SNP leadership election 2023: personal attacks could be harming the party as Yousaf, Forbes and Regan clash

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Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan have played a risky game so far on the campaign trail - but will the personal attacks harm the party as a whole?

The SNP leadership contest is thoroughly underway.

The three candidates - Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan - have hit the campaign trail to convince SNP members that they are the best candidate to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the party and the country. However, the contest has so far been fraught with accusations of in-fighting and personal attacks between the three wannabe First Ministers.

The party is said to have been just as shocked as the public when Sturgeon announced that she would be stepping down as First Minister. The answer to the question of why Sturgeon decided to step back when she did may be further obscured by the apparent lack of party unity.

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This discord and the potential damage the contest has had on the party has been apparent to some outside looking in - from media mishaps in the shape of behind-closed-doors hustings to choose the next First Minister of Scotland, to televised debates in which the candidates have launched scathing attacks on people they - for all intents and purposes - still consider colleagues.

Issues such as gender reforms have split the party and its members down the middle. As the party searches for the new leader to take them into a post-Sturgeon era, it remains to be seen what lies ahead for the future of the SNP.

A party divided

At the beginning of the campaign, hustings were announced to be taking place, but behind closed doors. Only SNP members were allowed to take part, with the media and the general public initially shut out.

While this may have been overlooked in a normal internal election for a new leader, the SNP shot itself in the foot by gatekeeping its events which will be key to choosing not only a new party leader but a new First Minister for the 5.4 million residents of Scotland.

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Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan are campaigning to lead Scotland - but is the leadership contest harming the SNP? (Credit: Getty Images)Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan are campaigning to lead Scotland - but is the leadership contest harming the SNP? (Credit: Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan are campaigning to lead Scotland - but is the leadership contest harming the SNP? (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

The public and press was eventually invited to the events, but one of the starkest issues evident in this new emerging era of the SNP is the sheer split between the candidates vying to lead the party. While Forbes has been campaigning on her record in finance, Yousaf has been calling for social reforms and Regan has been talking up refocusing the party on independence.

But while the main aim of the party remains independence, issues such as gender reforms have indeed caused a fracture within the membership. And as much as the SNP were able to somewhat shy away from division in the party, the public platform on which the internal election is now taking place has laid bare this bare.

“This is one of the first times a lot of people will remember, the last time being almost 20 years ago, an SNP leadership election. I think there is probably a lot of unease within certain sections in SNP about, for example, Forbes becoming leader, and you've had senior figures like Sharon Robinson coming in, essentially criticising the tactics that she's used,” explains The Scotsman’s political editor Alistair Grant.

“At the end of this process, they’re going to have to almost pivot and start talking to the country being the First Minister of Scotland, so there will be a change of focus. We saw this in the Tory leadership contest last summer - going from talking to talking specifically to members and then having to pivot at the end of that.

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“Party unity will be one of the challenges they will have to deal with, particularly things like gender reform.”

Kate Forbes has launched personal attacks on Humza Yousaf’s record in government. (Credit: Getty Images)Kate Forbes has launched personal attacks on Humza Yousaf’s record in government. (Credit: Getty Images)
Kate Forbes has launched personal attacks on Humza Yousaf’s record in government. (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Infighting is hurting the party

The UK public last year saw the Tory leadership contest, which the short-lived PM Liz Truss won, unfurl as colleagues Truss and Rishi Sunak levelled personal attacks against each other. The ruling party was ridiculed by opposition parties, including the SNP, for the conduct of the contest, but it looks to be that the SNP have fallen into the same trap.

Forbes launched a scathing attack on Yousaf’s record in government as the former transport secretary and justice secretary during a televised STV debate on 7 March. She said: "When you were transport minister the trains were never on time. When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point.

"And now as health minister, we’ve got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?"

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Forbes’ comments were criticised by party colleagues for the potential damage they could do to the public perception of the government, as well as comments made by Regan in which she said the party has “lost its way”. In a follow-up debate on Channel 4 two days later, Yousaf said that Forbes’ words would be used on Conservative leaflets for years to come.

Mid-campaign cycle, it might be hard to remember that these candidates for First Minister are still parliamentary colleagues. So could this very public approach to attacking each other hurt the party when a new leader has been chosen and a new cabinet is being created?

“I think, if anything, [the debate] on Tuesday was almost more brutal [than the Tory leadership contest] because it wasn’t so much about all ideas as far as it was more Forbes suggesting that Yousaf was pretty rubbish at every job he had in government. It seemed to have an element of brutality that, that maybe even went beyond last summer,” says Grant.

“These kinds of contests where you see this level of internal mudslinging is never going to look good public, but we are some way out from the next Holyrood election. So from the party's point of view this is probably a good time to have this kind of contest, to try and get someone to embed in and get themselves known with the public.”

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