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SNP leadership race: How and when Scotland’s next first minister gets elected

The candidates attend a hustings in Inverness

SNP leadership race: How and when Scotland’s next first minister gets elected

Voting to elect the next leader of the SNP, and first minister of Scotland, begins at noon on Monday.

The three candidates have the weekend to convince the party's circa-100,000-strong membership to choose them before starting to cast their alternative votes.

They'll have until noon on 27 March to do so, after which the next head of Scotland's biggest political party will be revealed.

It's been a three-horse race since 24 February, when it was confirmed that all candidates to emerge - Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes - had secured enough support to get their names onto the ballot paper. That took nominations from 100 members from across 20 branches.

Voting was limited to only existing members to avoid an influx of sign-ups by those keen to influence the outcome.

National Secretary Lorna Finn set out the rules of the contest, with an external firm engaged to handle the voting itself.

How will voting work?

Each voter will select their preferred candidate, or candidates, by number from one to three. It's not necessary to pick more than one, however, but those second and third preference votes may prove crucial to the outcome.

If one candidate receives more than half of first preference votes, they will be elected to replace Sturgeon. If not, then the last-placed candidate will be removed and the ballot papers in which they were number one will be considered, with each voter's second preferences coming into play.  This process repeats until one candidate emerges with more than half of the vote to secure victory.

It's a system which supposedly leads to less divisive campaigning, because it's not just about building a strong core support base, it's also about appealing to the supporters of your rivals.

But there have been times during this leadership contest that principle has been under question, with barbs traded on the campaign trail

SNP insiders have told Holyrood they expect second preference votes to be crucial in determining the outcome.

When will Nicola Sturgeon leave office?

That won't happen straight away. Yes, we'll have her successor confirmed on 27 March, but they won't be able to move into Bute House quite yet. And anyway, taking the SNP leadership isn't a cast-iron guarantee of leading the government.

Sturgeon, Scotland's longest-serving and first female FM, will submit her formal resignation to the King, with the Scottish Parliament then asked to choose the next FM.

Technically, any MSP can stand for the role, and traditionally all party leaders do after a Holyrood election, regardless of how well they've done in the polls. Parliamentary arithmetic makes it highly unlikely that the anyone other than the new SNP leader will succeed here, however, and that person will then have to set up their cabinet.

All change?

The make-up of that cabinet is hugely dependent on the outcome here. If Yousaf is the victor, things may not look so different - after all, he's been given the support of almost the entire panel. Barring Sturgeon and John Swinney - who we'll come back to in a moment - only Keith Brown and Mairi Gougeon have not come out in favour of Yousaf. He also has the lion's share of support from SNP government ministers, though the two Green ministers don't have a say.

Given that endorsement, there have been questions over who would serve in a team led by Forbes or Regan, and indeed some newspaper reports suggested some SNP MSPs would not vote for Forbes as FM. If that were to happen, it would be an extraordinary moment in politics, because it would risk loss of power for the SNP after 16 years of dominance. And it's hard to imagine any rebel MSPs going quite that far, if they want to keep their seats at the next election.

What is certain, however, is that a new deputy first minister will be needed. Yousaf had named Swinney as his "best friend" in politics during one hustings, but Sturgeon's long-serving second-in-command announced he was stepping down the next day, and so steadying the tiller will become someone else's responsibility.

What happened last time?

The SNP hasn't had a leadership election since 2004. The last time power changed hands it was following the resignation of Alex Salmond in 2014, a decision taken in the cold light of the Yes campaign's indyref loss. Sturgeon, his deputy, was elected unopposed. 

Salmond had returned to the SNP leadership in 2004, when Swinney stepped down amidst disappointing results for the party. He'd initially said he wouldn't stand, and Sturgeon herself was set to run against candidates including Roseanna Cunningham. However, the Glasgow MSP changed her mind and ran on a joint ticket with Salmond instead. He won with almost 76 per cent of the vote.

There have of course been several other party political contests during that time - every other party in the Scottish Parliament has changed leader at least once since 2014. Scottish Labour alone have had five changes of personnel.

Place your bets?

If you're a betting person, choose wisely - the outcome here is hard to predict, according to recent polling. 

Research for Channel 4 News by Ipsos found that Forbes has an eight-point lead over Yousaf, with Regan trailing. However, that was based on overall public opinion, and when the field was narrowed to those who had voted SNP in 2021, Yousaf nosed ahead by just one per cent. 

But even that is misleading, because SNP voters are not necessarily SNP members, and so we lack real insight into what the party is thinking. That might be in line with the position taken by majority of the cabinet, but it might not. 

And in the same survey, a significant proportion of people didn't favour any of the three candidates. One quarter of respondents said none of the candidates would make a good FM, while 11 per cent did not know.

The decision facing members

Will SNP members vote with the hierarchy or against? What will matter more in their eyes, a candidate's appeal to existing party members and Yes voters, or to undecideds, soft Nos and waverers from Labour, the Greens, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems?

Since Sturgeon announced her resignation, polling has suggested a dip in support for both the SNP and independence. 

And there are well-established issues for her successor to address, from the long-running ferries row to the high-profile block to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill by the UK Government. There's been uproar from business over the beleaguered Deposit Return Scheme, and anger too about planned restrictions on alcohol advertising - not to mention the ongoing issues with the NHS.

Polling by Lord Ashcroft, revealed by Holyrood just days before Sturgeon's announcement, showed her administration was out of step with the public on key issues, with voters stating that their priorities were different to those pursued by the Scottish Government.

So can the next leader bring these back into line?

That's the £140,196 question. Why that number? That's what the FM job pays.

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