The Greek and French elections have served to remind us that change remains the norm across Europe during these tough economic times. The majority of change across Scotland at last week’s council elections typically went from SNP to Labour, despite the winning tallies being in the Nats’ favour: Labour calling the shots at Edinburgh Council, Labour making council formation difficult in Aberdeenshire and Labour preventing change at Glasgow Council.
And, with the SNP losing a quarter of their voters from last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, Scots are certainly at least changeable.
With two and a bit long years until the referendum on independence, and mid-term European elections to be held between now and then, there are good reasons why the SNP should pre-empt change before the electorate rejects out of hand the constitutional change that a male and potentially stale SNP leadership is offering:
– It was David Torrance’s Sunday Mail article that provided the eye-popping statistic. I knew that Salmond had served the SNP considerably longer than the five years that he has been First Minister but 18 years as the leader of a party is a remarkable length of time. Putting it into perspective, that is as many years as John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led the Labour party put together. Many years at the top does not, in itself, mean that it is time to go, but it does significantly increase the chances that people have stopped listening to what you have to say. We’re not at that stage yet of course with a majority Government still fresh in the memory, but did Salmond win that election or did Subway-sheltering Iain Gray lose it? And can the SNP really take a chance that a party leader of twenty years can still sound fresh and inspiring with so much at stake?
Reaching out to West coast Scotland
– Linked to the above point, and the council election results bear this out, there are parts of Scotland that the SNP still can’t reach as convincingly as they would like to. Swathes of Glasgow and the West of Scotland voting No to independence in their droves leaves a relatively small part of Scotland that would need a good 70%+ Yes result, or higher, to see the SNP over the line. With an adopted home of Banff & Buchan for so long in his career, Salmond could not be perceived to be much further from the old Strathclyde region that Labour has done well to wrap its arms around. Nicola Sturgeon studied at Glasgow University, worked in Drumchapel Law Centre and is the MSP for Govan. The DFM could win more of Labour’s heartlands into considering independence while still keeping the existing Yes camp intact.
Father of the Nation
– Freeing Alex Salmond from the binds of being First Minister would allow the SNP’s greatest asset to take on a more avuncular, roving role. This would effectively elevate each senior SNP Minister up one position while still keeping the presence and gravity of Salmond himself. This softening of Salmond has been attempted with varying degrees of success before but, while the man has pulled the SNP up into the 30%-45% electoral mark, his marmite tendencies may well be the single reason why the pro-union voteshare will always be 50%+ if left unattended. Many Scots intend to vote No because they don’t take to or trust FM Salmond. There’s an easy way to rectify that, while still keeping Alex in the game.
– The gender of a political leader shouldn’t be an issue but if the SNP wants to paint itself as far removed from the London coalition, having a female leader would be an easy way to do that. Theresa May is the only high-profile female member of the UK Government and if recent form continues apace, she may have joined Liam Fox on the backbenches by the time 2014 comes around. Rich Oxbridge English men directing Scotland’s future and controlling Scotland’s wellbeing provides political leverage for the SNP and the unsatisfactory gender balance across both Parliaments could make Nicola’s position as party leader particularly, persuasively, propitiously progressive.
More open leadership
– Alex Salmond does well to hide his temper, he is a bit like Sir Alex Ferguson that way. His style of leadership has gradually permeated down and throughout the SNP such that even MSPs can be knee-knocking lambs refusing to step out of line for fear of incurring the FM’s considerable wrath. Nicola Sturgeon’s style of leadership is known to be more open, more consensual and considerably less intense. Creating a new country is much more enticing with such a person at the helm, creating a participative environment rather than an obedient one.
All of the above isn’t to say that Salmond is, nor should be, under any pressure to be leaving Bute House today, tomorrow, this year or next, but it won’t be long before he has to pull rabbits from hats in order to keep his leadership fresh and vigorous. Obstinate poll ratings on independence may lead to difficult decisions, including stepping aside to allow internal renewal.
While the SNP has successfully avoided the ‘game of drones’ leadership changes that Labour and the Lib Dems have endured of late, there is as much risk in a successful leader staying on too long as leaving too early. There may come a point where the SNP will need to speak up against an increasingly underdressed Emperor Salmond and bring forward change.
And no-one embodies change amongst the party’s leadership contenders more than Nicola Sturgeon.