SNP leadership contest: Will party reject candidate who is most convincing on independence? – Ian Swanson
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Is the SNP about to turn its back on the leader with the best chance of persuading people of the case for independence? Voting is now under way in the ballot of SNP members to elect a successor to Nicola Sturgeon. Polling suggests that among SNP voters, it is a tight race between Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, with former community safety minister Ash Regan in third place.
But when it comes to the general public, Ms Forbes is ahead. One poll published at the weekend showed 39 per cent think she would do a good job as First Minister, with 29 per cent saying she would do a bad job, giving her a net approval rating of plus ten, as against minus 11 for Mr Yousaf and minus 13 for Ms Regan. For comparison, Labour's Anas Sarwar is on plus one and Tory Douglas Ross minus 22.
And significantly, Ms Forbes was also seen as making the best argument for independence of the three candidates, with 25 per cent of voters saying she made the most convincing case, compared with 18 per cent for Mr Yousaf and 11 per cent for Ms Regan. Another survey found Ms Forbes was rated highest by voters on key issues like the NHS, the economy, education, crime, transport, and the environment.
Despite polls on how the public and SNP voters view the candidates, there is little hard information on how SNP members – those who actually decide this contest – are likely to vote. And while the membership was previously estimated at around 100,000, a report at the weekend claimed it had actually fallen to nearer 78,000. One poll of members early in the contest suggested Mr Yousaf was ahead of Ms Forbes but by a small enough margin for second preferences to be crucial.
Mr Yousaf is certainly the choice of the party establishment. Most of Nicola Sturgeon's Cabinet, now including Deputy First Minister John Swinney, have come out for him. And he has more declared backers among MPs and MSPs than the other two candidates.
But why would the party not opt for the candidate who is seen by voters as the most impressive of the contenders on the vital issues of concern to the public as well as making the best case for independence, the SNP's defining purpose?
Ms Forbes has alienated some in the party with her personal views on gender reform and same-sex marriage. And her blunt cross-examination of Mr Yousaf in the STV debate, when she criticised his record as a minister, divided opinion. Some thought she was just voicing what many thought but would not say, while others saw it as disloyalty – though it's worth remembering Mr Yousaf has given as good as he got in terms of personal attacks, questioning Ms Forbes' own record and repeatedly casting doubt on her "values".
And although Ms Forbes is accused of criticising the SNP's record in government, all three candidates have made clear they would change tack on key issues from independence strategy to the deposit return scheme. But despite the campaign clashes, many will think it strange that a political party would reject the leader who looks like having the most success in appealing to voters.