Humza Yousaf under pressure on independence strategy as SNP leader faces attacks after Rutherglen and Hamilton West defeat

The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election defeat demands change in approach, SNP activists have said

Humza Yousaf is under pressure to amend his independence strategy at the next general election and focus more strongly on the cost-of-living crisis as the SNP leader faced attacks from all sides after the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election defeat.

The First Minister faces an internal revolt from his own parliamentarians and activists, and appears caught between demands to go faster and harder on independence and calls to concentrate on easing cost-of-living pressures.

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It comes after the SNP’s Katy Loudon lost in a massive 20.4 percentage point swing to Labour’s Michael Shanks in the South Lanarkshire seat, pulling in less than half of the votes of the winner.

SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks outside the V and A in Dundee. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA WireSNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks outside the V and A in Dundee. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks outside the V and A in Dundee. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The result has led some analysts to suggest Labour could return to being the biggest party north of the border at the next general election if the result is replicated.

Former SNP frontbencher Stewart McDonald, writing exclusively in The Scotsman today, warned Mr Yousaf of the dangers of becoming a “fundamentalist tribute act” as an “emotional spasm” in response to the by-election and the party’s decline in the polls.

Stephen Flynn, the party’s leader on Westminster who many have tipped to replace Mr Yousaf as leader of the SNP, told the BBC the party cannot continue with “business as usual”.

Ash Regan, the defeated SNP leadership contender, demanded the First Minister use the result as an “invaluable opportunity for introspection and strategic realignment”, repeating calls made by Alex Salmond’s Alba Party on a ‘Scotland United for Independence’ joint ticket.

SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media outside the V and A in Dundee following Scottish Labour's win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media outside the V and A in Dundee following Scottish Labour's win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.
SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media outside the V and A in Dundee following Scottish Labour's win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

Mr Salmond claimed the result demonstrated Mr Yousaf had only days left to save his job as First Minister, while the SNP leader admitted it had been a “tough day for the SNP”.

SNP figures who spoke to The Scotsman were despondent about the result, with many blaming the circumstances of the by-election for the scale of the defeat.

Margaret Ferrier’s Covid breach, voter apathy, and the ongoing impact of the unresolved police investigation into the SNP’s finances were repeatedly raised as leading factors behind the by-election result.

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The cost-of-living crisis was also highlighted as the dominant issue of the campaign, with an acceptance that independence and the constitution was not a priority for those spoken to on the doorstep.

Activists took to social media to demand the First Minister ditch his planned general election strategy, which would see the SNP take winning the most seats at the next election as being “empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”.

Many are now calling for a tighter focus on the cost-of-living crisis through a key amendment to the leadership’s independence strategy motion, which would see the SNP manifesto demand additional powers for Holyrood specifically to tackle rising prices, as well as push any “de-facto” referendum to the 2026 Holyrood election.

It is understood this amendment is likely to be viewed favourably by the leadership, though any final decision will be made by SNP delegates.

Some view such a shift in policy as an way for gradualist voices to buy time while Labour take advantage of the Conservative collapse.

One MP attacked internal critics, urging the SNP leader’s messaging to focus more broadly than simply on its core pro-independence vote.

"The SNP clearly did not give people enough of a reason to come out and support us this time,” they said, while claiming the circumstances of the poll were “bleak”.

"If you are getting into a position where pro-independence voters are looking at other parties, then you have got to give them a reason to stick with you. No-one is going to vote for Labour because they believe in independence more than the SNP.

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"It has to be patient persuasion, rather than playing overly much to those who are already committed, because they are not there in sufficient numbers yet.”

Mr McDonald, the former SNP frontbencher, also hit out at the preferred independence strategy of the leadership.

Writing in The Scotsman, he said: “We will debate a leadership-sponsored motion on independence strategy. If that debate is to advance us, then it must be anchored in resolving the economic, social and global insecurities that are ripping through communities like Rutherglen and Hamilton.

"We must build a political platform around prosperity, fairness and resilience. Those are sound pillars of good government and the way to build a new independence movement.

“If, however, we adopt a quasi-fundamentalist, short-term position that is solely about getting us through the next election with the core vote – abandoning the big and ambitious coalition we’ve built and that has allowed us to dominate Scotland’s centre ground – then it won’t be a strategy we’ve opted for, but an emotional spasm.

