Ian Swanson: SNP newbie revolution may not be over yet

IT has been described as the end of an era. Steve Cardownie stepped down as leader of Edinburgh's SNP group three years ago and quit as a councillor at last year's elections.

Tuesday, 20th March 2018, 6:00 am
Adam McVey, Edinburgh's youngest ever council leader (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

But changes in the Nationalist top team at the City Chambers last week are being seen as the new generation of SNP councillors taking over from the more experienced colleagues who helped run the administration when Mr Cardownie was in charge.

Gavin Barrie, regarded as a close ally of Mr Cardownie’s, was ousted both as chair of the SNP group and as the city’s housing and economy convener, both posts going to councillors elected just last year. Cathy Fullerton, who was also in Mr Cardownie’s camp, was replaced as group whip by another “newbie”.

But power battles are nothing new for the SNP. Mr Cardownie faced repeated challenges when he was leader. And one Nationalist councillor jokes that last week saw “remarkably few changes for an SNP annual general meeting”.

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When Mr Cardownie defected to the SNP from Labour in 2005, he was the only Nationalist on the council. But the advent of a new voting system and the rising popularity of the SNP delivered a big increase in the party’s contingent of councillors in the Capital.

And Mr Cardownie went on to lead the party into power after two successive elections in 2007 and 2012, forming coalitions first with the Liberal Democrats and then with Labour.

But in 2012 he had to see off a challenge from Stefan Tymkewycz, who felt the party should have done better at the election.

And the following year he survived another challenge from Sandy Howat, who argued the coalition was not an equal partnership and the SNP was seen as propping up Labour.

Mr Cardownie decided to stand down as leader in 2015 and planned a “job swap”, with Gavin Barrie taking over the helm and Mr Cardownie becoming convener of the regulatory committee. But this time Mr Howat managed to gather more support and defeated Cllr Barrie by nine votes to eight. Frank Ross – now Lord Provost – replaced Mr Howat in 2016.

And then last year, within hours of the election result which made the SNP the largest party on the council for the first time, Cllr Ross was toppled by Adam McVey in a surprise coup.

Cllr McVey – the Capital’s youngest council leader – was not challenged last week. “Even the SNP group realises five leaders in five years doesn’t look good,” says one insider.

The SNP-led coalition is still less than a year old. But if history is anything to go by, there will be more changes ahead.

There has been a huge turnover in the city’s SNP councillors – only Almond’s Norrie Work survives out of the 12 elected in 2007 – and there was an influx of new faces at last year’s elections, some of whom went straight into key roles.

“The group is about evenly divided between the newbies and the others,” says a source.

“The new councillors are able and also very ambitious. Gavin Barrie was targeted this time, but just because the other conveners were confirmed in their posts it doesn’t mean everyone is happy.

“I don’t think the other new ones are going to be content to stay on the backbenches for long.”