In this explainer, Judith Sijstermans sets out how SNP leadership contests work and how Nicola Sturgeon’s replacement as Scotland’s First Minister will be selected.
She also examines the candidates standing to replace Sturgeon and how the election might play out for the SNP and the wider Scottish independence movement.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon surprised many commentators when she resigned after 7 years in Scotland’s highest office. For some, it was the ‘end of an era.’ For others, a sign of the Scottish nationalists’ ongoing internal struggles. Regardless of your position, Sturgeon’s resignation has triggered a rarely seen phenomenon for the SNP: a leadership election.
The SNP has not had a contested leadership contest since 2004 – Nicola Sturgeon ran unopposed for the SNP’s top job in 2014, after her predecessor, Alex Salmond, stepped down in the aftermath of 2014’s failed independence referendum.
Leadership elections, as we have seen in recent Conservative contests, do not always bring out the best in political parties or leadership candidates. So how will this one work? And how will it unfold? And what effect will it have on the SNP and Scottish nationalism more widely?
How will the next leader of the SNP be elected?
The SNP’s National Executive Council (NEC) set out the guidelines for this leadership election, following the party’s constitutional framework. As set out by the NEC, the formal process will take about six weeks. This six-week period is the same as the last Labour Party leadership election, and just slightly shorter than the 8-week Conservative leadership election process in 2022.
To become an official candidate, prospective leaders must get 100 nominations from party members from at least 20 branches. These nominations closed on 24 February. Once the final line-up of candidates is confirmed, a mail in ballot will open on 13 March and close on the 27 March.
The ballot will use a preferential voting system, allowing voters to rank the options. The party has said the winner will be announced as soon as the result is final, and all candidates have been informed. This is likely to be very shortly after the close of the ballot.
Who is eligible to vote?
In the SNP, one leadership candidate, Ash Regan, has called for the party to allow former members to re-join and vote. She argues that some members will have resigned their membership due to the passing of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, and that they should be allowed to take part.
However, the SNP’s general secretary has said that only SNP members registered by the day of Sturgeon’s resignation (15 February) can vote in the contest to replace Sturgeon.
“Technically, the new leader of the SNP does not have to be an MSP. In the case that the new leader is not an MSP, they would not become First Minister of Scotland.”
This choice to limit eligibility to existing members differs slightly from political party behaviour elsewhere. Political parties often use leadership elections as an incentive for joining a political party, particularly in a time when party membership numbers might be dwindling. The Labour Party, for example, has allowed paying ‘registered supporters’ to vote in their leadership elections.
Another difference to note is that in Labour and Conservative party leadership elections, MPs and (in the case of Labour) trade unions have a special role in leadership elections. However, this is not the case in SNP contests.
The SNP has a relatively large number of members due to the membership boom after the 2014 independence referendum. A House of Commons report in August 2022 estimated that the SNP had 104,000 members.
Turnout was 80% at the last SNP leadership election. However, the party at the time had less than 10,000 members. Turnout this time is thus likely to be lower, as a larger membership potentially implies a higher number of less engaged members.
Does the new leader automatically become Scotland’s First Minister?
No. Technically, the new leader of the SNP does not have to be an MSP. In the case that the new leader is not an MSP, they would not become First Minister of Scotland.
If the new leader is an MSP, they will be nominated to become First Minister by fellow MSPs. After this, a vote will be held among all MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, which is part of the normal investiture procedure in the Scottish Parliament (unlike in the UK Parliament). Given that the SNP has a majority alongside the Scottish Greens, this vote is likely to be simply a formality and the new SNP leader is very likely to become Scotland’s First Minister.
Is Nicola Sturgeon out of a job?
No. Sturgeon will stay as First Minister until her party elects a new leader. After this, she will stay in her role as an MSP and has indicated her interest in focusing on issues close to her heart such as support for care-experienced young people.
Who’s in the running to be the new leader?
There was no single clear successor to Sturgeon when she stepped down. However, three candidates have since emerged: Kate Forbes, Ash Regan, and Humza Yousaf. All three come from the Scottish Parliament, ensuring that the SNP’s new leader would also be Scotland’s new First Minister.
Of the three, Regan is the candidate who is most of an outsider. As an active member of Women for Independence during the 2014 referendum, Regan was elected to Holyrood in 2016. She rose to become Minister for Community Safety but stepped down from her ministerial role in protest of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in 2022.
She has been endorsed by former SNP leader and current leader of the Alba Party, Alex Salmond, and Joanna Cherry MP, who has also faced issues in the party over her views on trans rights. Regan has put pushing through an independence bid at the centre of her plans.
“The list of those who didn’t run is also illuminating in terms of understanding the future of the SNP.”
Forbes entered the cabinet as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy in 2020 after her confident delivery of the budget, in the wake of her predecessor Derek Mackay stepping down after sending inappropriate messages to a 16-year-old. She impressed viewers with her confidence in the role. If she won the leadership campaign, she would be Scotland’s youngest ever First Minister. However, in the early stages of the process, she has lost some support due to her socially conservative views, in particular her statements on gay marriage.
Yousaf is the closest to a ‘continuity candidate’. He is the longest serving MSP of the three candidates, having been in Parliament since 2011. Currently Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, he has also held roles as the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Minister for Transport. However, in these roles, he has also faced challenges and criticism, most recently over high A&E waiting times in the Scottish NHS.
What does this mean for the Scottish National Party?
The list of candidates illuminates the challenges that the SNP has been facing internally, particularly over gender recognition reform and how best to pursue independence.
The SNP has often been called a ‘big church’ party initially defined by its promotion of Scottish nationalism. This means that the party includes a slightly wider array of ideological opinions within its membership and representatives than parties whose foundational purpose is on the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum. Sturgeon was seen as a First Minister who emphasised socially liberal positions in the party. Whether the new leader’s political leanings are to the left or right may shift the focus of the party in a different direction.
The list of those who didn’t run is also illuminating in terms of understanding the future of the SNP. Former leader and first minister John Swinney and former Westminster leader Angus Robertson were both pipped to be candidates for the role. Both declined to run. This may reflect a concerted effort to allow a generational shift in the party, away from the leaders who had been in power since the late 1980s towards the new generation who joined the party since its success in devolved institutions and since the 2014 independence referendum.
What does this mean for the Scottish independence movement?
The Scottish independence movement is, of course, broader than the SNP. Scottish independence is supported by other political parties such as the Scottish Green Party and the Alba Party, and civil society groups like the Radical Independence Campaign.
However, the 2014 referendum showed that the SNP remains the key organisational and financial resource behind the movement for independence. As such, the SNP’s leader plays a key role in promoting independence. A leadership transition period encourages in-fighting within the party and may weaken the next leader as they enter the First Minister role.
“The SNP has often been called a ‘big church’ party initially defined by its promotion of Scottish nationalism. This means that the party includes a slightly wider array of ideological opinions”
Furthermore, the leadership election has delayed any clear decision on the party’s strategy for securing independence. Since the Supreme Court ruled in November 2022 that the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a referendum without Westminster’s approval, Sturgeon promoted the idea of using the next general election as a de facto referendum. The SNP had planned a conference to decide on this strategy in March 2023, which has been delayed in light of the leadership election.
This delay follows two years of promises to hold a second independence referendum, pushed back as a result of the COVID pandemic and its effects, and then thwarted by the Supreme Court.
Sturgeon’s step back from the spotlight was ostensibly, she said in her resignation speech “to free the SNP to choose the path that it believes to be the right one.” However, in the short term, it seems that her resignation means yet another delay for the Scottish nationalist movement as it ponders its next steps.
By Dr Judith Sijstermans, Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen.