Scotland's leadership race plunged into bitter votes row

Outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon stressed the party is not 'in crisis', ITV News' Scotland correspondent Peter Smith reports

The race to replace Nicola Sturgeon has hit a chaotic note, as leadership candidates question the 'integrity' of the vote.

The SNP was forced to confirm the party's membership has plummeted by more than 30,000 in the past two years, amid pressure for an audit of the figures.

The numbers was revealed as outgoing leader Ms Sturgeon stressed the party is not “in crisis” as concerns were raised by two leadership candidates over the integrity of the vote to replace her.

The SNP hierarchy has been under pressure in recent days to release the membership figure, with all three candidates in the leadership race backing the move.

The party announced on Thursday that the membership had dropped to 72,186 as of February 15 this year, compared to 103,884 in 2021.

Membership sat at around 125,000 in 2018, meaning more than 50,000 party members have left in five years.

SNP leadership candidates (L-R): Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan. Credit: PA

A spokesperson for the SNP said: “After many years of delivering for people across Scotland and working towards a better future as an independent country, the SNP remains the biggest – and indeed the only mass membership – party in Scotland.

“We remain grateful to our large and committed membership for all their support, which has done so much to fuel our electoral success.”

Michelle Thomson, manager of Kate Forbes’s campaign for the SNP leadership, said the “plummeting” figures show “the party needs a change in direction”.

Meanwhile rival candidate Ash Regan questioned on Twitter if the drop in membership – which Ms Regan linked to the controversial gender reforms pushed by the Scottish Government – was a reason for Ms Sturgeon’s resignation.

The post read: “We are pleased to learn that SNP HQ has released the membership numbers, following Ash Regan’s call for greater party transparency.

“This victory for transparency demonstrates once again that Ash Regan is the candidate who gets things done.

“However, it is important to note that there has been a significant reduction in membership numbers since October 2022, following the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) fiasco.

“This was due to the previous administration’s resistance to listening to reason on the protection of women and girls.

“Such a significant drop in membership numbers must have been what quickened the outgoing First Minister’s resignation."

Candidate Humza Yousaf welcomed the announcement of the figures, adding: “I trust this decision will also put to bed claims and hearsay that seek to undermine our party’s integrity and benefits only our opposition.

“As a party, we now need a progressive leader who can command support – ensuring our membership are engaged in the future of the party as we look to unite, and strengthen, support for the SNP and the wider independence movement.”

Ms Forbes' and Ms Regan's campaigns have called for an independent auditor to oversee the election, citing a need for transparency.

However, SNP president Mike Russell tweeted that he has “full confidence” in the “external verification” of the election, adding that any allegations to the contrary “aids our enemies”.

Asked by journalists after First Minister’s Questions on Thursday if the SNP is “in crisis”, Ms Sturgeon said: “No, it is not.

“My party is having a democratic leadership election – growing pains for any organisation can be painful, but they are important.

“I think it’s incumbent for the three candidates standing to succeed me that they remember the task is to retain the trust of the Scottish people that we have won consistently over, not just the eight years of my leadership, but consistently since 2007.”

Asked if there should be an independent auditor appointed, the First Minister said the company currently undertaking the election process – Southampton-based Mi-Voice – is independent and has been used in selection processes for three SNP deputy leadership elections, “a range of internal elections” and for candidate selections.

Ms Sturgeon went on to say she is unclear about the allegations being made by the campaigns of Ms Forbes and Ms Regan, adding that she had “100% confidence” in the system.

Nicola Sturgeon denied her party is in crisis after concerns were raised about the integrity of the race to succeed her, Credit: PA

In a statement, an SNP spokesperson shot down the calls for an independent auditor, saying: “All three leadership candidates were successful in parliamentary selection contests using exactly the same voting system and independent ballot services firm.

“The national secretary has again confirmed all necessary safeguards are in place to protect the integrity of the ballot."

Speaking to journalists after FMQs, Ms Regan was unable to give any specific examples of issues with the voting system.

A senior source in her campaign last week said there were worries about votes from deceased party members or those who have allowed their membership to expire.

But the concerns were dismissed by Mr Yousaf, who hit out at the “baseless smears”.

He said on Twitter: “I have confidence in the process that uses an external third party company, a process we have used for many years.

“I am up for challenge & reform of the party, but let’s not indulge in baseless smears.”

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