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After Rutherglen, can the SNP regain the momentum?

SNP leader Humza Yousaf, candidate Councillor Katy Loudon and SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn surrounded by media at the Cambuslang Miners Monument ahead of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election

After Rutherglen, can the SNP regain the momentum?

Rutherglen and Hamilton West was Labour’s to lose from the start of the campaign. But that will not make the SNP’s defeat any less painful.

It will accelerate a process that has been underway since before Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. Labour’s win exceeded expectations and is causing turmoil in the SNP. It will finally force the SNP to face up to problems that should have been addressed a number of years ago.

The SNP leadership may argue that Labour threw everything at the by-election, but why was the SNP unable to easily outperform Labour given the size of its membership? The party that could mobilise armies of activists at by-elections long before the post-referendum surge should have had no problem more than matching Labour.

The SNP has squandered the opportunity that the mass membership bequeathed by the independence referendum. Until recently the SNP maintained that this membership put it on a sound financial footing and provided it with an army of campaign foot soldiers. It sought to project an impression of invincibility. But reports that the party was struggling to get its own MSPs out to campaign and relied on paid leafleters told a very different story.

The old guard who built the modern SNP will feel aggrieved though, having experienced many disappointments over the years, will not disappear. But a large proportion of the members who joined after the referendum have already drifted away and further haemorrhaging of membership is likely.

An SNP victory would have dampened growing internal dissent. Defeat, especially on this scale, will embolden critics. It has created an opportunity for critics of specific policies to demand U-turns. Lobbyists for oil and gas, hiding behind descriptions as former SNP spin doctors, have argued for the end of the SNP-Green deal.

SNP members displayed remarkable discipline from the moment the party formed a minority government in 2007. SNP members were unwilling to undermine the first SNP government in history and later avoided doing anything that would damage the independence referendum campaign. Three SNP MSPs resigned over the party’s decision on Nato membership but many others who were uncomfortable swallowed hard and put their faith in a leader who had delivered electoral success.

Indiscipline has grown as progress was stymied. Criticisms have increasingly surfaced as another referendum became a distant prospect. Tolerance has worn thin as the gap between claims and evidence of SNP governmental competence grew. And the nature of SNP discipline changed. Declining faith in the leadership has meant that self-discipline was replaced by intolerant control freakery from the leadership.

Facing unpalatable realities is never easy for any party but would have been possible in the immediate aftermath of the referendum with its new leader. There was remarkable goodwill towards the SNP government at that time, extending well beyond those who had voted for independence. Scotland’s enduring and deep social and economic problems required tough decisions, strong leadership and persistent commitment. But Nicola Sturgeon was a strong leader who showed weak leadership. She failed to confront her party with the need to make hard choices. Instead, the SNP got selfies, the slow management of decline and a series of policy fiascos and failures.

The benefits of the SNP-Green deal are obvious for the Greens but it is unclear, especially as a referendum disappears over the horizon, what the SNP gains beyond providing parliamentary numbers to protect failing ministers. In his victory speech on being elected SNP leader, Humza Yousaf proclaimed “we are no longer Team Humza, Ash or Kate, we are one team” but his appointments and approach as first minister speak otherwise. The Greens are not the SNP’s little helpers but insiders wielding significant power while long-standing members are marginalised.

There was no formal whipping of MSPs in the vote to suspend Fergus Ewing but there was little doubt what the leadership wanted. When the bloated team of SNP ministers are taken out of the equation, those who failed to support the motion to suspend Mr Ewing came close to a quarter of the SNP group. The leadership’s attempt to impose discipline with the suspension of long-serving party figures only highlighted its lack of authority. Fergus Ewing’s suspension for a week was a Pyrrhic political victory for the leadership. Dissidents who taste the freedom to think for themselves have a tendency to return to the feast.

The SNP has been like a pressure cooker for some time. The bitter divisions that have been bubbling away. We are looking at the prospect of bitter public divisions in the SNP not seen since the early 1980s.

It is understandable that many ordinary members of the SNP still refuse to confront these failings. Dissenters were vilified, driving the wedge between leadership loyalists and critics deeper. What the SNP desperately needs is leadership – not the same as a strong leader – and open debate.

This by-election result will do nothing to heal divisions in the SNP. It will further drain Humza Yousaf’s already weak authority. He faces his first party conference and a debate on what constitutes a mandate to negotiate independence – a majority of seats or votes and a range of other options – that looks increasingly like a modern version of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Humza Yousaf could make a clean break with the past, publicly accept that an independence referendum is not on the cards, apologise for the policy failures and demonstrate that he has a grip on government decision-making. He could remove the suspension of those with whom he has policy differences and suspend those under police investigation. He could replace the army of spin doctors with policy experts. Being the ‘first activist’ might appeal in internal party elections but as first minister he needs to have more focus on governing competently. In essence, he could attempt a genuine relaunch. But he is a weak leader and his record does not suggest he is likely to show the kind of leadership the SNP needs.

During the SNP leadership contest, Humza Yousaf noted that “momentum is everything in a campaign”. Whether or not momentum is now with Labour, it is clearly not with the SNP.

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