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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 08:14 GMT 09:14 UK
Crunch vote for Swinney

BBC Scotland political correspondent Kirsten Campbell
At the Scottish National Party Conference in Inverness

Tucked away on page 59 of the SNP Conference agenda is the innocuous phrase: 09h40 Election of National Office Bearers.

In truth the leadership election in Inverness will overshadow everything else, including debates on pensions, drugs and fair trade.

John Swinney is being challenged for the post of national convener by a local activist who knows he will not win.

Dr Bill Wilson speaks of growing disillusion among the grassroots members about the direction the party is taking.

John Swinney (right)  and Alex Neil
John Swinney (right) beat Alex Neil to become leader
His aim is simply to be heard.

It is an unprecedented challenge to a sitting SNP leader.

Billy Wolfe challenged Arthur Donaldson in the 1960s, but the circumstances were somewhat different in that Mr Donaldson had previously indicated his intention to stand down.

Mr Swinney admits he is looking for a two-to-one margin of victory.

That is what he achieved in 2000 when he beat Alex Neil to take over from Alex Salmond.

But traditionally, members are loyal to the leader and to admit that you may not have the support of a third of your party is being seen as a weakness.

At the heart of the contest is a difference of opinion over how to deliver independence.

Existing party policy requires a referendum, which would probably take place in the third year of an SNP administration.

Internal wrangling

But Dr Wilson and his supporters, including, it is claimed, eight MSPs, think that is a waste of time.

They argue the current position devalues independence and that the minute the SNP is able to form a Scottish Government then it should begin negotiations to end the Union.

Indeed several senior SNP politicians will take part in a fringe meeting at the conference about establishing an Independence Convention along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which helped deliver a consensus for devolution.

Mr Swinney believes such an organisation is premature and that the party should first concentrate on delivering electoral success.

The next test of public opinion is the European elections in June 2004.

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson: Just wants to be heard
The SNP will rank its candidates for that poll this week and agree a position on the new European constitution.

Europe is supposed to be the conference theme, but internal wrangling is certain to dominate the four-day event.

Delegates will be asked to consider the introduction of a central membership system.

It is one of many internal reforms John Swinney promised in the aftermath of a disappointing Holyrood election result.

And it is a bone of contention for the disaffected who see modernisation as "new labour centralisation", removing power from the branches and handing it to headquarters.

The simple truth is that the two sides disagree.

The challenge for the SNP is to come out of this conference in one piece.

MSPs turn backs on Swinney
19 Sep 03  |  Scotland
Leadership challenger slams Swinney
14 Aug 03  |  Scotland
Swinney launches leadership defence
13 Aug 03  |  Scotland

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