We have the team, the people, the cause, but what is badly needed is better training

The SNP depute leadership contest is a great chance to be out and about, as I always am, discussing, sometimes debating, the future of Scotland’s leading party. It is a privilege to be part of, and I’m delighted with the response: the membership has embraced the process with gusto – 27 hustings in the diary! The vote will be one member, one vote, with the announcement at conference on October 13.

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First published in The National, 30 August 2016

We rank the depute in the same way we rank the MEPs. I’ve been through this three times already, so I’m not going for endorsements; they’re divisive and I don’t think actually make much difference. We’re all #TeamSNP – that’s all the hashtag I need. The main thing is loyalty to the party and the cause, and discussing what we need to do to win.

As the debates go on, a few things are becoming clear. Firstly, I’m wary of talk of new and old members. We’re all part of the same thing, with the same aims. Secondly, I’ve represented the whole of Scotland, north, south, rural, urban, mainland and island since 2004, out and about working with the grassroots nationwide, and representing the nation in the EU.

So I’m even warier to hear talk of division into rural and urban, or north and central. Again, we’re all part of the same thing, and the best source of encouragement and support of any member is us, the other members.

But supporting members is going to need to be stepped up. There is a palpable hunger for training. We have been on a roller-coaster since indyref and the surge, with the Westminster election then the Holyrood and EU referendum polls, but we need to take stock now. If 18 months on from the surge, folk are still asking how to get active then something is amiss and we need to fix it. There’s no lack of enthusiasm for work, and that activism needs to be supported, encouraged, and channelled. Training will let us do that.

I still remember knocking my first door for the party, in Kinross in the first Holyrood election in 1999, under the watchful tutelage of Bruce Crawford MSP. Unbeknownst to me, the crafty fox took me to a member’s house! 

But it was only slightly less terrifying, and I think the more experienced activists often forget how daunting all of it can be. Likewise, how we welcome folk to the party needs improving. I also remember my first branch meeting, in London, in 1997. After a lacklustre, jargon-filled and I have to say, pretty unwelcoming, evening I didn’t go back for another 18 months, with only the onset of the Holyrood elections getting me excited again.

So I remember myself how it feels, and where I stuck in and learned, I wonder how many folk have two branch meetings in one night: their first and their last. Campaigning around the country, I’ve seen some great examples of best practice. Membership secretaries who view their job as to welcome and include new members. Organisers who make sure newbies are buddied up with experienced hands and feel supported, welcome and part of a team. I’ve also seen places where that is not the case. We need to get better. I think there is a clear need for more guidance from the centre about how to do it, and that all comes down to training.

We do, of course, have events that could count as training. There has been real efforts to extend training to women candidates, and we’re seeing more focus on events for disabled candidates also. Great, but we need more, and we need to resource it properly, not rely on the herculean efforts and endless goodwill of volunteers.

We need a range of courses for different levels of experience, and it will be horses for courses. Training a candidate in making a speech is different to a more general “welcome to the party, here’s how we work” meeting. 

But we could put it together as an ongoing effort, and we’re not short of ways we can do it. One of my MEP predecessors, Allan Macartney, founded the Scottish Self Government College, and there is also the idea of doing more with SNP College. We do have a lot of materials: for example, the Candidate Handbook for the last elections was great but arrived late and was not shared widely. It remains a cracking resource on the shelf to be picked up.

Whatever we call it, a series of courses organised by party HQ, but delivered by senior activists, can only help us to share the expertise we have, in spades. What works, what doesn’t, and avoid reinventing the wheel.

We don’t know what Scotland’s future holds, but we do know winning elections and referendums involves a lot of speaking to people and working as a team. We have the team, we have the people, the enthusiasm, the cause. We need to train ourselves up for the challenge ahead and we need a depute who knows the party and will make it happen.