Mr Yousaf’s Conference Challenge

The SNP leader, Humza Yousaf, faces a difficult party conference in Aberdeen, where his party will round off the autumn party conference season next week. Over the last couple of months the level of support for the SNP at a Westminster election has stood on average at just 36%, the lowest level it has been since the September 2014 referendum and nine points below the party’s tally in the 2019 UK election. In contrast, Labour, whose support fell away markedly in the wake of the indyref, are now more popular than at any point since; their current polling average of 32% means they are now breathing down the SNP’s neck and threatening to take maybe 20 or so seats. Meanwhile the message of the polls was brought home with a vengeance in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election earlier this month, when Labour took the seat from the SNP on the back of a 20% swing in their favour.

These poll figures follow a turbulent period for the SNP. In November last year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot authorise an independence referendum without Westminster’s permission. This has left the SNP trying to discern how it might now make progress towards independence. Indeed the party will be debating that issue on Monday.

In December, the Scottish Parliament passed a Gender Recognition Bill, which although it received support from MSPs of all parties, also resulted in the biggest split within the SNP’s parliamentary ranks since the party first came to power at Holyrood in 2007. The Bill was then vetoed by the UK government.

Then in February this year Nicola Sturgeon announced that after eight years in the job she was standing down as the party’s leader and Scotland’s First Minister. A fractious leadership contest ensued, in which, despite having the support of the overwhelming majority of those SNP MPs and MSPs who made their preference known, Mr Yousaf only emerged as the victor over Kate Forbes by 52% to 48%.

No sooner had Mr Yousaf got his feet under the table in Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, than he was greeted with the news that the party’s former Chief Executive, Peter Murrell, had been arrested and subsequently released in connection with a long-running police inquiry into the SNP’s finances. Blue police tents appeared outside the home of Mr Murrell and his wife – Nicola Sturgeon – who herself was also questioned by the police a few weeks later.

And now in the latest bad news for Mr Yousaf, on Thursday the MP for East Kilbride , Lisa Cameron, defected from the SNP to the Conservatives just hours before she was due to face a challenge for the SNP nomibation for her seat at the next Westminster election.

Given this litany of troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising that support for the SNP has fallen in the polls – indeed one might wonder that it has not fallen further. Yet it is important to note that support for the SNP’s principal raison d’être, independence, has not fallen at all. Indeed, at 49% (after leaving aside don’t knows), the average level of support in the polls is as high as it has been at any point since the 2021 Holyrood election, bar those polls conducted in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Nationalist voters have not lost faith in the idea of independence but, rather, their confidence in the SNP’s effectiveness as a political party. Back in the autumn of 2021, on average as many as 80% of those who voted Yes in 2014 said they would vote for the SNP. That figure now stands at just 60%. In contrast, Labour’s tally among 2014 Yes voters has increased from 8% to 20%. The link between constitutional preference and support that had become so strong in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election has now frayed.

A closer look at the timeline of the decline in SNP support offers some clues as to why the party has lost ground. At the beginning of this year, the party’s support still stood on average at the 45% it secured in 2019. It slipped a little in the wake of the row about gender recognition, a measure that only a minority of voters backed, but was still running at 43% when Ms Sturgeon announced her resignation. But between then and the announcement of Mr Yousaf’s victory in the leadership contest, support for the SNP fell by five points to 38%. In contrast, despite the dramatic pictures and headlines, the arrest of Mr Murrell had no discernible impact on the party’s standing in the polls, though the subsequent arrest of Ms Sturgeon was followed by a two-point drop to 36%, the level at which the party’s support currently stands.

This timeline points to two principal suspects for the SNP’s difficulties – the outcome of the leadership contest and perceptions of party unity. The new First Minister is certainly less popular than his predecessor, while so far there is little sign of any improvement in his popularity. For example, Panelbase’s most recent poll gives Humza Yousaf a net good/bad score of -19, down from -12 in June. In contrast the same pollster put Nicola Sturgeon’s rating at +20 shortly after her resignation in February. Even among those who voted SNP in 2019, Mr Yousaf’s score of +15 compares very unfavourably with Ms Sturgeon’s of +77. Similarly, Redfield & Wilton currently give the First Minister a net approval rating of -6, almost exactly the same as his -7 score shortly after being elected. Ms Sturgeon’s rating from the same pollster in November was +22.

Meanwhile, voters have certainly noticed the divisions within the SNP. As recently as last October, Savanta were reporting that only 34% thought the SNP were divided, while, in response to a separate question, as many as 55% reckoned they were united. However, by the time of the company’s most recent survey in June, the balance of opinion had reversed; now just 33% said the SNP were united, while as many as 58% felt they were divided. Again, the change of perception is also evident among those who voted SNP in 2019, 55% of whom said in Savanta’s most recent poll that the party is divided, double the proportion who had expressed that view in October (27%).

In short, the SNP cannot simply blame its current electoral predicament on the police investigation into its finances, embarrassing and headline-making though that might be. The party’s predicament is more fundamental. Mr Yousaf has to sell himself and unite his party. Whether he can do so will be a key test of whether the party made the right choice in choosing him to fill Nicola Sturgeon’s shoes.


This blog also appears on the UK in a Changing Europe website

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.