It was ever thus, George. It was ever thus. Alba Party was doomed from the outset. It was never going to amount to so much as the merest shadow of what the party’s members had convinced themselves it could be. But it would be unjust to lay the blame for this at the feet of Alex Salmond. Alba’s biggest problem is not the public perception of Alex Salmond. Public perceptions are malleable. Alba has amounted to nothing because the party leapt into the electoral arena portraying itself as an alternative to the SNP while failing utterly to distinguish itself from the SNP. To be an alternative, you have to offer something different. Alba simply hasn’t done that. Yesterday’s SNP warmed over was never going to inspire anything other than general ennui.
Alex Salmond is to blame only insofar as he has allowed this to happen. As party leader, the buck stops with him. Nonetheless, he could yet be a valuable asset. It is certainly the case that “Alba urgently needs to reassess its political model”. Whether it needs to also reassess its present leadership is more open to question. When that political model is reassessed it will remain to be presented and sold to the public. That is Salmond’s forte. Changing the leader could look like a panic reaction and suggest a reluctance to face the real problem. And it is obvious what that problem is.
Alba was marketed as the party with a radical approach to the constitutional issue which contrasts starkly with the hyper-caution of the SNP under Sturgeon. The trouble is, not only could Alba not do what it said on the tin, there was nothing in the tin. It was supposed to attract voters who wanted to put pressure on the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government. But it had no credible explanation as to how this would be done. The whole ‘supermajority’ thing was pure fantasy politics. I doubt if many voters actually examined the ‘plan’ sufficiently to realise that it couldn’t work. But the indications are that the electorate sensed as much – if only because of the way it was over-hyped. People tend to be dubious about things that seem too good to be true – even if only at an instinctive level.
Getting into a position to put pressure on the SNP by way of electoral success was always a non-starter. The obsession with winning elections is something that Salmond seems to have brought with him from the SNP. Barring something truly miraculous, the electoral route takes too long. Alba set out to do in one election – and as a newborn party – what any dispassionate commentator would reckon needed at least three and probably more like five or six. The party set itself the task of convincing large numbers of people that Alex Salmond could work miracles. The perceptual gulf between tainted (however unfairly) politician and miracle-worker was never going to be bridged. I don’t know what it would take. But I do know that it’s more than Alba had/has at its disposal.
What advantage does a fringe party with no hope of being in government have over the party of government and credible challengers for that status? The same advantage as all fringe opposition parties enjoy. They can promise anything. Well, not quite anything. Credibility is required even if it is not as essential as it would be were the fringe party to have any realistic prospects of the power that would engender expectation of delivery. It is nonetheless a fact that parties such as Alba can do and say things that what are usually referred to as the ‘main’ parties cannot. The party that has a high probability of being in government is constrained by the expectation of delivery. Fringe parties are free from such constraints. What limits them is only the bounds of public credulity. Fringe parties can afford to be bold whereas ‘main’ parties are forced to be cautious. The more importance they attach to electoral success, the greater the tendency to extreme caution.
Alba failed to exploit this advantage. Its supporters frantically talked up its radicalism on the constitutional issue. But there was no big idea. Or at least none that didn’t smell of snake-oil. There was nothing that made Alba vividly distinct from the SNP.
There were other mistakes. Alba was too easily portrayed as anti-SNP. Much of the rhetoric was unmistakably anti-SNP. Back to the instincts of the dumb beast that is the electorate. That beast intuitively realises that you can be non-SNP and pro-independence but you cannot be anti-SNP and pro-independence. People understand that the SNP is crucial in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. Even if they don’t, they are told that it is and have no inclination to go to the effort of thinking about the matter for themselves. At the moment when Alba needed to be carefully tending to the first impressions that would fix it in the minds of voters, it was instead fighting an election campaign. And doing so very badly.
Basically, Alba should not have been focused on winning electoral contests. It should instead have been campaigning for a rethink of the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue. It should have been saying the things that independence activists fervently wish they might hear from the mouth of Nicola Sturgeon. It should have been offering the boldness and imagination that would set it apart from the blandness and banality of the SNP. It should have been asking the questions that make the SNP uncomfortable. It should have been demanding the action that the SNP is so very reluctant to take.
A good starting point would have been to come out explicitly against the Section 30 process. Alba could have been the party telling the public that requesting a Section 30 order must never happen. Forcing the SNP to either justify such a ‘demand’ or repudiate the Section 30 process altogether. Instead, Alba either went along with the Section 30 ‘plan’ or was maybe a bit ambivalent about it. Nothing there to make headlines.
Alba set out to put pressure on the SNP by becoming a credible electoral competitor – and do so in a single bound. Alba’s opportunity lay in making itself a goad to prick and taunt the SNP. That opportunity, like so many over the past ten years, was unforgivably squandered.
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