Party season: Looking ahead to Scotland's political conferences

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Audience members, SNP conferenceImage source, PA
Image caption,
Everybody loves conference season

Scotland's political parties are gearing up for their Spring conferences. Here, I take a look at what to expect from each one.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year. Get set for a festival of party-political podium-thumping, as Scotland's politicians ramp up the rhetoric ahead of May's council elections and the seemingly unending series of constitutional kerfuffles.

Predictions? At least one person will arrive at each event in a kilt. Similarly, amid the sea of slogan-bearing t-shirts, someone will dress from head to toe in party colours, right down to bright yellow/red/blue/green shoes and socks.

Journalists and delegates alike will subsist entirely on a diet of overpriced coffee and mayonnaise-based triangular sandwiches swiped from fringe events.

Some protestors will show up outside at least one conference, and make a minor fuss when they're not allowed in. Nobody inside will really notice.

But beyond these universal themes, what can we expect from party conference season 2017?

Scottish Labour

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Jeremy Corbyn will address the Scottish Labour conference in Perth

When: 24-26 February

Where: Perth

Who's speaking? Jeremy Corbyn is back, after his conspicuous absence at the last Scottish Labour conference. Other big guns being rolled out to join Kezia Dugdale include London mayor Sadiq Khan and the party's deputy leader, Tom Watson.

Expect to hear: Some burnishing of the party's pro-union credentials for the ongoing constitutional conflicts, with a side order of federalism and Ms Dugdale's "new Act of Union". Expect attacks on both the SNP and Tories for "endangering the union" over their talk of Brexit and independence.

There will be attempts at optimism on-stage ahead of May's council elections, with plenty of examples cited of council budgets being cut due to falling government grants, but more in the way of black humour about the party's electoral prospects off-stage.

Don't expect to hear: "Didn't you lot vote for Owen Smith?" This is all one big happy (er, federal) Labour family, remember?

Scottish Conservatives

Image source, PA
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Ruth Davidson will be the headline act at the Tory conference

When: 3-4 March

Where: Glasgow

Who's speaking? Ruth Davidson will be the star attraction, although it has yet to be confirmed whether Theresa May will make an appearance.

Expect to hear: Plenty of back-slapping about the Tories becoming Holyrood's second-largest party, and much talk of being a "strong opposition". There will be some discussion of domestic policy (including budgetary references to "the highest taxed part of the UK") but the constitution is likely to dominate.

The Tories climbed into second place at Holyrood by playing the "defenders of the union" card as often and as noisily as possible, occasionally while riding a buffalo, and will look to continue that successful strategy in May.

Don't expect to hear: It would be more or less impossible to get through without a mention or ten of Brexit, but the tone will be markedly different from this time last year, when pro-Remain voices dominated (on the stage, at least). Ms Davidson is unafraid of sticking to her guns over the benefits of the single market, but expect concessions along the lines of "making the most of the opportunities" of Brexit.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Image source, Andrew Milligan
Image caption,
The Scottish Lib Dems will play up their support for both the UK and EU

When: 10-11 March

Where: Perth

Who's speaking? Scottish leader Willie Rennie and former UK party leader Nick Clegg.

Expect to hear: Much railing against the "blank cheque Brexit" and calls for a "Brexit deal referendum". Willie Rennie will want Scotland to "be the best again", and will look to play up both pro-EU and pro-UK credentials, while castigating all the other parties over their stances on these issues.

There will be cheers for a recent string of by-election victories, sparking bullish predictions about May's council elections. And there will probably be a lengthy dispute over a minor point of policy, because it's the Lib Dems.

Don't expect to hear: Nick Clegg talking about how nice that David Cameron fella was. The Tories are once again public enemy number one - indeed there may well be some claims of how the Lib Dems held them in check during the coalition years.

Scottish Greens

Image source, Scottish Greens
Image caption,
The Scottish Greens are holding a short, one-day conference in Glasgow

When: 11 March

Where: Glasgow

Who's speaking? Party co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman, with guest turns from MSPs Andy Wightman and Alison Johnstone.

Expect to hear: A stout defence of the party's budget deal with the SNP while members grumble about tax - air departure tax in particular. This is a very short conference, with the substantive speeches lasting only a few hours, but there will be time for some bold statements about independence and enthusiastic noises about continuing last year's electoral success into the council elections.

There will also be endless gags about watermelons, inspired by Murdo Fraser's attempt to weaponise the fruit as an insult during a budget deal tirade.

Don't expect to hear: Intermittent outbreaks of "attunement" - having a mandatory moment of silent contemplation between each debate was scrapped at the party's autumn conference last year on the grounds that it was "weird".


Image source, PA
Image caption,
Nicola Sturgeon will deliver the key speech at the SNP conference

When: 17-18 March

Where: Aberdeen

Who's speaking? Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson will be the main speakers, but don't be surprised to hear popular cameos from conference favourites John Swinney, Alex Salmond and Mhairi Black.

Expect to hear: Some ratcheting up of rhetoric around independence from Ms Sturgeon, if not an actual date for a referendum. Perhaps a pledge to pursue a Section 30 order - the mechanism formally allowing a vote - or details of Andrew Wilson's growth commission, set to a backdrop of relentless bashing of Westminster and the Tories. A lot might depend on whether or not Article 50 has been triggered by the time of the conference.

Beyond the constitution there will be sky-high expectations ahead of the council elections and the party's eleventh consecutive year in power at Holyrood. You might as well cross "standing up for Scotland" off your bingo card now.

Don't expect to hear: Very much from the Brexiteer element of the party. Conference veteran Gerry Fisher will no doubt rampage on to the stage at some point to demand "true independence", but any party divisions over Europe will be firmly papered over in the short term to further the cause of indyref2.

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