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6 factors that will decide Kate Forbes’ SNP leadership bid

From gender reform and same-sex marriage, to economic competence, the Highland MSP's bid for the leadership has thrown up crucial talking points.

Kate Forbes is vying to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as first minister of Scotland. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson.
Kate Forbes is vying to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as first minister of Scotland. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson.

Kate Forbes’ views around gender reform, same-sex marriage and other social issues are already proving a flash point in the SNP leadership race.

The Highland MSP is up against Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and former government minister Ash Regan to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as first minister.

Ms Forbes revealed on Monday she would not have backed controversial changes to gender recognition on the day she launched her own campaign.

And she revealed she would not have voted for same-sex marriage.

They are just two of the talking points which may determine her success – or otherwise.

1. Personal views

Ms Forbes is an active member of the Free Church of Scotland, which takes a socially conservative position on women’s reproductive rights and sexuality.

However, the frequent focus on her religious views has prompted some SNP figures to speak up about “the targeting of her faith”.

They included SNP MP Carol Monaghan, who pointed out Ms Forbes has not campaigned on either abortion or gay marriage.

Despite this, she faced questions on her views in the hours after announcing her bid.

And the leadership candidate was quickly contacted by Back Off Scotland, which campaigns for harassment-free buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Supporters of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (Scotland) take part in a protest outside the Scottish Parliament. Image: PA

Asked about the issue by STV News, Ms Forbes said all women going for abortions should do so “free from harassment and harm”.

She added: “It’s a question of engaging with the Green MSP Gillian Mackay, who is taking forward that bill, so we have a balanced bill that does tackle harassment, but is also targeted.”

In 2018, Ms Forbes said at a prayer breakfast that the treatment of unborn children was a “measure of true progress”.

She revealed on Monday she would not have backed controversial changes to gender recognition and would not seek to challenge a block on the legislation in court.

It has previously been suggested the bill was rushed through while Ms Forbes was on maternity leave.

Asked about accusations she is not “progressive” enough, Ms Forbes said she believes “no office should be removed from any candidate on the basis of protected characteristics, including faith”.

She added: “I think there’s a way to square my faith as well as my membership and leadership of the SNP and that includes things like having to love my neighbour.”

On Monday evening, she added further controversy to her bid by saying she would not have backed same-sex marriage, which was made legal in 2014 by a large majority.

She told The Scotsman: “I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made.

“It is a legal right now and I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator.”

2. Experience

Ms Forbes was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight on Budget day at Holyrood on February 6, 2020.

She was parachuted in following the shock resignation of then Finance Secretary Derek Mackay in the wake of reports revealing messages he sent to a 16-year-old boy.

Her impressive performance won her admirers and ensured her ascent as a rising star within the party.

She has been on maternity leave since giving birth to her daughter, Naomi, in August, and said she has been “extraordinarily torn” about what to do.

The 32-year-old was only elected in 2016 and becoming first minister would be a rapid climb after over two years as a cabinet secretary.

However, the precedent is there with the SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, taking on the post after only being elected to the Commons in 2019.

It could well be that her fresh outlook reinvigorates the party and she may benefit from the reputation she has built up as a competent minister.

3. Highland background

The Highlands has proven fertile ground for political leaders in the past, from the late Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy to Ian Blackford, the SNP’s former Westminster leader.

Born in Dingwall, educated in Gaelic, and as MSP for Skye, Ross and Lochaber, Ms Forbes is a Highlander through and through.

The SNP has faced strong criticism in recent years for a failure to understand more remote and rural constituencies and deliver on their regional priorities.

Will Kate Forbes be able to sort out the chaotic ferry system? Image: DC Thomson

Island communities have been failed by the ferries scandal and drivers in the north are desperate to see vital road upgrades delivered in the A9 and A96 dualling projects.

Having a first minister outside the central belt could help the party bring back voters disillusioned by a perception that politicians are removed from their concerns.

Ms Forbes has already attracted support from Aberdeenshire East MSP Gillian Martin and Inverness MP Drew Hendry.

But some Highland MSPs, including Emma Roddick and government minister Maree Todd, have endorsed Mr Yousaf instead.

The former health secretary also has the support of several other government ministers and is seen as the continuity candidate.

4. Independence

All the prospective candidates will have to set out clearly how they intend to deliver on independence, if they are to get the backing of members.

Ms Forbes’ opening pitch for leader focused on “competent leadership” and independence.

She wants to get a grip on domestic issues to convince voters outwith the party of the merits of independence.

In a campaign video released on Monday, Ms Forbes said she “cannot sit back and watch our nation thwarted on the road to self-determination”.

She added: “We need to chose strong, competent leadership to deliver independence – the leadership that I can offer.”

5. Business acumen

Ms Forbes has been backed by Business Minister Ivan McKee who says she stands “head and shoulders above anyone else”.

She read history at Cambridge University and studied at Edinburgh University where she gained a masters in emigration history.

The SNP minister worked for her local MSP Dave Thompson for a year in 2011-12, before spending two years as an accountant at Barclays.

Kate Forbes delivering the 2020-21 budget. Image: Andrew MacColl/Shutterstock

She said her years managing Scotland’s budget and economy gave her the experience to deal with the cost of living crisis and funding independence.

Fergus Mutch, a former SNP candidate in the north-east, and ex-SNP spin doctor, praised Ms Forbes.

He said she “commands respect on these issues in boardrooms across the country”.

She also played a critical role in securing two green freeports in Scotland, after talks collapsed between the Scottish and UK Governments.

6. Relationship with the Greens

The election of Ms Forbes as SNP leader risks threatening the power-sharing deal between the SNP and the Greens.

The Times reported that she is said to be unimpressed with her coalition partner’s focus on gender reform legislation and other social issues to the detriment of their environmental policies.

It has been suggested the Greens are considering pulling out of government if the Highland MSP becomes first minister.

This would leave the SNP one seat short of a majority and would leave Ms Forbes having to strike deals on a case-by-case basis to win votes.

This contrasts with Mr Yousaf who insisted he had “good relationships” with Green Party members and confident of their support if he succeeds Ms Sturgeon.