Saturday, May 4, 2024

Are you an SNP member and do you want a contested leadership election? If so, here's how you get one.

I'm purely offering this as information for any Scot Goes Pop readers who happen to be SNP members - and I'm getting it all second hand so apologies if anything turns out to be wrong.  An SNP member called Graeme McCormick is trying to stand for the leadership in order to force a contest.  He needs 100 nominations from members, and those members need to be spread across at least 20 branches.  Nominations will be collected in person today, between 1pm and 3pm, at the Pensioners 4 Indy stall in Glasgow Green as part of the AUOB rally.  You'll need to have your membership number handy.  Alternatively, if you can't make it to Glasgow Green, contact details for Graeme can be found HERE.

Of course a contested election won't change the outcome, but what it would do is keep John Swinney honest by forcing him to set out a platform which he can be scrutinised and challenged on before he becomes leader, not after.  And it would also send a clear message to the SNP's equivalent of the "deep state" that they might sometimes be able to stitch up the outcome, but they can't entirely stitch up the process.  That's important given the reports today that the usual suspects are already plotting to pre-arrange the outcome of the next leadership election.

Friday, May 3, 2024

A serious suggestion for John Swinney: get the more charismatic Kate Forbes and Stephen Flynn to deputise for you in the TV election debates, and reap the benefits yourself

Stewart McDonald made a ridiculous comment about John Swinney's speech yesterday along the lines that it had "made his heart sing", while Robin McAlpine said that he was even more despairing than last year and that Swinney's leadership was a sign that the SNP is a "failed project".  I'm somewhere in between those two extremes.  Although I'm sceptical that this new arrangement will work out, I'm hoping it will and I'm trying to think of ways in which it might.  So in that spirit, let me make a serious suggestion.

The polls suggest that John Swinney does have a significant advantage over his immediate predecessor in that he's regarded as a competent, credible head of government.  But we all know that's balanced out by a major disadvantage, which might bluntly be described as a charisma bypass, and that's going to be an obvious and major handicap in campaigning for a closely-fought election.  How do you square that circle and get the best of both worlds?  I would suggest you do it by getting the public used to the idea of an SNP leadership team consisting of three people, namely Swinney himself, Stephen Flynn and Kate Forbes.  People would know Swinney is the elder statesman, Leader-in-Chief in ultimate control of the government, which they might well be happy enough about, but that doesn't stop the SNP in its presentational interactions with the media and the public putting forward a team of three on a more or less equal basis, thus getting the proper benefit of the far greater charisma and superior communication skills of Forbes and Flynn.

And I would suggest that's particularly important in any TV election debates the SNP are invited to, regardless of whether they're UK-wide debates or second-string Scottish debates.  There are clear precedents for putting forward deputies or alternative leaders for those debates - Alex Salmond put Angus Robertson forward for one debate in 2010, and Nicola Sturgeon did the same in 2017.  If you have that option, and if you can be almost certain it would work to your advantage, it would be silly not to use it.  In particular, it's not hard to imagine Kate Forbes emerging as the clear winner of any debate she takes part in - indeed she could be a real phenomenon just as Nicola Sturgeon was in 2015.  That could make all the difference to the SNP's electoral chances.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The SNP again shy away from the transformational change that is required - but perhaps they've taken half a step forward

Kate Forbes has clearly decided not to run, which is hopefully a decision made from a position of strength due to a deal with John Swinney.  The SNP have missed a golden opportunity to get back on track, but I'm not as despondent as I was a year ago when Humza Yousaf narrowly won.  That outcome was an unmitigated disaster because it lumbered the independence movement with three problems simultaneously - a) it put independence on the backburner for the foreseeable future, b) it installed an unsuitable leader who the public actively disliked and thought wasn't up to the job, and c) it led to outright factional rule, when the public are known to reward united parties and punish divided parties.

Those three problems have now been reduced to one-and-a-half.  Independence is unlikely to be seriously pursued under Swinney's watch, but he's 60, and whatever he said today, it may well be that he'll see the SNP through the general election, after which the party can properly decide its future with a full-blown leadership election.  And although he's not a suitable leader in the sense that he's not going to inspire anyone, the polls are clear that he is better regarded than Yousaf and is certainly regarded as far more competent.  I suspect Redfield & Wilton's monthly polls will show a healthy lead for Swinney on the head-to-heads with Anas Sarwar for "who would make the best First Minister" - and if Swinney does hang around until 2026, that may well be enough to keep the SNP as the largest single party at Holyrood, and possibly enough to keep them in government, although whether it would rescue the outright pro-indy majority is much more doubtful.

And most importantly, it sounds like factional rule will be ending and that there'll be a unity cabinet.  The Greens will not be bringing down the government but neither will they be in the government, which is arguably the best of both worlds.  So the SNP can probably look to the general election with slightly more optimism than seemed likely before Yousaf helpfully imploded.  But I repeat, this is a waste of a golden opportunity, and if the SNP do lose the general election, this will be one of the key moments they'll trace the defeat back to.

Thoughts on John Swinney's declaration, and Alba's controversial vote yesterday

John Swinney has finally declared, and as I said yesterday, he was always going to have to address the suspicion that he'd be an interim leader.  He's now said that he would lead the SNP through both the general election and Holyrood election, although that still leaves open the question of how far beyond the Holyrood election he would go.

We now wait to see if Kate Forbes will take him on or has done a deal with him.  I hope she takes him on, but if she's done a deal I hope she's settled for nothing less than a dual role as Deputy First Minister and a senior Cabinet brief, most likely Finance Secretary again.  If she ends up in a middle-ranking position, she'll have sold herself way short.

Meanwhile, I'll address my own party Alba's controversial decision to vote to bring down the SNP government yesterday.  It was obvious from Chris McEleny's explanation that he knew this was dangerous territory, because he was at pains to play down the importance of the vote, dismissing it as "performative" and "irrelevant".  In which case, my question is: why get sucked in at all?  Why not abstain?  In that way you avoid a backlash while still demonstrating to the SNP that they won't get support in return for nothing.

I wonder if the Alba leadership overestimate the extent to which independence-supporting voters have kept up to speed with the evolution of the party's culture.  It might be assumed that it's obvious to everyone that Alba is a militantly anti-SNP party and voting down the SNP government will thus be seen as just the sort of thing Alba does.  I'm not sure that's the case at all.   I think this will be a defining moment for many people in their perceptions of what sort of party Alba is, and they might be confused and dismayed by what they've just seen.  They might remember the calls for people to vote Alba in 2021 to build a 'pro-independence supermajority', and if so they may wonder how voting with unionist parties to try to topple a pro-independence government is consistent with that prospectus.

I know there's a feeling within Alba that many people are dissatisfied with the SNP while remaining strongly in favour of independence, and that if you could just convince them that there's a credible pro-independence option that is as critical of the SNP as they are, their votes might just go to Alba rather than Labour.  But realistically Alba's best chance of winning seats in 2026 is to persuade SNP constituency voters to back Alba on the list, and that'll be a lot harder if SNP supporters feel that Alba just want to frustrate or topple an SNP government, rather than work with it to deliver independence.  That doesn't mean they want Alba to be an SNP fan club, but it does mean they'd expect constructive opposition on specific policies rather than outright hostility to the very existence of an SNP government.

So, with the best will in the world, I do think a tactical mis-step was made yesterday.  But it's done now, and we'll just have to see how it plays out.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

It looks increasingly like the Swinney plan hasn't been thought through

We still don't know whether there will be a contested SNP leadership election between John Swinney and Kate Forbes.  If there is, I agree with the conventional wisdom that Swinney would start as favourite (he's literally the only potential candidate who would start as favourite against Forbes), but I disagree with those assuming the outcome would be a foregone conclusion.  Those people are laying a lot of emphasis on the sentimental attachment that the SNP rank-and-file have for Swinney, and I don't think there's much doubt that if SNP conference delegates or attendees of branch meetings were deciding the outcome, Swinney would win.  But the SNP's membership is a lot broader than the active core, and I'm not sure we have clear evidence that the sentimentality runs as deep with the more passive members - or, if it does, that it outweighs a similar warmth towards Forbes after her successful stint as Finance Secretary and her near-miss in the leadership vote last year.

The other point people are overlooking is that Forbes may have a killer argument to deploy against Swinney during the hustings, namely that she would be fully committed to the job, whereas he might only want it for a year or two, thus guaranteeing that the party will be plunged back into uncertainty in the very near future.  The mood music seems to be that Swinney would just be seeing the SNP through until the 2026 Holyrood election, but if you think about that, what does it actually mean?  You can't lead a party during an election campaign while planning to step down immediately afterwards, because opposition parties would say voters are being asked to buy a pig in a poke.  Realistically Swinney would have two choices - either commit to the role until at least 2028 (which he probably doesn't want to do), or say he will stand down by the autumn of next year to allow a new leader enough time to prepare for the Holyrood election.  The latter would mean he'd be in harness for a maximum of just eighteen months - not much longer than Yousaf managed.

If Forbes hammers home the point that members have a choice between a leader who wants to see it through until independence is achieved, and a caretaker leader who would just prolong the agonies of the current leadership crisis, she might just put enough doubts in the minds of members to help them set aside any sentimental feelings for Swinney.

Yes, the parliamentary arithmetic would work for Kate Forbes, whether Kenny Farquharson likes it or not

Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson, aka "Jurassic Farq", has a really nasty piece in The Times which is ultimately a bigoted rant about why a committed member of a particular religious denomination he personally dislikes should never be allowed to hold high office, but which tarts itself up in progressive-sounding language about how our leaders must reflect the diversity of modern Scotland.  On that note, incidentally, wouldn't it be rather a good idea to at last have a First Minister who is a fluent Gaelic speaker?  Given the dire predictions that Gaelic could cease to be a fully-functioning community language within as little as a decade, isn't this the perfect moment to have in Kate Forbes a national leader who is authentically committed to taking the necessary steps to protect the language, because she embodies what stands to be lost if that doesn't happen?

Farquharson switches from bigotry to innumeracy with this section - 

"There is good reason for the “anyone but Kate” campaign gaining strength within the SNP this week. I am sure any parliamentary vote to install Forbes as first minister would lead to a number of abstentions from the SNP benches. For Forbes to win the prize she would need the Tories to abstain en masse.

SNP folk should ask themselves if this is how they really want to see their new leader take power."

He might as well just have "I don't understand the rules" tattooed on his forehead.  One of the oddities of the Scotland Act is that the votes of a majority of MSPs are not required to be elected First Minister.  A candidate simply needs to have more votes in the final ballot than the other remaining candidate.  That's why Alex Salmond was able to become First Minister in 2007 with the votes of just 49 of the 129 MSPs.  

In Kate Forbes' case, her opponent in the final ballot (if it even got that far) would be Douglas Ross, so there would be no question of Labour and the Greens playing silly buggers by actively voting against her at that stage.  In all probability, she would win by 63 votes to 31.  SNP MSPs would not abstain for exactly the same reason that Forbes and her backers did not abstain on Yousaf becoming FM.  Refusing to vote to sustain an SNP government is inconsistent with membership of the SNP parliamentary party, and anyone who went down that road would inevitably lose the whip.

But even assuming Farquharson is right that there are SNP MSPs ready and willing to throw their careers away to stop Forbes, her 32-vote cushion over Ross means there would need to be at least 32 SNP abstentions to stop her - more than half the entire parliamentary party.  Who precisely are these thirty-two martyrs, Kenny?

Once Forbes is actually in office, the first thing she would probably try to do is mend relations with the Greens, and she might have a chance of succeeding on a sort of "Nixon in China" basis - ie. any agreements with her would be so toughly-negotiated and businesslike that the Greens would trust her to stick to her word.  But even if the Greens continue to dislike her so much that they try to bring down the government she leads, they quite simply wouldn't have the numbers to do that.  Kate Forbes and Ash Regan are old friends, and it thus seems inconceivable that Alba would ever help bring down a Forbes-led government.  At worst, then, a confidence vote would result in a 64-64 tie, with the Presiding Officer voting to save the government with her casting vote in line with convention.

Again, SNP MSPs cannot abstain or vote against the government on a confidence vote without effectively excluding themselves from the party.  So what it really boils down to is whether you think SNP MSPs will defect outright to the Greens.  And while that's not totally impossible, defections among MSPs are rare enough that I'd want specifics about who these people actually are before taking the idea remotely seriously.

*  *  *

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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Scottish public want Kate Forbes to be the next First Minister, reveals new Ipsos poll

Ipsos are out of the blocks at lightning speed with a poll conducted yesterday and today on the SNP leadership race.  As expected, Kate Forbes is once again the voters' clear choice as First Minister.

Which SNP politician would make the best First Minister? (Ipsos, 29th-30th April 2024)

Kate Forbes 26%
John Swinney 20%
Stephen Flynn 7%
Angus Robertson 4%
Shona Robison 2%
Mairi McAllan 2%
Humza Yousaf 2%
Jenny Gilruth 1%

Swinney does have the consolation of leading among SNP voters, but remember once you start digging into subsamples like that, the chances of inaccuracy become greater because the margin of error is bigger.  However, it does appear that Forbes remains best-placed to broaden the coalition of support for independence by appealing to non-SNP voters.

