Humza Yousef, the favoured candidate of the party establishment, has been elected as the new leader of the Scottish National Party. He will now also be the Scottish government’s First Minster at Holyrood. His victory, however, was very narrow. In fact, a majority of the 50,000 SNP members who voted gave their first preference vote to either Kate Forbes (41%) or Ash Regan (11%). Yousef won 48% of the first preference vote. After Regan was eliminated and her preference votes redistributed, he ended up on 52% to Forbes’ 48%.
Yousef becomes SNP leader, following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, at a time of turmoil in the party. Their support base is shrinking. They have increasingly clashed with the organised working class through the recent strike wave. This is on top of a record of more than a decade of passing on Tory cuts which have devastated local government and the NHS. Yousef, therefore, is a first minister of an SNP/Scottish Green government that will be, from day one, resting on a crumbling social base of support in society, including inside the SNP itself.
Indeed, if Regan had not stood, Forbes could well have won the election. Standing on the right of the party on social and economic issues, Forbes, the current finance secretary who opposes equal marriage, a woman’s right to choose, gender recognition reform, and sex outside marriage, is also a passionate neoliberal conservative on economic policy and had virtually no support among SNP MSPs and MPs.
Yousef, in contrast, had the backing of the Sturgeon/Swinney leadership and scores of elected representatives who will be highly relieved that Forbes did not win. The end of the coalition with the Greens would have been inevitable, as well as the potential loss of thousands of more members, particularly from a younger cohort of the party.
As Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) pointed out during the election, the SNP membership is heavily weighted toward the older, middle-class, and rural areas of Scotland. This factor, and the evident dissatisfaction among SNP members at the failure of the leadership to make any headway over independence, gave Forbes, in particular, a stick to beat Yousef with, alongside his woeful record in government. “Continuity won’t cut it,” was her main slogan.
Socialist Party Scotland argued that tens of thousands of working-class people joined the SNP after the indyref had dropped away. During the leadership contest, this was brought home in spectacular fashion when the leadership was forced to admit that the membership now stood at just over 72,000. That’s a 53,000 drop when compared to 2015 when the membership was 125,000. Around 30,000 members have left the party since 2021. Even then, 22,000 of the current membership did not vote in this contest.
Yousef has been a central figure in the SNP administration for the last decade, as transport minister, the justice secretary, and health secretary. He has presided over a catastrophe in health, with record waiting lists for appointments and waiting times for A&E admissions. As the ‘continuity’ leadership candidate, it will be business as usual for his cuts-making Scottish government.
None of the SNP leadership candidates were remotely on the left. There is therefore no basis for the Scottish TUC general secretary to claim, as she did in a media interview prior to the result being announced, that Yousef was a candidate most aligned with the aims and policies of the STUC. That will come as news to the tens of thousands of workers who have had to take strike action against the Scottish government and SNP-run councils over the past year.
A workers’ political alternative
What the SNP leadership contest underlined most clearly was the need for the trade unions to forge a new political vehicle for the workers’ movement. Rather than seeking to work in partnership with the Scottish government, why not strike out in the direction of building a real workers’ party that would most certainly be aligned with the aims and policies of the trade unions.
There is no question that hundreds of thousands of current SNP supporters, as well as many from Scottish Labour, would rally for a real independent working-class political alternative. Such a workers’ party could lead a real mass struggle for democratic rights and a second independence referendum, as well as advocating policies to tackle the cost of living crisis. For example, this would deal with inflation-proof pay rises, nationalisation of energy, and massive investment into health, education, housing, and local government.
It was clear from the SNP leadership contest that none of the candidates had any intention of taking the road of mass working-class struggle to achieve these aims. And no wonder. They all support a continuation of capitalism in an independent Scotland.
The new SNP first minister will be no different in policy terms from the previous two SNP incumbents. Unlike Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, however, he faces a party in turmoil, a collapsing membership, and mass dissatisfaction among its electoral base.
The need to build a new mass working-class party is urgent. Socialist Party Scotland will do all we can, both inside the trade unions and by standing worker and socialist candidates in elections, to make that case.