What does Salmond want and what will he achieve?

What does Salmond want and what will he achieve?

It’s difficult to see Alba doing anything other than damaging Sindy chances

Not all politics is personal but it’s very hard to explain Alex Salmond’s return to the front line of Scottish politics in any other terms. He feels very wronged. Wronged by the actions of his former party and his former deputy and successor, whose behaviour towards him may or may not have been inappropriate depending on which report or inquiry you read; and wronged by the Scottish government and legal system. How to right that wrong? Take the system on. It’s what he’s done since he first became SNP leader at the age of 35, more than three decades ago.

Salmond claims that in Alba – his new party – he can help nationalists game the AMS voting system to deliver a larger majority than the SNP could achieve alone (or indeed, than a PR system should enable). The idea would be that voters could back the SNP in constituencies and back Alba, who are not contesting the constituencies, in the lists.

This would leave the SNP hugely overrepresented overall compared with their list vote share, while Alba would win enough more to give the two parties a comfortable majority. Close observers might also note that it would mean that Salmond controlled the key swing vote in Holyrood.

Or would it? There are at least three objections as to why it might well not, and hence why we might suspect that Salmond – a more than capable political strategist – is not motivated entirely by his stated public reasoning.

Firstly, Scots wanting to game the AMS system already have the means through which they can do so. The Scottish Greens are also pro-Independence and also do not contest constituencies, so Salmond’s Alba is adding nothing in that respect.

Indeed, the second objection is that not only does it add nothing but splitting the vote may very well work against the pro-Independence parties. AMS, like all electoral systems, imposes an effective threshold below which a party is unlikely to gain representation. In rough terms, it’s a little less than 100%/(n+1), where n is the total number of seats, of both types, in a region. Scotland has between 15 and 17 seats per region meaning that the threshold of list votes is around or slightly above 5%. In 2016, the Greens won 6.6% overall but missed out on list seats in two regions (where they won 4.7% and 4.9%).

If Alba won even a relatively small share of the Green vote, they could deprive Patrick Harvie’s party of several more of their MSPs. Anyone inclined to the revenge explanation for Alba’s launch might note that after a degree of havering, the Greens opposed the confidence motions against both John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon – though it may be pure coincidence that Alba was publicly launched within a couple of weeks of these key votes.

Salmond would no doubt argue that these Green losses could be made up by Alba gains – yet how strong a claim would that be? We don’t have any polling on Alba yet but Salmond himself is epically unpopular: the March YouGov poll gave him a net rating among Scots of -63. That’s more than twenty points worse than Boris Johnson’s net well/badly rating as UK PM in the same survey. Salmond even has a net favourability of -50 with pro-Independence supporters (Sturgeon is +66).

With no obvious niche to play to – how many people are pro-Indy, anti-Sturgeon, anti-Green and at least tolerably disposed towards Salmond? – where will Alba’s support come from? It’s quite possible that it too could end up short of the 5% threshold and draw something close to a blank overall. Moreover, the SNP themselves have a handful of list seats. In a worst-case scenario, one or two of these could be at risk from an ineffective transfer to Alba.

“Hang on though”, you might say. “Aren’t the SNP polling even better than they did in 2016? Even if Alba does make life harder for the Independence parties, they’re still well positioned.” Well, not really. Until recently they were: through all of 2020, the SNP polled well above 50% in the constituency share (against 46.5% in 2016), and in the mid- to high-40s in the list share (up from 41.7%). But these last two months, when the Salmond-Sturgeon divide has become bitterly public, the poll shares have declined to be almost identical to the 2016 outcome. There is precious little slack to play with.

Which brings us to the third point: the election campaign itself. It’s all very well playing with numbers on a spreadsheet but to make the strategy work Salmond will have to persuade actual voters that the SNP, Alba (and, perhaps, the Greens) are all part of a broader, cohesive movement. Which is going to be tough when the principal reason for his party existing at all is that both leaders clearly think the other is unfit to even be in public life, never mind prospective partners in government.

How on earth can Alba and the SNP contest an election without attacking each other, when all of Scotland – prompted in no small way by the Unionist parties – know full well the depth of, and the reason for, the divisions between them? Time and again they will be asked “would you do a deal with [the other leader]”, to which there is no safe answer. Say ‘yes’ and you have a load of history ready to be thrown at you; say ‘no’ and the whole notional super-majority strategy falls apart; say nothing and the Independence movement looks incapable of sorting out even its most basic issue.

How do Salmond and Sturgeon (and Harvie) handle the two planned TV debates, both in terms of how they interact between themselves and in how they respond under attack from Unionists? In an election where Covid will make the ground war unusually light, we can expect these debates to matter disproportionately more. The public doesn’t like division or evasiveness and it’s hard to see how the debates can provide anything but.

Does this mean the Scottish Independence is doomed? No, it doesn’t. The divisions are transient and personality-driven. They may well matter decisively for now but that won’t last, whereas the political divide between Scotland and London will – or will do so as long as no effective progress is made in healing the divergence in identity; a divide the Tories’ actions are actively driving, while Labour prefers to avoid the issue, presumably (and if so, wrongly), in the hope that it might go away organically so they don’t have to grapple with the notion of Britishness.

And it’s not doomed for another reason. Perhaps the pro-Independence parties do gain a majority, despite all the new hurdles Salmond has put up. If so, they still have a course towards either a new referendum or a new grievance. But suppose they don’t; suppose the Unionist parties win a majority. Where then does the next Scottish government come from?

David Herdson

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