A couple of days ago Scotland’s independence movement was fragmented. Today, it is merely divided. It seems that this is as good as it’s going to get. Any hope of a unified effort to restore our nation’s independence is gone. We must now consider what might be the effects of Alex Salmond’s return to active politics. One thing is certain. It is unlikely to be the unalloyed cause for celebration that some see. Nothing is ever that. Every benefit comes with a cost. Even the restoration of independence will have its downside. All political choices are compromises. Hero-worship can only be detrimental to the evaluation of those compromises. There are no heroes outside fiction. The ones we make in our own minds are no less fictional than those in books and movies.
My article yesterday was, in part, about how unexciting this election campaign might be. I confess to ‘cheating’ slightly as it was written in full knowledge of the imminent announcement of the launch of the Alba Party – which was sure to change things somewhat. It has. All of a sudden, things have got interesting. And I have the contrast I was aiming for. Although much of what I wrote yesterday morning remains relevant – politics is becoming more formulaic and dull – by yesterday afternoon we had an example of how the formula can still be disrupted by the addition of a new ingredient. Or in this case, an old ingredient that was thrown back into the mix with a splash no less effective for being a bit messy. This is something to celebrate. So long as such things can happen our politics lives. It hasn’t yet been entirely suffocated by control-freakery, managerialism and risk-aversion.
On a personal level I am also celebrating the demise of the ironically named Action for Independence. One snake-oil party down! I don’t have an up-to-date tally of how many to go.
Superficially at least, Alba Party doesn’t fall into the same category as the cunning plan parties that were always destined to be ineffective and ineffectual. There was never any possibility of any or all of them doing anything ‘for independence’. Hence the irony of ‘Action for Independence. But that is well-trodden ground. The question now is, what makes Alba Party different? Apart from the presence of Alex Salmond.
I’ve racked my admittedly slightly befuddled brain about this question and I genuinely can’t think of anything else. The only thing that distinguishes Alba Party from the herd of pop-up list parties is the fact that it is fronted by Salmond. The word ‘only’ here implying singular rather than mere. Alex Salmond’s presence is always massively significant. He is one of those rare political figures who is not bound by the Newtonian laws of everyday politics. We are into the political equivalent of quantum physics when considering the impact of an individual who looms so large in our politics.
Alba Party is different from the other self-styled alternative independence parties in that it is almost certain to enjoy a measure of electoral success – entirely on account of being fronted by Alex Salmond. In fact, I think for one we can remove the qualifier. Strike ‘almost’. Alba Party is certain to enjoy a measure of electoral success. Other questions arise from this. What might this measure be? What will be the likely effect of various levels of electoral success? Will we enjoy it as much as them?
The issue of how successful the #AltIndy parties might be has always been the most important consideration. And the most unknowable. There are also too many moving parts to allow us to predict effects with anything better than a low degree of confidence. What we can be absolutely sure of is that whatever effects Alba Party has, not everybody will be happy.
Once we take into account the fact that the only difference between Alba Party and the rest is the draw of Alex Salmond we also have to accept that all the other concerns we might have had about the rest must also apply to Alba Party. Some of these concerns which were a minor niggles in relation to the other #AltIndy parties becomes a major worry when Alex Salmond is added to the equation. Because with him involved that measure of electoral success is inevitably increased. Some suppose that this must be either a good thing or a wonderful thing. Others realise that these are not the only possibilities.
There has always been a theoretical tipping point on the measure of electoral success at which the #AltIndy parties took enough votes to have an adverse impact on the SNP while not taken enough to actually win any seats. It was extremely doubtful if any new party could get to that level – somewhere around 7%. Newtonian politics pretty much rules it out. Obviously, a proliferation of these new parties only aggravated the problem. While in aggregate they might take that crucial 7% of the vote and so adversely affect the SNP, this being shared among several parties greatly reduced the chances of any of them returning any candidates. To put it as concisely as one might, the SNP could lose one or two seats and thus a working majority while the #AltIndy parties failed to compensate for this by winning an equivalent number of seats – or more.
A couple of points need to be made here. One is that the cunning plans of the #AltIndy parties assumed that all pro-independence MSP’s would be of equal value to Scotland’s cause. This is a fallacy. Pro-independence MSP’s from the party of government will always have greater vale in parliamentary terms. Simply because it is the party of government which gets the mandate to govern. It is only the Scottish Government that can initiate and pursue the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. So in electoral terms seats and votes won by the party of government add more weight to a mandate to take the appropriate action than votes and seats for other pro-independence parties. The #AltIndy parties see their electoral success only as augmenting a Mandate for Independence. They fail to take account of the fact that their success might very well come at some cost the the mandate secured by the party of government.
The other point is that throughout this essay the term ‘party of government’ can replace the term ‘SNP’. The party’s dominant position in the polls means that we must proceed as if the two terms are synonymous. It may be a good idea to think in terms of ‘party of government’ rather than ‘SNP’, given that the latter now has negative connotations and associations for a fair few independence supporters.
