keynote by a then-unknown young state senator at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, one Barack Hussein Obama. There is no doubt Brexit is the issue of the day, and in this contest he is making it his own.

Meanwhile Tommy Sheppard is setting out a stall as the natural standard-bearer for the post-referendum members that now dominate that grassroots. While his pitch so far has been predominantly organisational rather than political he is the most identifiably left-wing of the four candidates. His background in the Labour party, his hinterland in Edinburgh’s entertainment industry and rather noticeably Northern Irish accent offer something to the SNP – evidence that is straightforwardly obvious rather than needing to be argued that the party is an outward-looking and genuine social democratic political force. Being seen in that way won Labour’s former central belt heartlands to the SNP – it is no small prize.

Chris McEleny, a councillor in Inverclyde who leads the SNP there, declared first but will finish last. In the old days the SNP’s fundamentalist wing would have shown interest in his candidacy from their inherent suspicion of parliamentarians – always seen as possibly ideologically impure just by having been elected. But it shows how the SNP has changed that that wing is not what it was, and now an endorsement from Jim Sillars is all that it can deliver. Even in its heyday it was never consistently able to win internal elections, but it has been eclipsed by events and outnumbered by new members.

Robertson is the betting favourite, but politics today has a seemingly endless capacity for surprises. No one really knows who the new SNP members are, or how they will use their one-member, one-vote opportunity. One tentative conclusion can perhaps though be drawn from recent Westminster and Holyrood selections. By-and-large these members are choosing the same sorts of people to be candidates that the party did before. If duplicated in the depute leadership election a Corbyn-style grassroots revolution is unlikely, and the SNP’s current self-image will be reinforced – that in the political chaos of 2016 they are only party keeping their head when all about them are losing theirs. Those looking for flashpoints at the SNP’s conference in October will have to look elsewhere.