Campaign communications: the SNP leadership race

When Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as Scottish First Minister, many commentators were left questioning who possesses the gravitas to step out from under the shadow of this political giant. To say they will have big shoes to fill is an understatement. For years, Sturgeon has been synonymous with the nation’s incumbent political party.

The long-established reputation of their predecessor only elevates the importance of the incoming candidate’s communication strategies. Hopeful successors have to be bold, showing that they have the strength to take the reins of a party which is experiencing an incredibly fractious period. The gender recognition bill was controversial amongst members and the CEO – Sturgeon’s husband – has recently been forced to resign after misleading media about member numbers. We are also observing rarely spotted yellow on yellow attacks.

So let us analyse how each candidate has gone about communicating their intentions and leadership bids so far.

Hamza Yousef

Touted by many as ‘the continuity candidate’, ever since rival Kate Forbes’ explosive start to her campaign Yousef has been topping the polls and is clearly looking to run a low-risk campaign.

The issue with this safety-first approach is that many members of the media, Scottish public and political parties have been left questioning what does he actually stand for? SNP membership is declining and after the Supreme Court’s ruling, independence hasn’t looked further away in years. Yousef is yet to set out clear plans to resolve either of those issues.

Yousef must excite SNP members by proactively communicating his vision for the future. Instead, he has found himself all too often on the back foot, taking shots from a fired-up Kate Forbes who isn’t pulling any punches. Positioning himself as merely a safer political option as opposed to a distinct political force is ironically a somewhat dangerous approach.

Kate Forbes

Few candidates have ever begun a leadership campaign by taking a shot so squarely in to their own foot. Forbes’ decision to proactively volunteer her controversial views on LGBTQ+ issues was certainly a bold one, and many commentators have struggled to reconcile these views against their own political standings.

However, Forbes has shown signs of recovery following this shaky start. Many were impressed by her honesty, and assertion that LGBTQ+ rights won weren’t under threat. She paired that with an attack on Hamza Yousef – who himself has questions to answer over his support for gay marriage.

For a party famed on their messaging discipline, Forbes has truly broken ranks. She has distanced herself from the current cabinet in an effort to attack Yousef’s, and the wider SNP’s record.

One major issue is that her ‘continuity won’t cut it’ slogan has been unpicked slightly by cross examination of her record. While Forbes may claim to have been ‘pretty far from’ the decision making, her role as the most senior member of government behind Sturgeon and John Swinney would indicate otherwise. This is a lesson in rooting your messaging in reality.

If anything, this has unfortunately sent the wrong message – that despite her seniority she wasn’t able to put across, and win, arguments in cabinet. This is not a good look for a prospective First Minister.

Ash Regan

Ash Regan burst on to the SNP scene, beating the then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale to take up a seat in the Scottish parliament just a year after joining the party as a member. Regan’s most senior position on the frontbench so far has been as the minister for community safety, but her real reputation came when she picked up the nickname ‘the SNP rebel’ for resigning over the gender recognition bill.

If Yousef is the continuity candidate, Regan is his antithesis. Happy to criticise the direction of the party, and communicate herself as the force of change. Her communications emphasis on moving away from contentious issues such as the trans debate and instead focusing on moving the dial on Scottish independence has resonated with some members. Unfortunately for her though, she hasn’t been able to pull away from Yousef and Forbes, and as a result has fallen well behind in the polls.

It’s fair to say that whoever wins the SNP leadership race has got a big job on their hands. The various fractures in the party’s backbenches are beginning to show, and bringing all of those behind the same banner again will be some task.

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