The announcement of Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party contesting May’s Holyrood elections raises so many questions to unpack. “Gaming the system?”, “splitting the independence vote?”, “are they cranks and morons?”, “how does a party endorsed by Wings over Scotland and led by Salmond reconcile with what is seen as a progressive movement?”, and more besides.
There are certainly no easy answers, and much will not become clear until months after the vote when the electoral minutiae is poured over by the experts. We will have to wait patiently until the white smoke appears from Professor Sir John Curtice’s office chimney before we will really know the full picture. But, we can look at what we know right now and posit some thoughts. So here goes.
First up, the “gaming the system” charge. It is absolutely a play from Salmond and Alba at using the traits of the Scottish Parliament election system to win seats. Personally, I’m unconvinced that people are being consistent here. If Alba are gaming the system then why haven’t we heard more attacks on the Greens over the years? They get a far stronger vote on the list than they do in the constituencies. So why aren’t voters accused of gaming Green policies into Holyrood? Just because the policy is independence doesn’t somehow make it more distasteful than if it was Green policies.
And if we take the criticisms from all parties about gaming the system as being serious and sincere, then will they be proposing electoral reform to close the loophole? I doubt it, because all the parties, except the SNP, rely on the list system as it exists to ensure a worthwhile group of their MSPs. All parties campaign on “both votes us”, but why haven’t they just closed the loophole? Make it one vote that is extrapolated for the list after the constituency is counted, for example?
My suspicion is that the gaming theory isn’t going to dissuade people from voting Alba. Just as it never has stopped SNP voters going Green on the list, or Labour, Lib Dem and Tory unionist voters voting tactically in constituencies, but true to their allegiances on the list. Where is the talk of tactical gaming of the constituency votes in this circumstance? I suspect it is just an easy attack line and not one that will cut through much.
Splitting the independence vote is an easy one to deal with, and it ties in with the point about how well a Salmond led, Wings endorsed party reconciles with the progressive independence movement. The simple fact is that large-scale movements are a broad church. As independence support grew it became a broader church and people will not like how other people behave.
That’s the nature of things when support for something grows. It is unavoidable. As is the eventual split which will occur. Splitting the vote can’t really be avoided once support for independence reached a certain point. Remember that there will still be Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, Communist and Fascist voters in an independent Scotland. So you have to be aware that not everyone will march under one party banner
Returning to the distaste for a Wings endorsed pro-independence cohort, it is very easy to argue about how well the numerous bullying and misconduct claims against SNP MSPs and Ministers at Holyrood reconciles with the idea of a progressive movement also. I say this to underline my earlier point about broadening churches. Differing attitudes on what constitutes acceptable behaviour are unavoidable. They are a reality that cannot be avoided for better or worse.
Every movement has its hardcore. Tory – UKIP, Labour – Momentum, SNP – Alba, Republican – Tea Party, Democrats – the Bernie Sanders socialist wing. If the party can’t give that group a role or a home then they are going to create their own. That’s democracy, and that’s mass movements for you. We can’t all of a sudden throw our hands up and gasp that people we’ve described as unsavoury don’t decide to shut up and disappear. If they have the energy and passion then they will find an outlet for it. And as we know, the constitution is a passionate topic for many in Scotland.
This segues nicely into my final point about the “cranks and morons” stuff. Put simply, be careful with the ridicule. UKIP/Brexit Party voters was dismissed as cranks and crackpots but unarguably they achieved their stated aim despite this fringe status. If Brexit has told us anything it is that you sneer at your peril.
The Alba Party is making big waves right now, it will be fascinating to watch and see if it sustains to a meaningful electoral impact. Us politics watchers will have our hands full in this election, but we’d better strap in tight because this is shaping up to be a rollercoaster ride.