It's safe to say from the above numbers that a re-run of Yousaf v Forbes would be likely to produce a very different result from last year!

One consolation for the SNP: YouGov poll says their vote share has increased in spite of the crisis

Amidst all of yesterday's mayhem, it shouldn't be overlooked that YouGov published a full-scale Scottish poll, which was conducted before Yousaf resigned but only just before, so it takes into account the impact of the pre-resignation crisis but not the impact of the resignation itself.  Amazingly, it shows the SNP slightly on the up.  That's probably just a reversion to the mean after a poor previous poll, but nevertheless even just holding steady should be regarded as a major relief.

Scottish voting intentions for the next UK general election:

Labour 34% (+1)
SNP 33% (+2)
Conservatives 14% (-)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)
Reform UK 5% (-2)
Greens 4% (-1)

Scottish Parliament constituency vote:

SNP 36% (+2)
Labour 32% (-)
Conservatives 16% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 9% (-)
Greens 3% (-1)

Scottish Parliament regional list vote:

SNP 31% (+2)
Labour 28% (-1)
Conservatives 17% (+1)
Greens 8% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-)
Alba 3% (-)
Reform UK 3% (-2)

Before anyone makes a smart-alec comment about how the SNP should have stuck with Yousaf because clearly it was all going swimmingly, the fact that Yousaf's approval rating has gone through the floor leaves no room for doubt that the SNP vote has held up in spite of him and not because of him.  Actually, Alba-bashers had better thank their lucky stars that Yousaf is departing, because if he'd stayed it would have deprived them of one of their most cherished attack lines.  His rating is now very similar to that recorded by Alex Salmond over the last four years or so.

Net approval ratings of leading politicians:

Stephen Flynn (SNP): -9
Anas Sarwar (Labour): -9
John Swinney (SNP): -15
Alex Cole-Hamilton (Liberal Democrats): -16
Nicola Sturgeon (SNP): -18
Ash Regan (Alba): -25
Patrick Harvie (Greens): -27
Lorna Slater (Greens): -32
Douglas Ross (Conservatives): -34
Humza Yousaf (SNP): -35

Net approval ratings for how party leaders are doing their jobs:

Anas Sarwar (Labour): +4
Douglas Ross (Conservatives): -27
Patrick Harvie / Lorna Slater (Greens): -29
Humza Yousaf (SNP): -47

Slightly annoying that YouGov asked about John Swinney but not about Kate Forbes, although in fairness they wouldn't have had a crystal ball handy.  On past form I suspect Forbes would have been top of the pile.

I doubt if Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater will be too worried about their own poor personal ratings, because they're only trying to appeal to a specific section of the electorate, rather than to "Middle Scotland".  But what will disappoint them is that there's no sign of a wave of sympathy for the Greens in the headline voting intention numbers.

The public as a whole think by a margin of 37% to 27% that the SNP were right to end the coalition with the Greens, but the SNP's own supporters take the opposite view by 32% to 25%.  You can kind of sense the confusion of SNP voters on that question - they used to be massively in favour of the coalition, probably because the SNP leadership kept telling them how wonderful it was, but now the SNP leadership has done a sudden U-turn, they don't know what to think anymore.

Installing the ill-suited John Swinney as leader would amount to "faction before country, faction before party"

Professor John Curtice has summed it up - 

"Swinney’s expertise, I think, is being able to say nothing for three minutes. Definitely who you want as your deputy but it’s not the person to front an election campaign."

The problem being that the SNP face one of the most important election campaigns in their history within a few months at most, and the continuity faction are hellbent on installing the ill-suited Swinney to front it.  For the second time in just over a year, we're watching them make a destructive mistake in real time.  On some sort of level, they probably even know themselves that they're doing the wrong thing, but they don't care, because their priority is different from ours.  Faction before country.  Faction before party.

There's an extremely silly reason suggested for why Kate Forbes shouldn't want the job right now, and yet it's bandied around dozens of times a day - that she'd be better off waiting until someone else takes the blame for the SNP losing dozens of seats at the general election.  I don't know about anyone else, but I don't want Forbes to become leader simply because I think it would be a nice birthday present for her - I want her as leader because my judgement is that she's the person best placed to stop the SNP losing dozens of seats at the general election and thus rescue the independence cause.  Installing her five minutes after the avoidable disaster occurs would completely defeat the purpose.

