This article was published in The Times on 13 February, 2023.
Whether they know it or not, how SNP members vote for their next leader will depend on how compassionate and inward-looking, or powerful and outward-looking they perceive that leader to be. I know this because during the pandemic I did research with my academic colleagues that compared the perceived competence of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson.
Scotland’s first minister outperformed the UK prime minister on every measure of leadership ability we used despite delivering identical policies for initial phases of the pandemic. Strikingly, she won at things typically thought of as conservative qualities, such as economic competence, as well as those more stereotypically considered left wing, like compassion.
Voters valued the aspects of leadership aligned to tending the flock, like compassion and communality, things that Sturgeon did very well in her public briefings. More outward-focused qualities, such as power and competition, as exemplified by Johnson’s Churchillian strategy of framing the pandemic as a competitive enemy to be fought, turned people off.
Sturgeon’s clear messaging, lack of prevarication and her overt compassion all helped to solidify her as a competent and trustworthy leader. While a permanent rallying cry for another independence referendum appeased those thirsty for change, she also made her followers feel tended to, especially in those uncertain times. In short, she offered something for everyone.
Sturgeon succeeded in stabilising a party that houses a broad church. Only recently have we begun to see divisions arising within the party. So, what type of candidates are most likely to lead the SNP to continued success at the polls? All my political psychology research over the past decade shows Scottish voters prefer leaders with stereotypical feminine qualities, related to an inward-tending and caring style, even when the candidates are male.
If our data from the Covid crisis can be generalised to wider economic unrest, voters may desire an inward-tending leader who offers a sense of being looked after, instead of the outward-looking candidate promising to fight for change.
Sturgeon’s most valuable gift was being seen to rise above the fray: compassionate and inward-tending, powerful and outward-looking, without looking like she was trying too hard for either of these. SNP members will, unconsciously perhaps, choose their next leader with these two concepts in mind.