Over the last 8 years I have gone from using food banks and working in a supermarket to being a Member of the Scottish Parliament.

I don’t think that journey would have been possible without the leadership we have had in the Scottish National Party. I am one of many new SNP MSPs elected in 2021, that haven’t known anything other than Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP.

In fact, since joining the party in 2014, Nicola has been all I have known as the leader of the party.

At this crucial time, I don’t think it can be underestimated just how much weight falls on the shoulders of members of the SNP that joined the party in the aftermath of the independence referendum and Alex Salmond’s resignation.

The SNP increased from around 20,000 members to over 100,000 between 2014 - 2015. Thousands of us joined the party and were ready to take on the UK establishment with Nicola Sturgeon leading the way.

The 2015 General Election saw support for the SNP rise, with the number of SNP MPs increasing from just 6 to 56 and the rest is history.

Nicola has been fundamental in moulding and shaping that membership, giving us the tools to speak to people about independence and enabling the progressive policies that saw so many people get involved in politics and remain engaged, people that never in their wildest dreams imagined that they would ever be involved in politics.

That’s what the grassroots Yes movement created in 2014, a new generation of campaigners and potential leaders of Scotland ready to take the movement forward into the future. Nicola Sturgeon has kept that flame burning and the activists ready, to give their all for our cause of a prosperous, fairer, more equal independent Scotland.

That journey doesn’t end now. Members of the SNP that chose to get actively involved in politics off the back of the 2014 referendum wanted independence and you better believe we still do, more than anything else.

That is why this leadership contest is so important for the future of this country but we need to make sure that we do not lose sight of the issues that have kept us the most relevant party in Scotland.

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The SNP has stood firm over the last 8 years as the party that has fought against and mitigated Tory austerity where we can. We are the only party focused on helping people through the UK government's self made cost of living crisis, the only party standing against cruel DWP policies, fighting poverty, and generally making Scotland a fairer place to live than the rest of the UK under the Tories.

That's what people on the ground see, through all the biased journalism and Twitter egos, people in Scotland see the SNP as the party that protects our most vulnerable people.

The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon has been the true opposition to the UK Conservatives and has burst the myth that Labour are the party of socialism and protectors of the working class.

That’s exactly what I want to see continue from any new leader of the SNP. An unwavering commitment to carry on that progressive path, crushing the Tories and keeping the Scottish branch office of Labour as irrelevant as they are in this country.

Reducing poverty has to remain at the top of our agenda. The blame for children waking up cold or hungry in this country falls squarely at the feet of the UK Government and independence offers a way out. We cannot take our eye off the poverty agenda as a means of proving to people that we are serious about creating a fairer, more equal nation.

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Policies like the expansion of early learning, the Scottish Child Payment, the Baby Box and Scotland’s new social security system, a system built on dignity, fairness and respect which sees social security as an investment in people rather than a burden.

These policies, to name just a few, have and are making a huge impact on people’s lives. Any new leader of the SNP should be talking about these issues and setting out how we are going to convince people we are still very much the party of the working and underclasses in Scotland.

I’ve seen countless commentators highlight that polls haven’t budged since Nicola stepped down and why would they? She has built a reputation that the SNP is where it is at if you want to vote for a progressive party that actually cares for people.

We have MSPs, MPs and local councillors all over Scotland that know this is the only way forward for our ‘centre - left’ party.

I have been really disappointed so far with the media focus in the early days of this leadership campaign.

I hope that as this contest progresses, we will see more discussion focused around the priorities for improving people’s lives here in Scotland. We need to make sure that whoever takes the reins doesn’t lose focus, even a little, on why support for the SNP and independence remains so high.

Natalie Don is a member of the Scottish Parliament for Renfrewshire North and West and is convenor of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee.