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29 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:28pm

What’s the point of Alex Salmond’s new Alba party?

Far from helping the SNP win a pro-indy “supermajority”, Alba is an off-putting manifestation of divisions within the Scottish independence movement.

By Ailbhe Rea

Alex Salmond has launched a new political party, Alba, to contest the May Scottish parliamentary elections, with the stated aim of “helping” the SNP achieve a parliamentary “supermajority” for independence. Is that likely?

There is no reason, in theory, why not. Salmond’s new party will not be contesting any of Scotland’s 73 constituency seats, which, like the Westminster system, are elected by first past the post. The SNP has a “free hit” at those, and tends to pick up the majority of its seats that way.

[Hear more from Ailbhe on the New Statesman podcast]

Alba will only be competing for the second vote, on the regional/list ballot, which is intended to correct for over- or under-representation of parties in the constituency MSP vote. If the SNP maximised its vote at the constituency level (picking up, for example, more than half of the MSPs for a region on under half the vote), it wouldn’t be entitled to any extra list MSPs. But Alba in theory offers a way of gaming the system: if SNP voters switched their support to Alba for the list vote in sufficient numbers, or if other pro-independence voters were attracted to Alba, Salmond’s party could pick up extra list seats, and the number of pro-independence MSPs would be larger than the SNP could achieve as a single party. 

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But that’s the theory – and the practice is rather different. Insofar as tactical pro-indy voting can work, there’s already a party performing that function in the Scottish political ecosystem: the Scottish Greens, as Stephen writes. That’s a large part of Alba’s problem. Except for hypothetical pro-independence, socially conservative voters who want to vote tactically at the list stage but not for the Greens, or for the minority of SNP voters who support Alex Salmond over Nicola Sturgeon, it’s not clear why any voter hoping to maximise support for independence in Holyrood would lend their vote to Alba.

[see also: Alex Salmond’s Alba already exists: it’s called the Scottish Green Party]

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This is one where the theory and the practice do not align. The question of tactical voting to maximise the pro-independence vote is more fraught and complex than the case set out by Salmond and outlined above; it doesn’t always work, because the SNP is seeking a majority, hard won under the Additional Member System, and does rely on picking up additional list seats when its constituency performance isn’t as strong.

The SNP certainly doesn’t view Alba as a welcome satellite party to boost the pro-independence majority, which is all you need to know. There is no encouragement from the top of the SNP itself for voters to lend Alba their vote, and it’s already clear that Salmond’s party is a distraction for the SNP and an off-putting manifestation of divisions within the independence movement. 

Alba fails on its own terms: it is plainly not the most effective way to secure a maximised pro-independence presence in Holyrood. As for its unspoken aim – to be the thorn in Sturgeon’s side, and a possible vehicle back into politics for Salmond – its potential is less clear. We don’t have any polling yet on Alba’s favourability, but it is worth remembering that polling last August indicated Salmond is just as unpopular in Scotland now as Boris Johnson is. It is highly likely that Alba will fail in its attempt to have any MSPs at all elected to Holyrood. But the full impact of Alba on the SNP and the independence movement remains to be seen. 

[see also: Alex Salmond’s new party Alba makes the Scottish independence movement look a shambles]