The decision on who replaces Nicola Sturgeon as the next First Minister of Scotland will rest with just 72,186 people, it has been revealed, after the SNP published its membership figures.

The party said this was the total number of members it had on 15 February, the day that Ms Sturgeon announced her resignation, with anyone who joined afterwards not eligible to vote.

The SNP’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to make the figure public after calls from all three candidates for greater transparency around the election.

The publication of the figure also reveals that the party’s pool of supporters has declined by 42 per cent since 2019, when around 125,000 people were paying members.

By 2021 this had declined to 104,000 and at the end of last year the figure is understood to have been 82,598 – meaning its membership declined by almost 10,000 in the six weeks before Ms Sturgeon resigned.

Before the figures were released, the First Minister denied that her party was “in crisis” but admitted the leadership election had proved to be a “painful” process.

“My party is having a democratic leadership election – growing pains for any organisation can be painful but they are important,” she said on Thursday.

“’I think it’s incumbent for the three candidates standing to succeed me that they remember the task is to retain the trust of the Scottish people that we have won consistently.”

According to the most recent official figures the adult (16+) population of Scotland is just over 4.6m, of whom only 1.5 per cent will get to decide who becomes the next First Minister.

The declining membership figures were seized upon by the campaign teams of Kate Forbes and Ash Regan as evidence that the SNP needs a change of direction at the top instead of a “continuity candidate” in the form of Humza Yousaf.

SNP MSP Michelle Thomson, who is now running Ms Forbes’s campaign, said the figure “underlines the need for change” and proved that “continuity won’t cut it”.

“The alarming drop in members shows that the party needs a change in direction,” she added.

“We need candour on the challenges facing the party and government, but we also need competence to fix them. The membership numbers add weight to the fact that it’s time for change.”

Ms Regan’s campaign issued a statement blaming the row over Ms Sturgeon’s reforms to gender recognition for the decline in SNP membership.

“Such a significant drop in membership numbers must have been what quickened the outgoing First Minister’s resignation,” it added.

Mr Yousaf, however, pointed out that the figures showed the SNP was still “by far the biggest political party in Scotland” and promised to “solidify” its support.

Despite releasing the membership figures, the NEC is resisting calls from Ms Forbes and Ms Regan to appoint an independent auditor to oversee the leadership election.

Both candidates have raised concerns about a lack of transparency around the process, prompting Mr Yousaf to accuse them and others of engaging in “baseless smears” that undermined the party.

SNP president Michael Russell also said he was “disgusted” at the suggestions of impropriety, claiming that any questioning the integrity of the election process would “aid our enemies”.

An SNP spokeswoman said: “After many years of delivering for people across Scotland and working towards a better future as an independent country, the SNP remains the biggest – and indeed the only mass membership – party in Scotland.

“We remain grateful to our large and committed membership for all their support which has done so much to fuel our electoral success.”

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