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Can the SNP avoid electoral disaster?

Having shed voters and money, the party is entering the campaign in an enfeebled state.

By Chris Deerin

Scotland can expect to see a lot of Kate Forbes during the general election campaign. It’s already seen a lot of her, in fact, since John Swinney took office as First Minister and appointed her his deputy earlier this month.

Forbes has been everywhere, all the time, speaking at events, appearing on the news bulletins and popping up on the front of newspapers. After a year cooling her heels on the backbenches, she has exploded from the blocks – if anything, her profile has been higher than her boss’s. The rest of the cabinet has been notable for its lower public presence. This is quite deliberate, I understand. The Nats have realised that, for all the reservations some on the left of the party have about her, she is the closest thing they have to a golden ticket. She is a counterweight to all the nonsense of the past few years, and Swinney is pushing her as hard as he can.

Rishi Sunak’s decision to call an election for 4 July is really a headache Scotland’s governing party could have done without. It gives Swinney little time to make his mark with the electorate, to set in train policies that show he is genuinely going to make a difference. Largely, Scotland will have to make up its mind based on what its new leader is saying, rather than what he is doing. But the country has grown tired of boasts and promises made by first ministers when their actions have so often proved sub-optimal.

This is a problem Swinney must overcome. Though he is popular among SNP members, the view among the public seems more mixed. One focus group, held after his elevation, shows the scale of the task. “Very uninspired by JS,” reads the report. “Some perceptions that at least the lack of messiness to the coronation reflects somewhat better on the party than the last leadership chance. On the whole though – thoroughly recognised as having been there since the early days, and consequently linked with perceived SNP failure to deliver on momentum from previous referendum result. General dismay at factionalism, disorganisation and fragmentation of the party.” That said, a recent poll put Swinney’s favourability rating above that of the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

But if the SNP is a calmer environment than it was a few weeks ago, that doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the election. The latest YouGov poll gave Scottish Labour a ten-point lead, which would cut the number of nationalist seats at Westminster from the mid-40s to just 11. Labour would go from two to 35, winning across the central belt. Such an outcome would have the alarm bells clanging loudly ahead of the Holyrood vote in 2026.

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This is where Forbes comes in, as a potential difference-maker. “Saw Kate Forbes at an event today – she has true star quality,” one senior business figure told me this week. Similarly, reports from a private dinner for business leaders that she attended last week were uniformly positive. “Commanding. Across her brief. Energetic. Inspiring. You forget she’s a Nat,” one Unionist guest said. Another felt that, “in contrast to most of the SNP politicians, she came across as someone who is really ready to listen. I just hope that she has the clout within the party to turn some of her ideas into government policy.”

There is no one else in the SNP with this ability to reach those who are unsympathetic to the independence project and to a devolved government that is now well into its dotage. She is the single point of change around which Swinney’s government is revolving.

But star quality or not, is it enough to turn the Nats’ fortunes around? Its MPs remain deeply concerned about their prospects. “Look, the mood music around us isn’t great,” said one whose seat is at risk. “This campaign is going to be hard, it might even be miserable. But at least the headlines of the past few weeks have been decent – we haven’t had anything like that for ages.

“It helps us that the top two are so active. Humza [Yousaf] was active, too, but there was a smell of failure that followed him around everywhere. No one is calling Kate or John ‘useless’ – it’s clear they have a purpose and are running the machine. Do they have enough time to turn things around? We’ll find out.”

Not only is Labour on the rise and likely to win back a swathe of seats the SNP has taken from it over the past decade, there are also damaging divisions in the independence movement. Relations between the SNP, the Greens and Alba are at an antagonistic low, which could split the pro-indy vote in seats with narrow Nat majorities. Labour candidates are also finding support on the doorsteps from “Ruth Davidson Conservatives” – that is, moderate, liberal Tories. And they estimate that about one in five Yes voters seem minded to back Labour in order to get rid of the Tories at Westminster.

A further cause for SNP gloom is that there is little party money available to those fighting desperately for their seats and jobs. During Yousaf’s ill-fated, year-long reign, the party received only £75,000 in donations. It made a loss of more than £800,000 in 2022. SNP insiders speak, with understandable longing, of rumours that a sizeable contribution could be in the offing from a wealthy supporter.

A veteran Labour politician who, because of scarce party funds, found himself in a similarly financially embarrassed situation while trying to save his seat in a previous election, put it like this: “We saw, when our backs were against it, that the limited funds available went to the seats where we were most likely to cling on. Even if you felt you had a small chance, as the election went on and our fortunes were clearly declining, the spending became more concentrated on an ever-smaller pool of constituencies. The rest of us were on our own. That’s what SNP candidates are going to find happens to them in this election. It’s horrible.”

Some SNP MPs blame the police investigation into SNP funding, and the subsequent arrests, for putting off potential donors who don’t want to be associated with any hint of criminality. But they also pointed to how money was wasted when times were good and the coffers full. “It was all foam hands and ‘I’m with Nicola’ keyrings and pens and all that s***e,” said one. “The plan this time seems to be for more focused campaigning materials like hyper-localised surveys, letters and leaflets. Frankly, that’s a good thing, even if there isn’t as much money around.”

Labour, by contrast, will have relatively deep pockets. Anas Sarwar and his team have spent months wining and dining Scotland’s disillusioned business community, and have secured the financial backing of some big hitters. There is talk of a million-pound bank balance, which would far outstrip anything available to the other Scottish parties.

In the SNP’s favour, the bar the party must clear is low compared with its previous results. It has been accepted for some time that Labour is likely to emerge as the largest party in Scotland at the general election. If the Nats can prevent that, or even score something that looks like a draw, that might be seen in context as a reasonable result given the trauma of the past few years. It might also show that all is not lost for the Holyrood election in 2026. Right now, though, as SNP MPs prepare for the fight, while also packing up their London flats and casting half an eye at job adverts, they are not sleeping easily. “Basically, come 5 July, we need to be the largest party,” said one MP. “If we are not, we have lost the election.”

[See also: An ICC warrant for Netanyahu will divide Europe]

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