March 5. 2024. 9:45

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Kate Forbes’s bid for SNP leadership alive and kicking

Conventional wisdom this week held that Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership hopeful Kate Forbes cratered her bid before it began by voicing conservative opinions on social issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet politics is not always conventional, and rarely is it bathed in wisdom.

Forbes persisted with her campaign to replace outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon, despite losing the public support of many senior figures in the party during the storm that followed her comments on Monday, when she said she would have voted against extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The finance secretary still made it over the line by Friday’s noon nominations deadline, alongside perceived front-runner Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s health secretary; and Ash Regan, its former community safety secretary.

Curiously, the first big opinion poll of the campaign wasn’t weighed down with compelling evidence to suggest Forbes’s leadership bid was holed below the waterline. The survey of more than 1,000 SNP voters, released on Friday, had her in the lead on 28 per cent, ahead of Yousaf on 20 per cent and Regan on 7 per cent.

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The poll took place between Monday and Wednesday, taking in the height of the furious media and political response to Forbes’s marriage comments. Only 5 per cent said a leader’s faith or personal beliefs were important. This may give some hope to Forbes, whose staunch, unfashionable Free Church of Scotland views are well known.

The SNP leader is not selected by outraged social media commentators or even the political heavyweights who disavowed her candidacy. The leader is picked by the members of the SNP, all 100,000 of them

About 65 per cent said the cost-of-living crisis was a top priority, which raises the question as to whether the leadership contest has yet to properly reflect the issues that matter most to voters.

The poll should also be viewed with a few caveats, the most obvious being that it is just one survey. It was also commissioned by a public relations agency, The BIG Partnership, for publication in a guide for businesses. Forbes, seen as a competent finance minister, may have a perception advantage over the other candidates in this area, although the demographic make-up of those polled is unclear. Was it skewed towards the audience the PR agency targeted?

The survey also showed a third of respondents did not yet know their favoured candidate. There is more than a month to go.

One thing that appears to have escaped those in the London political bubble who predicted Forbes’s campaign was already over is that the SNP leader is not selected by outraged social media commentators or even the political heavyweights who disavowed her candidacy. The leader is picked by the members of the SNP, all 100,000 of them. One member, one vote.

SNP card-carrying members tend on average to be older than the young, committed and often left-leaning activists and voters to which the party has become attractive. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, has referred to YouGov polling that shows more than 70 per cent of SNP members are over the age of 50. It is unclear if they are as hostile towards religiously conservative views in politicians as the elected party members and commentators who pronounced the death of Forbes’s campaign this week.

The Greens are as socially left-leaning as the SNP’s activist base. It is expected they would walk from government if the socially-conservative Forbes wins

Her campaign may well fall away as the weeks wear on, or it might recover and she could yet figure. The truth is that nobody knows how SNP members are likely to vote in a leadership election: they haven’t had one for 19 years, when the party’s membership was a fraction of the size it is now.

Another interesting dynamic is what will happen to the SNP’s government partnership agreement (effectively a coalition) with the Scottish Greens, should either of the two female candidates win. The Greens are as socially left-leaning as the SNP’s activist base. It is expected they would walk from government should the socially-conservative Forbes win. Similarly, Regan has promised to kill off a proposed Scottish law to allow transgender people to self-certify their gender, another redline issue for the Greens.

The only man left in the race, Yousaf, could be the only acceptable candidate for the SNP’s left-wing partners.