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SNP leadership: Kate Forbes is favourite to replace Nicola Sturgeon, poll finds

SNP leadership: Kate Forbes is favourite to replace Nicola Sturgeon, poll finds

Finance secretary Kate Forbes has emerged as the favourite to win the SNP leadership race, securing the backing of more than a quarter of the party’s voters.

Polling carried out for communications agency The Big Partnership between Monday and Wednesday this week indicated that while just under a third of those who voted SNP at the last Holyrood election had not chosen who to back yet, 28 per cent said their preference was for Forbes.

She is one of three candidates to have made it onto the ballot that will be taken forward to the party’s membership, having received the 100 nominations required in the first step of the election process.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf and former community safety minister Ash Regan also made it through the first round, with the polling – which was conducted online by Opinion Matters – finding that 20 per cent of SNP voters want to see the former replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and first minister while seven per cent favour the latter.

The polling was carried out after both Yousaf and Forbes launched their campaigns and during three days in which she became embroiled in controversy over her religious views.

A member of the Free Church of Scotland, Forbes said in interviews at the start of the week that her beliefs meant she had “significant concerns” about the self-identification element of the Scottish Government’s gender reforms, as well as on same-sex marriage and having children out of wedlock.

Though she told Holyrood it was surprising that her parliamentary colleagues had seemingly been unaware of her views, a number of high-profile party members including just transition minister Richard Lochhead and Claire Haughey, the minister for children and young people, withdrew their support for her.

Forbes has since said that she is "greatly burdened" by the fact her comments over same-sex marriage have "caused hurt”, adding that she would "defend to the hilt the rights of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to love without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society”.

This was dismissed by Yousaf ally Neil Gray – who serves as culture minister in Sturgeon’s government and who introduced Yousaf at his campaign launch – who suggested that she would not be able to unify the party or the country as a result of her beliefs.

“Scotland needs a leader who minorities in our society know will protect and promote their rights at all times,” he said.

"It's important that our party picks a leader who can be elected as first minister to serve all of Scotland and who all voters know will have their back.

"The first days of this campaign have made clear that it is only Humza Yousaf who can unify our party, protect the independence majority in parliament and build support for independence across all parts of our society."

However, the polling indicated that voters care more about the areas covered by Forbes’s ministerial brief than they do about the next leader’s religious beliefs, with 58 per cent saying it is important for the new leader to have a plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and 53 per cent wanting the winning candidate to prioritise growing the economy.

Just five per cent said the new leader’s faith or personal beliefs are important.

Paul Robertson, head of public affairs at The Big Partnership, said the poll, which canvassed the opinions of 1,001 adults who voted SNP at the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, suggested that the focus of the campaign so far “does not reflect the priorities of SNP supporters, many of whom may have a vote in this leadership election”.

“Our poll indicates that SNP voters want to judge the candidates on their plans for the bread-and-butter issues of government – tackling the cost-of-living crisis, growing the economy and improving public services,” he said.

“These are the issues which our poll shows SNP voters think are most important, whilst questions of faith and personal belief, which have dominated the headlines, are relatively unimportant for those choosing the new leader.”

Elsewhere, the poll found that independence remains a key priority for SNP voters, with 61 per cent of respondents saying they want to see a referendum on Scottish independence at some point within the next two years while three quarters want to see a referendum within the next five years.

Both Forbes and Yousaf have underscored their commitment to continuing the fight for independence, though both have distanced themselves from Sturgeon’s plan to use the next general election as a de facto referendum. Regan, who will formally launch her campaign today, has indicated that she remains wedded to the plan.

Despite this, independence ranks behind other areas in terms of what SNP backers think the new leader should prioritise, with the cost-of-living crisis (65 per cent) and the NHS (58 per cent) coming top. A total of 31 per cent said that the economy and jobs should be a top priority while 30 per cent said independence should.

“This poses a challenge for leadership contenders who will be expected to have a clear plan to deliver a referendum, while also demonstrating they can address these key issues of government,” Robertson said.

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