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Can Humza Yousaf lead the SNP to success?

SNP new leader
29 March 2023
Public Affairs

They say a week is a long time in politics, but the six-week SNP leadership election felt more like six gruelling years of political infighting and high drama for the top job. What was meant to be a straightforward contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon turned out to be anything but that, with party members dividing loyalties between the establishment favourite, Humza Yousaf, former finance minister Kate Forbes and the conservative wild card Ash Regan. 

By winning with a narrow margin of 4%, over Kate Forbes after Ash Regan’s third round votes were redistributed Humsa Yousaf now faces the daunting task of proving himself both as a successful SNP Party leader and as a First Minister, all following a period when the  SNP has appeared divided. This is a far cry from when Nicola Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond as leader in November 2014 following the Scottish Independence Referendum when the party was unified in its mission.

Throughout the leadership contest, the now former Health Secretary pledged to continue Sturgeon’s programme of opposing the UK government’s plans to ban trans conversion therapy. Yousaf also mirrored Sturgeon’s commitment to exercise devolved powers to maximum effect, looking to introduce a new wealth tax and ‘reinvest’ profits from renewable energy projects back into community ownership.

Now as First Minister, Yousaf’s immediate problem is validating support beyond the party faithful. Polls throughout the leadership campaign put Yousaf behind Forbes as the favourite to win the leadership race amongst the Scottish electorate. This matters if Yousaf is to stand a chance of increasing support for independence and develop an effective plan to execute its delivery. This is a big hurdle to overcome given Labour will attach him to his poor record in Cabinet. As Justice Secretary, Yousaf presided over the widely derided Hate Crime Bill, and as Health secretary, waiting times for hospital treatment skyrocketed.

Secondly, Yousaf inherits a party that did not plan for Sturgeon stepping down – leaving a void in forward planning which has faced a recent scandal of misleading the media over a 30,000 drop in membership figures. There is also the ongoing probe into the £600,000 of funds said to have gone missing from the party’s accounts, resulting in the resignations of senior figures, including John Swinney and chief executive Peter Murrell.

In all, Yousaf faces challenges on many fronts, with critics already questioning if he has strategic knowledge of how he will lead the party to success, or at least head off losses to opponents.

To prevent members from defecting to the Alba part, and hence splitting the nationalist vote, Yousaf will have to extend some form of olive branch to political rivals including Kate Forbes, perhaps by offering her the position of Finance Minister, in which she was perceived as doing well.

As for what the election of Yousaf means for Labour, it’s no secret that they see an opportunity to win back seats at the next general election. Indeed, recent polling indicates that Labour could win between ten and twenty seats if a snap election was called tomorrow.

For Labour, Yousaf’s victory is considered an opportunity to re-inforce the criticism of the SNP track record by targeting his track record in various Government roles. Indeed Kate Forbes well publicised attack on his record in the first candidate debate is likely to appear in Labour attack ads for years to come. The Conservatives also hope that the divides within the SNP are enough to revert the narrative away from independence and even make inroads by appealing to voters who supported Kate Forbes.

Finally in looking towards a second independence vote, Yousaf will likely scrap his predecessor’s plan to use the next election as a de-facto referendum. Instead, he will seek to gradually build support for the cause by proving he can be a competent First Minister for all of Scotland and demonstrating a record of success for the SNP in Government It is a tall order, especially with support for Independence dropping during the leadership election.

In concluding, Humza Yousaf’s victory is clearly watershed moment. Not only is he the first Scottish First Minister from a minority background , but he is also the youngest person to serve in that role. His accession comes at a time when the country finds itself divided on many fault lines, with independence perhaps not top of anyone’s priorities acing Nicola Sturgeon was never going to be straightforward for the SNP, given the party failed in its succession planning, but the direction that the party now takes under Humza Yousaf will now define it for many years to come.

Photo credit: Adam Wilson (Unsplash)