March 2. 2024. 1:41

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Kates Forbes goes on the attack in bid for SNP leadership

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) mission is to gain independence, but first it must endure a civil war. The leadership contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon has descended into a slugfest between the two main contenders, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf. Whoever wins has a big task to unite the party, never mind uniting a hesitant Scottish public behind the SNP’s stalled bid for independence.

The leadership bid of Scottish finance minister Forbes was almost over before it started last month due to controversy over her socially conservative views. She has weathered that storm and went on a blistering attack on Monday night’s first televised debate between the three hopefuls, who also include former minister, Ash Regan.

In taking such an aggressive public line against her main rival, Forbes has upended almost two decades of a united front at the top table of the SNP. She clearly believes that upturning that table represents her best hope of winning.

Until this week, the leadership hopefuls encountered each other only at tightly-managed party hustings events, mostly polite and restrained affairs in front of SNP members. Monday night’s debate on STV was the first time they were able to make a pitch to the wider public.

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Forbes was clearly wounded by recent attacks over how her religious beliefs might influence her politics. She seized the opportunity to lay into the ministerial record of Yousaf, who is seen as the front-runner and the favoured candidate of the party establishment and of the outgoing Sturgeon.

The continuity of a Sturgeon-to-Yousaf handover just “won’t cut it”, said Forbes. In a blistering and at times startling attack, she suggested the “more of the same” approach to governance favoured by him, and by extension, Sturgeon, had led to “mediocrity” for Scotland.

This is high wire stuff, considering the outgoing SNP leader’s exalted status among the 100,000 party members who will elect her successor.

Sharpening her blade, Forbes turned to Yousaf and told him that the trains didn’t run on time when he was in charge of transport, policing suffered when he ran justice, and waiting lists have grown while he has been in charge of health.

“What makes you think you’d do a better job as first minister?” she asked, her eyes boring deep into her rival. “Which of us has the competence to actually deliver?”

Forbes is gambling that SNP members are, like most people, most worried at the moment about the cost of living, their economic security and the state of Scotland’s public services, which have stuttered in recent years under the government led by Sturgeon.

She focused on how she would tackle poverty through wealth creation and improving the economy, which would also pay for better public services.

Yousaf, meanwhile, pitched himself as the protector of the socially progressive approach favoured by Sturgeon. He accused Forbes of being divisive and of driving away support.

However, polling released on Wednesday by research firm, Redfield & Wilton Strategies, suggests Forbes may be on to something by focusing on doubts over Yousaf’s competence. It showed that almost one-and-a-half times as many Scots think she would make the best minister, compared to Yousaf. Meanwhile, the economy, and not independence, is faraway the top priority for most voters.

But most voters don’t elect the next leader of the SNP. Only party members will do that. There may be no going back to ordinary, polite campaigning for the remaining two-and-a-half weeks of the contest after Forbes’s hatchet job on her main rival.

An interesting dynamic, little remarked upon from afar in Westminster, is that the campaign uses the single transferable vote system, where SNP members rank the contenders in order of preference. Assuming neither Yousaf nor Forbes can muster a majority in the first round, and that Regan comes in third, the latter’s second preferences may decide the campaign.

Like Regan, and unlike Yousaf, Forbes has promised to kill off a proposed law to allow Scottish transgender people self-certify a different gender. She may feel that this could give her an edge when transfers come into play.