However, the "let her profit from calamity" brigade should realise that even on their own logic, it now makes sense for Forbes to stand, because if she does, Swinney will still be favourite to win and she'll be able to reap the "I told you so" benefits when Swinney falls flat on his face at the general election.  She won't be able to do that if she doesn't stand, and especially not if she backs Swinney, because she'd be effectively buying shares in the coming disaster.  

To be ideally placed to take over after the general election, she needs people to look back at that point and say "actually, Kate Forbes had the right prescription for avoiding this defeat".  But they'll only say that if she stands up to be counted right now.

Monday, April 29, 2024

John Swinney as leader? "We tried that, it didn't work."

The title of this post contains the exact words John Swinney himself used a few years ago when someone suggested he might be a future leader.  Because he was of course leader between 2000 and 2004, and it really didn't work.  The SNP had convinced themselves that the public would warm to Swinney as an 'elder brother' figure who was much less divisive and Marmite than his predecessor Alex Salmond, but the public had other ideas. 

I can remember multiple appearances by John Curtice on Newsnight Scotland in which he urged the SNP to face up to the fact that they had a major leadership problem.  The polls consistently showed Swinney was the least popular of the four main party leaders - which not only meant he was less popular than Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, but also less popular than the Tory leader David McLetchie and the Lib Dem leader Jim Wallace.  That predictably was reflected in election results, with the SNP losing ground in terms of both votes and seats at the 2001 general election, before a major setback at the 2003 Holyrood election when they slipped from 35 seats to 27, followed by the ultimate humilation when they dropped below 20% of the vote at the 2004 European elections.  At that point the game was up, Swinney was replaced by his predecessor Salmond, and the general consensus was that his whole four-year leadership was a failed experiment.

Why, in an emergency situation, would you return to a failed experiment?  Unless of course your only priority is to muddle through and maintain the control of the ruling faction any way you can, rather than to work out what is in the best interests of the SNP and the wider independence movement?

Even now, even after the catastrophe of the last year, they still just don't 'get it'.

Yousaf's departure is necessary, but is only one-half of what is needed - if a low-grade continuity leader is selected to replace him, the independence movement will be in an even deeper hole

It's no secret that I've wanted Humza Yousaf to resign from literally the day he was elected.  I was constantly told that there was no chance of that happening before the general election, and my reply was always that it quite simply needed to happen before the general election, otherwise the SNP were going to get hammered.  So in a sense his departure today might look like a dream outcome, but it's only half of the necessary equation - if the SNP replace him with someone even worse, such as Jenny Gilruth or Neil Gray, today will be a further setback not a step forward.  And that's particularly the case given what might be called the "Truss effect", ie. it's possible that a leader can be so disastrous that they have a severely negative impact on the fortunes of their successor, so whoever takes over may need to be an exceptional leader, not a workmanlike stopgap.

This depends of course not only on whether the SNP are willing to choose the right sort of person, and not only on whether the continuity faction will once again throw procedural dirty tricks in the way of the right sort of person, but also on whether the right sort of person is actually willing to put themselves forward.  We all understand that Kate Forbes is a young mother and thus has personal as well as political considerations to take account of, but if she wavers at all about running, I hope people close to her will tap her on the shoulder and say "your country needs you".  We're in an emergency situation, and if Forbes doesn't stand, the consequences could be incalculable because we're likely to end up with a low-grade leader from the continuity faction.

One thing I'm fairly sure of is that there won't be an early Holyrood election now.  Stuart Campbell is trying to make the logic of the situation fit his desired outcome and thus is insisting that if Yousaf resigns, the Greens and Alba are both likely to still vote in favour of Sarwar's motion of no confidence in the whole government.  I very much doubt that - I think the Greens will abstain and allow the leadership election to run its course.

And naturally there are commentators who are suggesting that if Yousaf prefers resignation to a deal with Alba, that must mean Alba are toxic in the extreme.  More realistically, it actually means Yousaf or someone advising him can count, and has worked out that a deal with Alba would only get him to a 64-64 split in the chamber - which would be enough to save his bacon this week, but wouldn't be enough to pass legislation or Budgets.

Ultimately we're in this mess because the
ruling faction wouldn't allow the leadership election last year to take place on a level playing field, and insisted on a loading the dice in favour of a wholly unsuitable candidate with abysmal public approval ratings.  The independence cause has been paying the penalty ever since.  I beg of our friends in the SNP to use this golden opportunity to repair the damage, rather than digging the hole even deeper.