"There are no victories in becoming a fundamentalist tribute act. Just look at the Tories.”

He said he believed the SNP were “down, but absolutely not out” and called on the party to “think deeply about this loss”.

Mr McDonald said: “We need to rediscover the ambition that drove us to build the coalition of voters that has allowed us to dominate Scotland's centre ground for the best part of two decades, and resist the impulse to retreat to the sidelines with easy slogans and a core-vote mentality.

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“Scotland faces enormous challenges and can seize great opportunities over the years ahead. We must always be the party that takes these head-on, and that starts with listening to what the voters told us last night.”

Others said the party must reflect on why its own voters had not turned out for the by-election, while some urged the First Minister not to panic.

"Let’s focus on what we can control,” one said. “We need to re-motivate Yes supporters to back the SNP as the prime vehicle to deliver independence and put together a real movement for change.

“I think we can do that and conference will be the major moment for us to be able to set that in motion.”

Another senior figure said: “You react to individual events at your peril. They need to poll and focus group and chap on doors and listen to what people say. We don’t get a winning strategy by listening to what a room of SNP faces think.”

“Labour’s offer is still very timid,” added one MP. “This result will probably reinforce that approach.

“I don’t think there is enthusiasm for anyone at the moment.”

Bubbling disquiet with Mr Yousaf’s leadership, which boiled over with the suspension of Fergus Ewing from the SNP’s Holyrood group, will not go away.

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However, there is palpable frustration with those briefing against the First Minister.

One MP accused the likes of Mr Ewing, Ms Regan and former leadership challenger Kate Forbes of acting out because they either did not win, were no longer ministers, or were not getting the attention they wanted.

Another senior SNP source asserted Mr Yousaf’s position remains safe and said it was unlikely a different leader would have changed the outcome of the by-election.

"Kate Forbes is very, very talented,” they said, “but some of her views are not mainstream. Cosying up to Alex Salmond also showed surprisingly poor judgement in that regard.

"I think the SNP got the best candidate and that has been proven. Kate was good, but she has shown her judgement is questionable.”

Another senior figure attacked internal opposition to the leadership, which has caused the party to appear increasingly divided since the leadership election.

"There are all sorts of different people who are not really putting the case first,” they said.

"It is up to them to decide how they want to conduct themselves, but the question would be; for what purpose?”

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Many within the party point at Mr Flynn, the Westminster leader, as potentially working to increase his support ahead of a run for the leadership.

“I don’t think the First Minister is in any trouble whatsoever,” the MP told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme when asked about Mr Yousaf’s fortunes. “He’s had a lot to deal with internally in the party, I think the public is well aware of that, but I think he’s done a remarkably good job in that regard.”

Asked if there was an immediate crisis for the leadership, Mr Flynn said: “No, I don’t think so, but we have to reflect and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

However, in a veiled criticism of the party’s campaign machinery in Scotland, which some activists and opposition canvassers claimed has declined in efficacy, Mr Flynn said the SNP must reflect “with pace”.

He said: “I think we need to make sure the party is a nimble and effective campaigning machine, and I think that’s where the SNP is at its strongest.

“We also have to make sure our message is really crisp, really clear to people.”

Mr Flynn is believed to be positioning himself as a potential future party leader, but SNP figures rejected the suggestion he was using the by-election defeat to manoeuvre for the leadership. "It is more on messaging and message delivery at the next general election,” said one MP.

“You have to merge independence and the cost of living,” they added. “Cost of living is where it is at. The challenge for us is that our vote is not coming out.”

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Sources close to the leadership said there was a need to reflect on what had gone wrong, but also that it was highly unlikely the seat was ever winnable, allowing it to be used to test out key attack lines on the public.

They pointed at a need for the party to “sharpen up” its messaging and to take “organisational learnings” from what went wrong during the campaign.

Speaking to the media yesterday, Mr Yousaf said “a number of factors” were at play, including the “reckless actions” of former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier, whose breaking of Covid regulations led to her being kicked out of the party and a recall petition that sparked the by-election.

He said the “collapse” of the Tory vote – with the party losing its deposit – and the subsequent shift to Labour, and the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s finances also had an impact.

But he added: “The SNP has to really take the result on the chin as well and understand there’s a message that voters are sending to us too.

“We will reflect, regroup and we’ll reorganise, and come back stronger.”



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