With National Conference taking place this weekend on a virtual platform for the first time, I am eager to see how it works as I cannot envisage how it will all come together and am sure that there will be many nervous moments in the run up to it.
For me, conference was always a wee holiday, a break away from the kids and a chance for me not just to be someone’s mam but someone in my own right however a new job put paid to that and I have been unable to attend for the last few years, missing it greatly. The couple of nights away in a hotel, shopping, hours of uninterrupted riding on the bus or train travelling there and back and socialising with friends, old and new, was bliss but at least with the new format, I can enjoy most of the debates and hopefully some of the fringe events which have always been informative, useful and very, very busy! It will be strange but means I can attend as can many others who would otherwise be put off by travel and I am glad to see some of our own branch members attending for the first time.
Being this far North even Inverness was a trek and the cost and time needed was prohibitive for many that had other commitments; I remember heading to Perth one year for National Assembly I think only to hear on the train, south of inverness that it was cancelled due to problems with the Forth Road Bridge. Whilst this was no more than an annoyance for many, for those of us travelling from further afield it was as disappointing as when you hear others complaining that Inverness or Aberdeen is too far away to hold a conference as they cannot possibly be expected to have to pay for accommodation or spend hours travelling,
The pandemic has had this interesting effect of opening up meetings to many who never attended before. Normally quiet and attended by the few usual office bearers and long term members, we have seen our branch and Constituency meetings grow in size quite dramatically. Within our own branch, our members are split equally between those who live in the town and those who have to travel up to half an hour to attend and to whom the thought of travelling out on a cold winter night is not always the most inviting option. Virtual meetings have allowed us generally to have accessible meetings with new attendees and has had the added benefit of allowing us to hold them more frequently. Before, if something arose, we might have emailed our members for their views as we could not physically hold a meeting in the time available and would receive very limited responses. Now, we just hold a meeting for each topic – historically in the two months of November and December, there would be one branch meeting. This year we will have had a constituency associstion meeting, a council campaign committee meeting, two normal branch meetings and four special meetings and have also discovered something new to us – guests! Because of our location is was almost impossible to get speakers from elsewhere to join us as it either necessitated an overnight stay or a very late arrival home. We have been lucky enough to have visits this month from NEC nominees and MSPs and this is something that we will definitely continue in the future as it has opened up so many opportunities that we don’t normally get the chance to experience.
The virtual meetings have not been without issue however as connectivity in the North Highlands is not the most reliable and some of our rural members find themselves unable to join the meetings or, if they do, cannot contribute fully due to connections dropping. Other members still won’t join in meetings as they wish to keep their membership private or work away from the county. I don’t think we are much different from other branches in this respect but we will be having a look at how we can further encourage people to join in and encouraging them to sign up for postal votes will be a good way of starting this conversation.
Two of our special meetings coming up soon will cover the two topics of the governance review and the boundary commission changes. Many longer term members of the branch feel that over time as the membership grew, the party didn’t grow with it and lost the personal touch it was famous for. Communication with branches is at an all time low and the divide between rural and urban politics continues to widen. Social media inflames the issue as complaints are shared, distorted and amplified. The governance review will allow all members to have their say, identify solutions and hopefully they will be listened to and acted upon. We have had some wonderful initial submissions from branch members and the meeting to discuss these in more detail will be positive and forward thinking.
The meeting discussing the proposed boundary commission changes is unlikely to be as positive. Once again, it seems the Highlands are getting the short straw. Fresh from the cuts of a couple of years ago, more are proposed now. Caithness previously lost its Landward ward and two councillors in 2017 with the county being divided into east and west, losing a Councillor and cutting a village in half. The new proposals see the county returning to what it was but yet again losing a Councillor. The two already large wards in Sutherland will combine to an unworkable one ward covering over 5000 square kilometres, not least because of the differences in issues that affect the rural north west and the populated east coast seaboard villages and will lose two of the six councillors currently enjoyed. Other areas in Highland are increased to wards that might look ideal on a map but have no local connection to each other and unsurprisingly Inverness will gain two councillors, further strengthening their grip over Highland Council. We are lucky up here, our branch convener is group leader and has been instrumental in securing money and improvements for Caithness along with his political opponents, working together for the good of the county but a decrease in local representation puts this in jeopardy. Inverness, a city growing without control is in danger of creating its own Highland Clearances without any help from Westminster.