News & Insights | Posted March 3, 2023
That was the week that was
John Penman looks at the first week of the SNP leadership contest and ponders whether the departure of another significant figure in the party might have longer term consequences
It perhaps says quite a lot about the public’s knowledge of the candidates for the SNP leadership that the biggest story of the campaign this week featured none of them.
John Swinney’s decision to step down as Deputy Scottish First Minister wasn’t that much of a shock but it highlighted that within a few weeks, two of the party’s biggest assets, who have dominated the political scene for most of the last decade, will no longer be in charge.
Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan were already facing questions about their ability to fill Nicola Sturgeon’s shoes but Swinney’s departure arguably leaves an even bigger gap for the party.
A former leader himself – although as he once admitted ruefully “that didn’t work out too well” – Swinney was well respected within and outwith party circles.
Scottish politics will be poorer without John Swinney
I first encountered him in the Members’ Lobby at the House of Commons not long after he was elected in 1997. Hearing another Scottish voice, he popped over to say hello. Over the intervening years, he came across as a very straightforward and sensible politician, always willing to engage with the business community. He fully deserves time away from the spotlight but the front line of Scottish politics will be poorer without him.
After a week of campaigning, we’re no closer to knowing who the next First Minister will be but Swinney’s departure means the deputy’s job is up for grabs too. Even if a continuity candidate like Yousaf succeeds, that means more shuffling of the top jobs and it would seem likely that other well-known names close to the FM may also leave before too long.
So more than a new leader, this increasingly feels like a moment of real sea change for the SNP.
The highs and lows of week one
Those are challenges for the winner to consider further down the line. In the meantime, they’ve been trying to build their campaigns and get some momentum.
Forbes must have thought a week or so ago that the criticism of her personal beliefs meant her chances of making it this far were in the balance but she’s clearly now front and centre of the fight. Her performance at the first hustings showed she’s not cowed by the attacks on, which continue, and she was able to outline more on her wider views. The story about her husband attending a Tory leadership hustings last year shows the party’s left is determined to prevent her besting Yousaf.
Yousaf himself had a solid week and it’s easy to see why the party likes him. His statesmanlike performance at the hustings included a robust defence of his time as a minister in Sturgeon’s government which perhaps shows where he feels his vulnerability lies.
It’s also harder when you’re seen as close to the outgoing leader to be able to demonstrate what you might do differently but with Forbes’ ploughing a different path that focuses on improving the economy, he will need to come up with some policies that have his own stamp to counter her.
Regan meanwhile has the freedom of the underdog to go a bit rogue. She’s the clear outsider and has embraced that wholeheartedly. From the moment she launched her campaign in a blaze of tartan, she’s been underlining her independence credentials – arguing forcibly about accelerating the timetable even if that means ignoring reality in the process. For those of us old enough to remember the SNP in the 90s, it echoed the days when government seemed a long way off so promising anything and everything wasn’t an issue.
The big question for Regan is whether her radical position will stand up to scrutiny once the wider public becomes engaged, especially in the heat of the TV debates which begin next week.
Do any of them really have what it takes to be Scottish First Minister?
While it still seems largely a fight between Yousaf and Forbes, the single transferable vote system adds a large element of uncertainty so it would be foolish to predict the final outcome.
There are also a number of topics that have yet to be examined in detail and the TV debates will inevitably cover those that won’t feature as strongly in the party events.
What we can see though is that all of the candidates will face a challenge to gain broader support and, with the departure of the bigger figures such as Swinney, that challenge just got harder.
A poll just before Sturgeon stood down showed the scale of that task. The best performing figure was Kate Forbes who got just 7%. The exposure of the next few weeks will improve those figures but will any of them ever get close to the numbers Sturgeon or her predecessor Alex Salmond have enjoyed? And what is not yet known is how much that recognition boosted the SNP’s polling in previous elections and if it did, how much might it drop under a new leader?
The fight to become leader of the SNP is one thing, but perhaps the biggest challenge over the coming weeks will be convincing the wider electorate that the winner will be as strong and effective a First Minister as the one that’s on her way out.