Alex Salmond has announced he will run for the Scottish parliament, at the head of a new party, Alba, which will stand for the regional list system but not for the constituency vote. His expressed aim? To assist in the creation of a “supermajority” of pro-independence parties.
Elections to the Scottish parliament use the additional member system, in which people have two votes: one to the constituency, in a way that works exactly like first-past-the-post elections to the Westminster parliament, and one to the regional list. Winners are declared in two stages: first, the winner of the constituency vote is decided, then the winners of the list vote are elected in a way designed to minimise the disproportionality of the constituency vote.
To take Central Scotland as an example: the SNP won all nine of the first-past-the-post constituencies in the region, and therefore nine of the 16 available in Central Scotland in total (56 per cent of the available seats with a little over 45 per cent of the votes). The party therefore could not win further seats in the party list, which were instead divided among the Conservatives and Labour.
So if you want to maximise the number of pro-independence parties in the Scottish parliament, then your best option may be to vote for the SNP at the constituency level and for another pro-independence party in the regional list. Of course, this can go wrong, because if the SNP is narrowly defeated at a constituency level, your list vote becomes highly inefficient as opposed to efficient. Instead of gaming the electoral system, you have simply played yourself. This is one reason why the Conservatives did so well in the 2016 Scottish elections: they won most of their narrow races against the SNP and did a better job of holding on to and attracting unionist votes in the party list than the SNP did in holding on to and attracting pro-independence ones.
The other problem that Alba creates is that there is already a political party that represents a good home for voters looking to maximise the number of pro-independence MSPs: the Scottish Greens. It’s hard to see the case that Alba will be a better or more effective vehicle for doing this: their leader and most prominent candidate is in a high-profile dispute with the SNP’s leader, and Salmond is also much less popular than Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Green Party’s co-leader and most prominent politician.
For Alba to be effective, it needs to appeal to a group of SNP voters who are willing to shop around in the party list but are not attracted to the Greens. It’s not clear that this group of voters exists: pretty much all voters across Great Britain have a favourable opinion of the United Kingdom’s Green parties. Unless there is a significant number of voters currently voting for the SNP in both the constituency and regional lists who are a) open to giving another vote to another party but b) more willing to vote Alba than Green, neither of which seem particularly likely the two parties will be fishing in the same pool.
That imperils, rather than helps, the chances of a majority for pro-independence parties. The more votes that Alba gets, the fewer the votes for the Greens and the fewer the votes for the SNP in the regional list. It’s possible that Alba is a Goldilocks party, taking just enough support from the SNP to elect MSPs without pulling down the number of MSPs elected from the regional vote for the Scottish Greens or the SNP. But it’s more likely that Alba will instead take just enough votes to reduce, rather than increase, the number of pro-independence parties.
There’s an important “but”, here though: it seems to me that the most likely outcome for Alba is ignominious failure, not stealing votes for the independence cause, but simply vanishing without a trace. Salmond is no longer popular and there is already a warm and successful home for pro-independence voters who want to either keep the SNP honest or to maximise the number of pro-independence MSPs in the Scottish parliament. Any article that seeks to explain how the electoral system works ends up, as this one has, becoming a bit of an advert for the Scottish Greens, and an argument against voting for Alba.
In addition, voters aren’t daft: they can see that the people celebrating Alba’s existence are, predominantly, supporters of the constitutional status quo and Nicola Sturgeon’s most implacable opponents. It will be hard to overcome this – perhaps impossible.
If the party has an effect, it will be in reinforcing the perception on the campaign trail that the SNP is divided and behaves just like any other party. That will benefit everyone trying to win votes from the SNP – not just the Scottish Greens but the Scottish Labour Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats too. (The Scottish Conservatives, whose electoral strategy relies on polarisation, rather than conversion, are not a factor in this instance.)
But it may be that voters simply pay as much attention to Alba as they have to the long history of small parties that have failed to break into Holyrood since the creation of devolution in 1999.