Friday, 31 October 2008

Rebel Rebel

An interesting discussion with a Labour researcher (I know - I need to keep better company!) saw the question posed "Are there any principled MSPs in the SNP?" (or something like that). To which my response was "Of course - they all are. Their principles made them MSPs" (or something to that effect).

The point the Labour researcher made - while graciously accepting my point that the principle of independence made them party members in the first place - was that since the SNP Government was elected last May, we haven't seen a rebellion. We've seen a couple of votes lost on the basis of accidentally voting against the government, but generally the SNP whip has been pretty tight.

"Wouldn't it be nice," said Labour researcher argued, "to show that SNP MSPs actually stood for something, were willing to stand up for what they believed in - even if that meant being against the government?" (Well yes - of course that would be nice for Labour, wouldn't it!).

But that got me thinking. There are 2 strands to that - first, if the SNP Government put forward something that its members were not entirely comfortable with, that would be resolved before it became public I think. And even if not, the SNP whip would probably still manage to maintain order - unlike their Labour counterpart (Cathie Craigie budget debate anyone?).

But let's entertain the notion of an SNP rebel. In the shape of whom, I can't quite see, but let's anyway. If there were a single MSP rebelling on an important piece of legislation - say, something that the government brought to Parliament - and that legislation was then lost due to that MSP standing on principle there would be consequences. Most likely, some form of Campbell Martin-type suspension. Which would then, for a time reduce SNP MSP numbers to 46 - the same as Labour. With the Lib Dems & Tories both on 16, and the Greens on 2, you'd now have 2 "Independents" - Margo & A.N. Other.

Given that the SNP would then have to find support from either LD or Con (to take Government to 62) plus the Greens (to 64) you would then find the balance of power in the hands of Margo - independent MSP. Saying that, she'd probably abstain anyway, so no harm there.

But that's almost certainly why a) the SNP have been very careful about the legislation brought before Holyrood and b) why there have been no rebellions. Because if there were, it wouldn't just mean the a defeat for the Government - it might mean the collapse of the Government and a new election.

Not that the SNP would be scared of an election at this point...


stuart w,  1 November 2008 at 07:39  

I think you're right, and the whole thing seems redolent of new Labour; the party was so keen to get elected and get rid of the Tories - and so keen to stay there once in office - that dissent was largely stifled, even from the hard left in the party, and despite the party's lurch to the right.

Of course, the wheels eventually came off, and even a healthy majority wasn't impregnable, and things will no doubt eventually go awry for the SNP as well - to paraphrase Enoch Powell, all governments end in failure.

Sam 1 November 2008 at 15:02  

The concepts of whipping and dissent aren't really related. There's nothing unhealthy about an effective whip and the maintenance of party discipline. The whole point of being elected as a SNP or Labour candidate is that you support the manifesto of that party.

Thats why traditionally the whip was only used for manifesto issues. In the SNP's case as Malc pointed out the consequences of losing discipline are a bit more dramatic than usual, and anyway parties have always tended to overruse the whip from time to time.

You can still have dissent, but given that MPs/MSPs signed up to the party manifesto it should only happen when the issue was not covered by that, or the parties position has changed. In other words, when, as Malc said, the principles that made them join that party are being threatened.

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