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Is this a 2019 Labour moment for the SNP?

Public Affairs

By Chris White and Jonathan Winston

Humza Yousef’s resignation yesterday after 13 months as First Minister marked a tipping point in Scottish politics, which will have major ramifications for the UK-wide general election later this year. 

The SNP, in power for the last 17 years, has dominated the Scottish political agenda, yet the transition from the dominant personalities of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon has been far from easy. Yousef was meant to represent the modern image of the SNP, yet the problems that dominated his tenure are long-standing ones, the foundations of which were laid under Sturgeon’s Bute House Agreement.

The move to eject the Scottish Greens from that power-sharing agreement was a surprise given the political dynamic of the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP hold 63 seats, and the opposition parties 65. The ability to govern when in a minority is not unknown, and indeed the Scottish Parliamentary system was set up to encourage this. So the decision over the scrapping of high-profile climate targets was a principled one, but one that doomed his premiership.

The parliamentary arithmetic was never going to allow Yousef to recover, with none of the Greens, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour or Alba – the SNP’s alter-ego led by Alex Salmond and Ash Reagan – prepared to lend Yousef a shovel to dig himself out of the hole he had created. In the end, Yousef was forced to jump before he was pushed into the inevitable no-confidence vote.

Once again, the SNP finds itself searching for a new leader, one who can help bind together the disparate nature of their political party. The SNP have long used the issue of independence to bind the party together, and as that prospect recedes, the cracks between the various wings of the party begin to widen.

The SNP has always been a very broad church, from progressives to social conservatives. In recent years, the progressive wing has been dominant, as exemplified by Yousef’s win last year over the socially conservative wing ostensibly led by Kate Forbes.  The political agenda since then has seen controversial legislation, from the Anti-Hate Crime Law to the proposed Gender Recognition Reform Bill, leading to criticism from across the political spectrum.

The choice facing the SNP is stark. They have 28 days to elect a new leader, but that is only the start of their problems. In that time, the new leader must also negotiate a new deal with one of the opposition parties – most likely the Scottish Greens again, rather than Alba.  That means swallowing some humble pie and being prepared to negotiate rather than take a very high-handed approach like Yousef tried to do.

The alternative is taking an ideologically driven approach – one that didn’t work very well across the UK for Labour in 2019, when his ill-fated general election campaign led to the loss of Labour heartlands that fell to the Conservatives for the first time ever. If the SNP try this route, a Scottish Parliamentary election is likely to follow – one that none of the parties are prepared for, much less have the campaign funds for, given the next election isn’t due until 2026.

The SNP may turn to the socially conservative Kate Forbes, who won 47% of the vote before marginally losing out to Yousef last March. However, it is unlikely that selection will win much approval from the Scottish Greens, who are at the more progressive end of the spectrum. The need for pragmatism may instead lead to the return of former SNP leader John Swinney, who has been a member in Holyrood since power was first devolved under Blair. Swinney is a tough operator, prepared to defend the SNP cause to the hilt, yet he is also universally liked across the political spectrum, and with a minority government in mind, he could be a wise choice.

The decision will be ultimately up to the SNP voter base, although the outcome will not just have ramifications for the SNP and its own internal divisions. The election of Swinney or Forbes may paper over the cracks, but the cracks remain.

Whether a Scottish Parliamentary election happens this year or not, the SNP force is waning, and the result at the UK wide general election later this year is likely to see losses across Scotland in favour of Scottish Labour. Scottish voters are beginning to tire of the drama, spin and outrage of SNP politics. Instead, the alternative of Scottish Labour once again looks attractive as the prospect of independence recedes