The Scottish National Party is losing members: this is the reality that the contenders to replace Nicola Sturgeon had to grapple with this week.
The party said the current membership stands at 72,186. These will be the people who ultimately get to decide who becomes the new leader of the party. At the beginning of the fight for the SNP crown, the candidates still thought membership numbers were around 104,000 – the latest number reported at the end of 2021.
Instead, 30,000 members have left – in flocks. And the trend was already established: membership had decreased since the 125,000 people registered in 2019.
Why are so many people leaving the party? The SNP undoubtedly reached its popularity peak at the height of the debate for national independence, around the time of the referendum in 2014.
After that, it all got a bit toxic. Nicola Sturgeon resigned over the pressures on her personal life caused by a lengthy career in politics, but the crises over transgender rights and the fights over independence in the courts must also have played a role in her decision.
Now the UK supreme court has ruled out the option for the Scottish parliament to hold an independence referendum without the approval of Westminster, the party is left to decide whether the next general election should be treated as a de facto referendum on independence.
The consequences of such a decision – Sturgeon’s plan B – would be momentous. Not everyone in the party agrees with it, and its prospect likely drove away some of the more moderate SNP members. Polls also showed that members are more concerned with the cost-of-living crisis and the economy than with this specific cause.
Then the fights over gender turned toxic too. Early this year, the UK government blocked a bill that had cross-party support at Holyrood and that would have made it easier for individuals to change their legal gender.
Westminster said the bill would have a negative impact on equality laws applying to the whole of the UK, and could create safety issues for women. Sturgeon planned to contest Westminster’s stance; this row is likely to prove a headache for whoever succeeds her.
The SNP’s popularity might be waning because the party looks, at times, like it has lost focus. It picks the right battles, but perhaps not the ones its members want them to pick.