Is Humza Yousaf too quick to write off defection of Edinburgh MSP Ash Regan to Alex Salmond's Alba party?

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​First Minister Humza Yousaf doesn’t seem too upset about the defection of Ash Regan to Alex Salmond’s Alba party at the weekend. He said the Edinburgh Eastern MSP’s departure from the SNP would be “no great loss”.

And to be fair, he does have plenty of other things to worry about. But Ms Regan’s defection – the first time a sitting SNP MSP has switched to another party – should not be dismissed as insignificant. Earlier this year she was bidding to be SNP leader following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, competing with Mr Yousaf and Kate Forbes for members’ votes. Now she says the party has “lost its focus on independence” and has decided to leave.

And she is not the only parliamentarian to quit the SNP. Her defection comes just a couple of weeks after SNP MP Lisa Cameron left the party to join the Tories. And another former SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, now sitting as an independent, announced at the weekend he would be working with Alba as part of a Scotland United for Independence Group.

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Add in the discontent among some SNP MSPs over the party’s partnership with the Greens, the suspension of former minister Fergus Ewing for failing to support a Green minister in a vote of confidence, the party’s defeat in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election and the ongoing police investigation into its finances and it’s clear the SNP does not have its troubles to seek.

Edinburgh Eastern MSP Ash Regan's defection to Alba means Alex Salmond's party now has a platform t Holyrood.Edinburgh Eastern MSP Ash Regan's defection to Alba means Alex Salmond's party now has a platform t Holyrood.
Edinburgh Eastern MSP Ash Regan's defection to Alba means Alex Salmond's party now has a platform t Holyrood.

Ms Regan’s defection does not make any real difference to the arithmetic at Holyrood, but it is another sign of a party, once famed for its discipline, now in disarray.

Her switch of allegiance is also a boost for Alba, giving it its first MSP at Holyrood. Alex Salmond’s headline-grabbing launch of Alba at the start of the 2021 Holyrood election campaign was a dramatic initiative by the former First Minister and was presented as a gamechanger. The party's strategy of fighting only list seats was intended as a way of maximising the pro-independence vote and securing a pro-independence majority.

But despite its high-profile campaign and Mr Salmond's leadership, the party did not win a single seat. It fared no better at the Scottish council elections in 2022. And although it has two MPs – East Lothian's Kenny MacAskill and Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath's Neale Hanvey – who defected from the SNP's Westminster group, and now an MSP in Holyrood, it has never managed to get anyone elected under its own banner.

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Nevertheless, having representation at Westminster and Holyrood gives it a platform. Ms Regan now has the opportunity to articulate Alba's policy lines in the Scottish Parliament and take up issues which up until now the party has only been able to pursue at Westminster through its two MPs there.

There has been speculation over other potential defectors, but Alba argues that even on her own Ms Regan can make an important impact. And they point to the example of previous figures like the late independent Lothian MSP Margo MacDonald and the former Scottish Socialist leader Tommy Sheridan.

Mr Yousaf may not be trembling at the prospect of Alba’s new presence in the Holyrood chamber, but there is at least the potential for his erstwhile leadership opponent to cause him some discomfort.