Returning to the matter of potential unfortunate consequences of a certain measure of electoral success for #AtIndy parties; our thinking on this has to take account of the arrival on the scene of Alex Salmond. Whereas previously there seemed little possibility that a rag-tag collection of new parties could reach that tipping point either collectively or individually. Alba Party is different. I am not qualified to estimate what measure of success Alex Salmond’s party might have in the coming election. But I predict with a very high level of confidence that it will be greater than anything the other #AltIndy parties might achieve – either individually or collectively. Which means Alba Party is more likely to reach that theoretical tipping point of 7%. But will it go past that to reach another tipping point where it takes a number of seats greater than whatever number of seats it costs the party of government?
My guess – being probably as good as anybody’s – is that Alex Salmond will take Alba Party into comparatively safe territory above that 7% point. Especially if the other #AltIndy parties follow AFI’s example and withdraw. I suspect that the egos and agendas motivating those parties will prevent this, however. So their impact has to be factored in as well. It’s complicated. But speculation being harmless and fun, I’ll reckon on the others losing out in a big way to Alba Party. The Salmond factor is just too powerful.
All of which puts the ‘7%’ concern back into the minor worry category. Maybe!
The other concern I want to address here – there are doubtless more – is more difficult to quantify. (Not that the hypothetical 7% tipping point warrants being regarded as quantification.) It is to do with campaign messaging. One of the reasons the SNP goes with the ‘both votes’ message is that it is simple and therefore effective. It has nothing whatever to do with the party being ‘selfish’ as some shallow-minded people insist. It is purely a matter of the best campaign message. In practical terms, ‘both votes SNP’ does the job. It has been effective for 14 years – if one considers the job to be keeping the British parties away from the levers of power and maintaining a pro-independence parliament. It only fails if one has other ideas about what the job is.
If you think the important thing is removing |Unionist MSPs or gaining a ‘super-majority’ or getting a seat in the Scottish Parliament with all its attendant rewards, then you will almost certainly think ‘both votes SNP’ both a dreadful voting strategy and a terrible campaign message. The best that ‘both votes SNP’ can do is what it did in 2011. Mostly it is only effective in preventing the British taking back control of the devolved powers they were supposed to have in perpetuity. And doing so while allowing the voting system to do its job of giving us a parliament which reflects the will of the electorate at least more faithfully than FPTP alone can.
The #AltIndy parties don’t have such a simple message. They rely on tactical voting. Which means the message is different depending on where you live. Alba Party cannot be different in this regard. It’s a national election campaign. That it includes a campaign at regional level is incidental. There can be no campaign at regional level which isn’t swamped by the national campaign. That’s why ‘both votes SNP’ is a good campaign message. It may not be perfect. But it works well enough. Given that there is no such thing as the perfect campaign message, what works well enough is almost always the optimum choice. It’s that thing about compromise again. Yes, there are places where ‘both votes SNP’ may not be a good campaign message. But overall, it works. It has worked for 14 years.
The message that voters receive may bear little relation to the message that is sent. A party’s campaign message may say one thing while the electorate hear something else entirely. That’s why the message has to be simple. The less complicated it is the less room for interpretation there is and so less chance of the message being misheard. The danger is that whatever the #AltIndy parties say, what the voters hear is that it’s OK for independence supporters not to vote SNP. There is effectively no campaign at regional level. But the likes of Alba Party are operating at regional level. They are only standing on the regional ballot. Their campaign messaging will, at least in theory, be tailored to and targeted at particular location. But they will also be running a national campaign. They will mainly be running a national campaign. And it is the potential impact of this national campaign which is a significant concern.
The #AltIndy parties have all and always made much of the fact that they are not contesting constituencies. They are leaving the constituencies to the SNP / party of government. This, they claim, means that their campaign will not impinge at all on the SNP / party of government. Which is more of that shallow, self-serving thinking. It is impossible for Alba Party to prevent its campaign spilling over into the constituency campaign. Because it is all one big national campaign. There is therefore always the danger that a certain proportion of voters will hear the message that they shouldn’t vote SNP if they live in a certain place as applying to their constituency vote as well.
This will happen. The only question is the extent to which it will happen. What is certain, however, is that regardless of how carefully #AltIndy parties frame their campaign messaging it cannot do other than undermine the SNP’s campaign message. The message that we know works. The more powerful the message, the more it weakens the ‘both votes SNP’ message. And we must assume that Albal Party’s messaging will be very strong indeed. Alex Salmond is news. He will grab media attention almost without trying.
Some will accuse me of nit-picking here. Of trying too hard to find the negatives. To them I would say trust me! it’s not that hard. Somebody has to insert into our discourse the factors which should be taken account of in making what are supposed to be informed choices. I would also tell them that being a superb political strategist, Alex Salmond will doubtless have taken account of the negatives examined here and many more. He will have done the calculations. He is going into this with his eyes wide open. We should do no less.