Angus Robertson: Ruth Davidson’s neglected seat will be a battleground in 2021

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TENS of thousands of ballot papers have arrived in the inboxes of SNP members or are currently winging their way through the post in the snail mail. Up and down the land members of the largest political party in the country are now able to vote on who should become their constituency candidates for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Forty-two of the country’s constituencies already have a sole nominee while a range of candidates are standing in the rest of the 73 seats.

There are some huge talents running for Holyrood nominations including first-time candidates, experienced retreads like myself, almost exactly the same number of male as female candidates, the largest-ever number of black and minority ethnic nominees and a record number of openly LGBT candidates. There are nominees with amazing personal backstories, excellence in public and private sector professions and impressive campaigning track records across a range of issues.

Campaigning has been energetic in recent weeks, despite restrictive rules shaped by coronavirus realities which have limited candidates to concentrate online through websites and social media. Hustings have been held via Zoom and been well attended by members keen to ask questions, with both classic and Dragon’s Den formats. Innovations have included online members hubs, making it easy for local members to get in touch directly with their candidate.


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Still the challenge has remained for nominees to reach passive members who choose to support the party but don’t attend meetings or take part in campaign activities. All members are equal and have one vote, but not all members are equally reachable. Despite nominees having the opportunity to send three emails to the membership, that misses those who prefer the normal post, and it is never clear how many round-robin emails are actually read by the intended recipients, or go automatically into the junk folder.

For me the selection process has been profoundly different this time compared to my two previous rounds. After I first went through vetting ahead of the first Holyrood election, I was commuting to branch and constituency meetings from Vienna where I still worked as a journalist. Selections only directly involved a small number of delegates which was the same when I was selected for the 2001 Westminster election. What mattered then were the 21 branch and constituency delegates rather than the hundreds of members who had no direct say. While it was fortunate for me that I secured 17 of the 21 votes, it most certainly wasn’t the one member one vote system the SNP has now.

Past rules allowed candidates to have the contact information of the membership so they could speak directly with members. This strongly incentivised active nominees and helped level the playing field with other nominees, who as sitting councillors, branch office-bearers, and past-candidates had an established connection with the membership.

Now in the digital age candidates need a particular skill-set: being active and effective on social media, effective at graphic design and video production and imaginative about how to make an impact. Even for candidates with a large social media following however, there is no guarantee of being able to reach the passive SNP membership. The only way to do that is by boosting social media posts.

This all has been consuming me over recent weeks and months as I seek selection in Edinburgh Central. It all seems so far away from my first experiences in the SNP when I joined 35 years ago – when the party was polling in the low teens, had two MPs and one MEP, there was no Scottish Parliament and support for independence was anaemic. How things have changed since then: with support for independence standing at a record at 58% as it is the SNP.

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Edinburgh Central will be a cockpit seat in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. As the Tory-held constituency which has been (badly) represented by Ruth Davidson it will be under the closest media focus, with the expectation that the SNP must win if it wants to secure a pro-independence SNP majority at Holyrood.

Given this, Edinburgh Central requires the candidate with the most local, national and international experience. I won’t rehearse all of the arguments from my campaign (and other talented candidates are on the ballot paper too), but hopefully turnout will be high. Although most members’ votes will be returned in the next days the polls are open for two weeks, closing on Friday, November 6.

I wish all SNP nominees every success. However, not everyone will be selected. As soon as the votes are counted and winners confirmed we will all need to start working together and campaign to have as many SNP MSP’s elected as possible. May 6, 2021 is not far away. Let’s not take a single vote for granted or positive opinion poll as a guarantee of success.

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