This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Perhaps it was the Rutherglen by-election, perhaps it was the free bar, but the mood was loud and unrestrained at one of the social events around the SNP conference on Sunday.

“We’re f***ed,” went the common refrain, with activists predicting a thumping at the general election, the SNP even losing most of its MPs, sinking Humza Yousaf.

The late-night blues set in hours after delegates approved a new independence strategy based on the SNP winning a majority of Scotland’s 57 redrawn seats, 29 compared to the current tally of 43.

The Herald:

In the main hall, Mr Yousaf and other ministers patted themselves on the back for agreeing a plan they hoped would end the interminable ‘process’ talk and allow a focus on cost-of-living policies immediately relevant to the electorate. 

But despite the official line, there was little belief the approach would make a difference in the face of Labour and the Tories refusing to engage with it.

The aim of winning 29 seats was also causing jitters, as it was seen as the minimum Mr Yousaf can now deliver and survive, and it's by no means guaranteed.

In the 2017 election, the SNP fell from 59 to 35 seats, and that was with Labour unelectable under Jeremy Corbyn, not highly electable under Sir Keir Starmer.

Instead of the bullish optimism of recent years, there was a distinct sense of anxiety and self-doubt on display, something which also crept into the independence debate earlier.

But is the doom-mongering justified? Can the SNP, even after an epic 16 years in office and a plethora of scandals and policy problems, pull off a ninth election win in a row?  

One of the most popular fringes on Tuesday morning provided some hope for the party, but also underlined some of the challenges it faces. 

Held by the Scottish Election Study it was titled “Understanding the SNP voter” and shed light on why so many of them are now former SNP voters or seriously swithering.

Data presented by academics from Glasgow and Edinburgh universities revealed around a third of Yes voters in 2014 now say they would vote for a party other than the SNP.

In the years following the referendum, those voters almost all voted SNP, but that link has been progressively weakening, with only soft support among the so-called “switchers”.

It has coincided with the SNP’s reputation for competence in government dimming.

For most of the last decade, it was seen as the most competent party at Holyrood on the economy, education, health and standing up for Scotland.

Since 2021, it has been overtaken by Labour on the first three of those, not because Labour raced ahead of it on a wave of public trust, but because the SNP’s own ratings slumped.

One academic said the SNP appeared to be paying “the cost of governance”, the inevitable drop in a ruling party’s support over time.

“Maybe it’s just past due,” he told activists. “You have been in power for an awful long time and it’s hard to reinvent yourselves and keep independence on the agenda.”

Also tough for the room to hear was a section on the “negative partisanship” of the Scottish electorate, which basically means Scottish voters really, really don’t like the Conservatives.

It means the dominant motivation for people in the election will be kicking the Tories out. 

It comes way ahead of maximising the number or pro-Independence MPs.

That poses a big problem for the SNP given only Sir Keir Starmer can replace Rishi Sunak in Number 10 and Labour can sell itself as the traditional, no-nonsense cure for Tory ills.

It wasn’t all bad news for the SNP, however. 

The Herald:

While Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is more popular than Mr Yousaf for now, the FM’s popularity is rising, as former “don’t knows” get to see more of him and like what they see.

But there was a sting in the tale. The closing discussion touched on what might happen after Labour wins the general election. 

Support for independence among working-age people is just over 50%, but has “stalled” in recent years, one academic said, and could fall if voters warm to a Starmer government.

“If people start bailing on independence when Labour get into government, you might have a bigger existential issue,” he warned the audience.

The SNP may or may not be “f***ed”, as conference-goers put it, but it faces not just a tough election but potentially an even tougher aftermath.

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