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6 April 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:34am

How big a threat is Alex Salmond’s Alba Party?

Labour would have the most to lose if Salmond's campaign for a pro-independence supermajority is successful.

By Ben Walker

What will the Alba party mean for Scotland’s May elections? It’s hard to say whether Alex Salmond’s attempt at delivering a pro-independence “supermajority” at Holyrood will yield much; in part, because we don’t yet have significant polling data aside from an early survey from Survation; in part, too because the upcoming campaign could have an impact.

What we do know is how popular Alba need to be with the Scottish public before they start winning seats, and before they start boosting the number of pro-independence voices in parliament.

[See also: What’s the point of Alex Salmond’s new Alba party?]

So, for the uninitiated: here’s the detail. Scottish voters will have two votes at Holyrood elections in May. The first is a traditional First Past The Post (FPTP) constituency vote, which is for a candidate; and the second is a regional list vote, which is for a party. This list vote adds an element of proportionality to the final make-up of the parliament. It is used to top up the total number of MSPs with additional, regional members.

The SNP are forecast to win an overwhelming majority of the constituencies. If Scottish parliament elections were exclusively conducted with the FPTP system as it stands in general elections, then the SNP would be winning by a landslide. But they aren’t. The proportional “balancing act” almost excludes the SNP from winning any extra list seats. Why? Because the algorithm determines that they have already won their “fair share” (and then some) of seats through their domination of the constituency ballot. Those SNP list votes are, in effect, wasted.

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The Alba party are presenting themselves as the antidote to these wasted pro-independence voters, urging those of a sympathetic mind to go SNP#1 (ie in their constituency vote), and Alba#2 (ie on the list). In the New Statesman‘s current modelling, if every SNP voter did vote for Alba on the list vote, then the party balance in Holyrood would look dramatically different to the current forecast.

If all forecast SNP list voters switch to Alba, pro-independence parties would win 74% of the Holyrood seats
Composition of the Holyrood parliament

The likelihood of this happening though is almost certainly nil. Nicola Sturgeon came out swinging upon hearing her former colleague’s return to frontline politics, making a thinly veiled attack on “self-interested” male politicians. Sturgeon is still a very popular figure in Scottish politics.

But Alba do have a point. SNP list votes are, in a roundabout arithmetic sort of way, “wasted”. So how many votes will Alba need to win from the SNP before they start winning seats?

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Well, with only one poll, we can’t yet say with certainty. We need to know whether there will be any regional variation. If every Scottish region swung 3 per cent to Alba, then they’d come up empty handed. Nonetheless, assuming their votes come exclusively from the SNP (and that is a big assumption) we can say this: Alba need, at a minimum, a more than one-in-ten of the current crop of SNP voters to switch their way for the party to start winning seats. In other words: Alba will need to poll more than five per cent of the national vote to start winning list seats – the easiest of which, we think, would be in the Highlands region.

[See also: “War on woke”: the meaning of the Alba Party]

Once Alba start getting close to 6 per cent of the national vote, then the forecast list seats for them ramp up, from one Holyrood MSP with 5.3 per cent of the vote to five with 5.73 per cent.

Alba start to win seats with 5 per cent of the national list vote
Composition of the Holyrood parliament after transfers of SNP list votes to Alba

If one in five SNP list voters switched to Alba, then would translate to eight Alba seats, gains for the pro-independence party that would come predominantly at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives being moved down the pecking order of seat distributions.

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

Labour has the most to lose from a successful Alba intervention in this year’s May elections. Without Alba, Labour are currently forecast to win 24 list seats. If one in five SNP voters opted for Alba on the regional list, that number of Labour list seats would fall to 19, whereas the Conservative list seats would fall from 18 to 17, and the SNP from three to one.

But will this happen? Will Alba’s hopes of a pro-independence supermajority bear fruit?

Let’s wait and see.