SNP braces for leadership result after contest opens up divisions

<span>Photograph: Paul Campbell/PA</span>
Photograph: Paul Campbell/PA

The Scottish National party is braced for the outcome of a tumultuous leadership contest during which profound policy divisions have emerged between the candidates, exposing the extent to which the wider membership subscribes to Nicola Sturgeon’s progressive consensus.

A series of flashpoints over LGBTQ+ rights, Westminster’s veto of Holyrood law, and environmental and economic policy have brought younger, equality-driven activists to the brink of resigning their party memberships and threatened the breakup of the SNP’s governing alliance with the Scottish Greens.

On Monday afternoon, the party will learn who its 72,000 members have chosen to succeed Sturgeon as leader after her shock resignation last month. Humza Yousaf, widely regarded as the frontrunner, has pledged to continue the centre-left, socially inclusive agenda that defined the Sturgeon era.

However, his rival Kate Forbes, an evangelical Christian whose opposition to equal marriage and abortion nearly derailed her campaign in its first week, has been highly critical of the outgoing first minister’s record, challenging her model of progressive taxation and an urgent transition away from oil and gas exploration.

Related: Nicola Sturgeon forced to defend record in final first minister’s questions

Both Forbes and the third candidate, Ash Regan, would drop Sturgeon’s commitment to fight Westminster’s veto on the Holyrood gender recognition reform bill in the courts, and have stated their opposition to self-identification for trans people.

Despite Forbes’s rocky start, the race has been too close to call, but in the final week the momentum has been with Yousaf, as he set out a series of targeted policies for women, young people and a North Sea energy transition, with polling suggested he was edging ahead.

But the popularity of Forbes’s platform with some members has upended assumptions about the party’s core beliefs, leading many to question whether the “broad kirk” character of the SNP is sustainable and what “progressive” actually means to the wider party.

Given Sturgeon’s dominance for nearly a decade – “an iron grip”, as one MP described it – there is a strong sense that it is only in recent weeks that other viewpoints have had the chance to flourish.

The hostile reaction to Forbes’s faith-informed positions led some supporters to suggest she was subject to a “witch-hunt”.

While MSPs and councillors have insisted the membership will get behind the next leader, whoever is chosen, the knife-edge nature of the campaign has unsettled as many members as it has invigorated.

“This is about the direction of the SNP,” said one councillor who has held a number of equalities roles in the party. “I do think there will be resignations if the party elects someone who is not only opposed to equal marriage, but also won’t challenge Westminster on gender reform and has a more centre-right economic plan. A lot of people will feel that isn’t the party they joined, and that the party won’t be successful from that position.”

Another councillor and equalities activist said: “Many members only joined after 2014, and have only known Nicola as leader, so they feel immense loyalty to the progressive agenda she developed. They’ve also never known so much public division, and found that really destabilising.”

“This is an activist-driven party and the new leader will have a huge job to boost morale,” another senior campaigner said.

Related: Sturgeon’s successor will inherit ‘mess’ of SNP at war with itself

With only Yousaf giving full-throated support to the SNP’s alliance with the Scottish Greens, the latter will also learn on Monday how popular the partnership is with SNP members, and the Greens have already signalled they may not work with Forbes or Regan.

At the Green party’s spring conference in Glasgow this Saturday, billed as a celebration of the party’s achievements in government, the SNP leadership contest and its potential to send some members their way is expected to be the main topic of conversation away from the main stage.

The prominent Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said: “We have seen people say they will consider joining the Scottish Greens – not just SNP members but folk from the wider Yes movement if that becomes important for maintaining the radical, left character of the independence movement.”

The Scottish Greens will hold a party council meeting on Monday afternoon to discuss the leadership outcome, while SNP activists are understood to have plans to meet informally in local or interest groups.

Last weekend, the president of the SNP, Mike Russell, said his party was “in a tremendous mess” after Peter Murrell, its chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, quit in a damaging transparency row over membership numbers that highlighted longstanding concerns about the behaviour of party HQ, in particular its failure to deal with abuse and harassment complaints.

There is palpable anger and frustration in the party. “It didn’t have to be this way, they were warned all the way along,” said one former member of its National Executive Committee, while senior activists have underlined the urgency of internal party reforms to complaints procedure, local government support and membership outreach.

A new leader has only a narrow window in which to address internal reform before the demands of being first minister take precedence. The former NEC member said: “They can’t get bogged down in consultations, but need to be bold about their vision of what members want from the SNP.”