Sturgeon denies knowing SNP lost 30,000 members in past two years

Nicola Sturgeon is forced to bat away questions on her husbands record after he quits as SNP chief executive. ITV News' Julie Etchingham spoke to the outgoing first minister

Words by Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer

Nicola Sturgeon has denied she knew SNP membership dropped more than 30,000 in the past two years.

Asked if she knew about the decline in membership numbers, Ms Sturgeon told ITV News: "I didn't. I wouldn't have been able to put a figure on the [membership]."

The outgoing Scottish first minister's comments come days after her husband, former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, resigned with immediate effect following a row over the party’s membership numbers.

Mr Murrell said he took responsibility after misleading information was briefed to the media over membership numbers, but said there was no “intent to mislead”. On Monday, Ms Sturgeon echoed her husband's remarks.

Ms Sturgeon denied knowing SNP membership dipped by 30,000 over the past two years, and insisted her husband Mr Murrell did not 'intend to mislead' the media over the figures

The party announced on Thursday membership has fallen to 72,186 as of February 15 this year, compared with 103,884 in 2021.

The membership figure has fallen 40% since 2019, when the party previously recorded a peak of 126,000 members.

The party previously denied the two-year 30,000 drop.

Ms Sturgeon said the figures are accessed every year for inclusion in their accounts, "it's not something that every day someone is checking what the membership number is. It fluctuates."

"I don't track party membership every day week or month... we have declined in membership from a very high point and that's for a variety of reasons." Some of the reasons are political, while others may have forgotten to renew their membership, Ms Sturgeon suggested. Despite the decline in membership, Sturgeon said she believes the SNP "has probably got more members than all of the other opposition parties combined. We don't know that for sure because none of them publish their membership figures."

Peter Murrell had been the chief executive of the SNP since 1999. Credit: PA

Mr Murrell's departure came shortly after that of media chief Murray Foote, who said there had been a “serious impediment” to his role.

The Sunday Mail reported last month that the SNP’s membership had dropped by 30,000 since 2021, a story corroborated when the party revealed its membership under pressure from leadership candidates. In response to the initial story, Murray Foote – the party’s head of communications – described it as “drivel”, with the party saying in a separate story in the National that the “figure that was reported is not just flat wrong, it’s wrong by about 30,000”.

On Monday, Ms Sturgeon said "the framing" of the SNP's responses to media inquiries over membership numbers "had the effect of giving a misleading position".

She said: "[Mr Murrell] has taken responsibility for what was not an intention to mislead... he didn't intend to mislead but the handling of that situation, the framing of our responses to media inquiries which were actually quite specific media inquiries... the framing of that had the effect of giving a misleading position." The "specific media inquiries" cited were requests about whether or not the membership numbers dropped in response to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and delays in IndyRef2. She added: "That wasn't an intentional thing but he has taken responsibility for that, he has taken responsibility for that. He was intending to step down as chief executive when I stood down as leader but has decided to do that now."

Ms Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scottish first minister last month and said she hopes to be a source of confidential advice to the next first minister after she retreats to the backbenches.

"This time next week I will be heading to the backbenches. My mum keeps saying to me 'how on earth are you going to cope with that?'," she joked.

She added: "I'm going to stay in Parliament for the foreseeable because there are issues I care about and I think I can make a difference".

Ms Sturgeon said she will be returning to the backbenches, but hopes she can help guide the new SNP leader after the leadership contest concludes

Ms Sturgeon's surprise resignation after eight years has triggered a leadership contest, with Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf vying to take her place as first minister.

Last week, two of the SNP leader candidates, Ms Forbes and Ms Regan, questioned the independence of the election process.

But on Monday, Ms Forbes told BBC Radio Scotland that she is "very confident" in the process.

Meanwhile, Mr Yousaf said his party should not restart the contest following the row over membership numbers.Asked whether the contest should be started afresh, he said: “No. It’s clear that all three candidates have now said that they have faith in the integrity and all three candidates will respect the outcome of the ballot.

“I’m pleased the other candidates have agreed with my position which I’ve had from the beginning which is that the integrity of the ballot is not in question.”

But fellow candidate Ash Regan has issued a plea to allow people to change or update their vote if it has already been cast. In a statement published on Twitter, she said her campaign emails had seen a “surge” from concerned SNP members on whether the ballot will go ahead unaltered.

The leadership contest is due to conclude on March 27.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.