MacAskill: Humza Yousaf's strategy is putting SNP on course for a 1979-style rout

The flames consuming the House of Sturgeon have set alight Continuity SNP and Humza Yousaf’s now firefighting. Unless he takes prompt action, he’s going to find himself engulfed.

Saying the Labour vote in the Rutherglen by-election was down on past elections simply won’t cut it. His continuation of New SNP policies and lack of direction on the party’s raison d’etre has seen independence supporters increasingly reject his iteration of an increasingly damaged brand. What’s remarkable though is how robust independence support has remained in polls despite the failing performance of its supposed main political voice.

Turnout was significantly down in the by-election, indicating the contempt the electorate had both for the circumstances and, more importantly, the main parties contesting it. It was ‘a plague on all your houses’ from over 60 per cent of voters. But a win’s a win, especially in first-past-the-post elections where winner takes all. It also gives momentum which is critical in politics. SNP are now on the backfoot whilst Labour have a spring in their step.

If Labour’s victory was somewhat by default, then defeat was wholly owned by Continuity SNP. They actively sought this by-election with their dreadful hounding of Margaret Ferrier. Wiser counsel had warned of the likely consequences. But the uber-virtuousness of a few and the general arrogance of the wider leadership saw them say ‘hurrah’ for an unnecessary election. Maybe they genuinely believed they could mitigate the scale of the defeat but, if they thought they could win, they were delusional.

It was a campaign in which even Yousaf, the self-declared “First Activist”, couldn’t motivate the rank and file to come out. Defeat was inevitable but the scale and timing of it weren’t. To set the date days before the Labour conference was a gift to Sir Keir Starmer, mitigated only by the horror engulfing the Middle East pushing it down the news agenda. It leaves the party in the doldrums ahead of the SNP conference, which may feel like entering a morgue.

Suggestions since the vote by some of the New SNP cadre that the electorate doesn’t want to talk about independence aren’t borne out by polls. It was the lack of drive for independence that cost them. There was a pan-unionist coalition around Labour, but the failure to push for constitutional change saw SNP supporters stay home in their droves.

The party’s message was seemingly that they’d be slightly left of Labour but more ”right on”. Folks saw that as false, and rejected the identity politics, where the more they hear, the more they turn away.

Moving from independence to campaigning on other issues will no more save SNP MPs next year, than when Sturgeon tried it in 2017. If you don’t make independence central to the campaign, supporters stay home. And if the party doesn’t beware, it won’t be a replication of the rollback of 2017 but the rout of 1979, when the SNP lost nine of its 11 seats.


(This article was first published in The Scotsman on 12/10/2023)

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