POLITICAL party conference season will soon be upon us again. In Scotland, it will be very different this year. Instead of the SNP dominating the nationalist agenda on its own, for the first time the party will have to share the limelight with the Alba Party. If nothing else, this might energise an SNP gathering which, in the past decade, has been reduced to a predictable, pre-programmed mass rally.

Of course, the SNP annual conference (September 10-13) will be a triumphal affair and who can gainsay the party’s right to celebrate their amazing May election victory. Winning a fourth successive election with an increased majority is no mean feat. Yet the party needs to beware of hubris.

The SNP success was less due to their own efforts than to the fact the Scottish electorate were determined to turn out (in unexpectedly large numbers) to cock a very big snook at the incompetent, corrupt Tory administration at Westminster. True, Nicola Sturgeon has made effective use of the pandemic crisis to position herself as a national leader, but she has witless Boris to thank for highlighting her star quality.

More important still, the SNP’s May success masks the fact that after 14 years in office – 19 by the next Holyrood election – the party is in danger of running out of ideas. This criticism can be exaggerated – the main opposition parties in Scotland are even more bereft of original thinking than the SNP Government.

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And I don’t doubt the SNP conference will trumpet the launch of the new “co-operation” agreement with the Greens – expect Patrick Harvie or Lorna Slater to make a guest appearance. But behind the razzmatazz, will there be enough political substance on offer for the SNP to survive another five years in government – and then ask for another five?

The elephant in the conference hall (a virtual one, again) is indyref2. For now, the FM can still excite the faithful on the basis of “one more heave”. But at the very least, a second referendum remains problematical this side of the next Westminster election.

That puts independence off till around 2026 or 2027 at the earliest. By then, Nicola will have departed for new career pastures and the shine on the SNP administration will have long gone. You can only get away with cock-ups such as the Ferguson ferry affair so often in government. Of course, history might provide a surprise: gaff-prone Boris might fall, and a disoriented Tory administration grant a second referendum. But short of such a political miracle, the SNP Government faces long years in office with no plan how to transform Scotland for the better.

Even then, had the SNP continued to monopolise both the nationalist and progressive camps, it could conceivably chunter on for another decade and more in power. But now it has Alba to contend with. The SNP have read too much into Alba’s failure to win any seats in May. Alba was born too late in the electoral cycle and suffered from a media blackout. However, the new party (with 6000 members) is not going away.

Alba’s first party conference takes place in Greenock on 11 and 12, thus overlapping with the SNP event. Some in Alba see that as a deliberate attempt at sabotage by the governing party. But unlike the SNP conference, the Alba gathering involves real people meeting in real time. Expect the visual contrast with the SNP’s manipulated online event to be dramatic. Alex Salmond in full flow at the podium with the Alba faithful cheering him on will be pure theatre.

However, the Alba conference has some serious political thinking of its own to do. Not to put too fine a point on it: what is Alba for? Conference has to decide if Alba wants to supplant the SNP as the leading party of the national movement. Or whether it is simply a pro-Salmond ginger group that aims to push the SNP into being more focused on securing indyref2 this side of the next Holyrood election. Each strategy has its own dictates.

ALBA as a ginger group will soon wither politically and organisationally. The initiative will always be with the SNP and winning new recruits become progressively harder. On the other hand, supplanting the SNP is no easy project. The time frame to succeed is very short indeed, while the lasting result of confronting the SNP leadership might be to divert the national movement inward, alienating Alba and SNP supporters alike.

The current danger is that Alba try to become an SNP Mark 2. There are already signs this is happening. For instance, Alba’s default position after the May election has been to start focusing on next year’s local authority contests. But winning a few council seats is an irrelevance as far as independence is concerned. It will take Alba decades to carve a position at council level.

Rather, to make a real mark, Alba has to contest for the leadership of the national movement by challenging the SNP over the kind of new Scotland we want to build after independence is won. Instead of being all things to all people like the current SNP, Alba will only gain support if it is prepared to challenge the establishment. And challenge immediately as an exemplar of the future Scotland we seek to create.

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For instance, Alba members should put themselves at the forefront of local community campaigns to take land ownership back from big – especially foreign – landlords. Alba members should form factions inside the main trades unions and run slates at union elections based on extending workers’ rights.

Rather than just hold street stalls, Alba members should set up permanent advice centres in housing schemes to provide direct aid for communities struggling to survive Tory welfare cuts. We don’t need to elect councillors to provide immediate leadership in housing schemes or rural areas. Alba needs to be a party of the grassroots rather than another machine for electing professional politicians.

By following such a popular strategy, Alba can evade the slow electoral cycle and the blackout of the Unionist media. It can thereby seize the initiative from the SNP.

This is not to argue that elections are unimportant. But a national independence movement cannot succeed if it is only an election machine – as the SNP have proved by default. If Alba are to usurp the current SNP leadership, it can only do so by returning to being an activist-led movement rather than a remote, bureaucratic apparatus of government.

Like the SNP, Alba will soon have to address the issue of leadership succession. Alex Salmond will be past 70 at the next Holyrood election. To carve out a space in politics, Alba needs to bring forth a new generation of political leaders.

Meanwhile, the SNP and Greens seem bent on throwing away scarce talent. Joanna Cherry is marooned on the SNP backbenches and Andy Wightman is also in the political wilderness. Alba should invite both to address its conference, as an act of solidarity.

I’ve attended many party conferences over the years. At best, they are exciting and sometimes politically historic. At worst they are stage-managed and soporific. I look forward to seeing how next month’s two nationalist conferences compare.