Salmond’s Alba Party: Bane or Boon for Scottish Independence?

By Fergus Llewelyn Turtle

Alba Party logo: By Source, Fair use,

The last few months have been nothing if not dramatic from Scottish nationalism. Rarely in politics do two figures as close as Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon once were fall out so fiercely or so publicly. Just when Sturgeon must have hoped that the saga was coming to an end, with an independent report clearing her of breaking the ministerial code, Salmond announced he was launching a new political party to fight the Scottish Parliament elections in May. Seemingly this spelled potential disaster for the SNP with a real risk of splitting the pro-independence vote. Salmond, however, claimed it would do no such thing and would instead help produce a ‘supermajority’ for independence which he says will be crucial in getting a second referendum on independence.

How could he credibly make such a claim and how accurate is it?

The answer lies in Scotland’s electoral system; the ‘Additional Member System’ or AMS. This system is a mix between first past the post (FPTP), where 73 districts each elect one person who gets the most votes, and a proportional list (PR) system, where parties are given ‘top-up’ seats to try match their percentage vote. This means that if a party wins lots of FPTP seats, like the SNP, it makes it less likely they will pick up extra seats on the list. On the other hand a party that finds it difficult to break through in individual FPTP seats, like the Scottish Greens, will get more seats from the list.

Crucially the Alba Party has announced they will only stand on the list, urging SNP voters to lend them their votes rather than ‘waste’ them. This idea of ‘gaming the electoral system‘ has been floated for some time in Scottish nationalist circles.

Is this strategy likely to be a success? Well it rather depends, not only on how much support Alba gets, but where that support comes from as they could well cost other pro-independence parties seats.

According to modelling analysis by Oxford University Doctoral candidate Leonardo Carella, if Alba were to take votes only from the SNP they would still need to get about 6% of the list vote before they produced a net negative to the total independence seats. Even then they could cause the SNP to fall short of an overall majority, which could make it harder to get a second independence referendum.

The situation could be even worse if we take into account the Scottish Greens, who also support independence and have long benefited from FPTP SNP voters switching to them on the list. If only 20% of Alba voters would have otherwise voted Green, Alba could need more than 11% before they start help rather than hinder the size of the pro-independence caucus.

Of course all of this could change if Alba can attract voters over from unionist parties They could also concentrate their vote in certain areas as the lists are divided into 8 regions. It does look like the party has a large mountain to climb, however. In the two opinion polls to come out since Alba’s launch the party only registered 3% and 6% support respectively on the list voting intention.

Furthermore Salmond’s personal approval ratings are low and he and Sturgeon’s falling out has cost the independence cause support. It’s very possible him being back on the front line of Scottish politics puts more voters off the idea of independence than it brings on board. It seems then a challenging task for Salmond’s new outfit to achieve what they set out to and become a genuine driving force to get Scottish independence across the line, albeit a challenge the former First Minister seems determined to rise to.

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