What impact could Alex Salmond’s Alba Party have on the election?
At the end of a fraught week in Scottish politics, Nicola Sturgeon was no doubt looking forward to the relative calmness of an election campaign.
Last Friday got off to a fairly typical start – parties began to set out key commitments, activists hit the campaign trail and Willie Rennie released another bizarre election photo.
Then at noon sharp, a press call confirmed Alex Salmond would make a public statement at 2pm.
Speculation began immediately as people looked anew at the final words of a statement issued by Salmond the day before: “I intend to move on, just as Scotland should now move on to debate the key election issues before us all, principally economic recovery from the pandemic and the future independence of our country.”
Hours later, the former first minister confirmed he was the leader of the new Alba Party. The aim, he claimed, was to return a pro-independence “supermajority” in May by fielding at least four list candidates in each of Scotland’s eight electoral regions.
He was explicit that he was looking for backing from SNP supporters. Votes for his former party on the list would be “wasted”, he said, pointing to the fact that one million regional votes in 2016 led to only four extra MSPs.
“If Alba wins regional list seats the wasted votes end. The number of independence-supporting MSPs in the parliament could reach 90 or even more,” he said.
Scotland’s electoral system is made up of two parts. Each person is represented by a constituency MSP, elected by the well-known first past the post system. Like seats at Westminster, this means the person with the most votes wins, even if they are not supported by a majority of constituents.
The second half of the system aims to rectify this by balancing each constituency MSP with seven regional MSPs. In practice, this means parties which fail to get a constituency seat can still be elected via the list system.
This is decided by a quick calculation known as the d’Hondt method, which divides the number of regional votes for a party by the number of seats already won in that region, plus one.
In Glasgow in 2016, the SNP secured 45 per cent of the regional vote – but they also won all nine constituencies. Their 111,101 votes was divided by ten, taking it to 11,110. This was not enough to elect any extra members, as support for Labour (24 per cent), the Conservatives (12 per cent) and the Greens (9 per cent) outstripped the reduced figure.
Salmond’s argument is that if enough people switch their list SNP vote to Alba, a pro-independence party hangs onto those votes instead of seeing them immediately reduced.
But the key question is whether enough of those SNP votes will be persuaded to back Salmond.
On that, we’ll have to wait for the next set of opinion polls to be published in the Sunday papers this weekend. In the meantime, Dr Jan Eichhorn wrote in a blog for What Scotland Thinks highlighting Salmond’s favourability, the next nearest indication of support.
He pointed to a recent Opinium poll which found while a majority of the electorate had a “somewhat” or “very” unfavourable view of the former first minister, around a quarter said they either viewed him favourably or did not have a view at all.
Eichhorn wrote: “While that is not a great start, 26 per cent of the population is not a negligible group either – especially for a party that does not aim to win a majority, but wants to appeal to a distinctive minority of independence supporting voters who may look for an alternative to the SNP or the Greens.”
And while it might take a considerable shift to actually get the 90-plus pro-indy MSPs Salmond spoke of in his statement, it wouldn’t take anywhere near that figure to see some Alba MSPs elected.
Elections expert Professor John Curtice explained a figure of around six per cent of the vote is usually enough to get a person elected on the list and the next polls will show how close Alba is to that.
He explained: “If those polls say less than five per cent, then to be honest the expectation that this election might be dominated by Salmond versus Sturgeon may not be fulfilled because it might look as though Mr Salmond hasn’t much chance of getting into Holyrood, at least not his party.
“On the other hand, if he’s running anything close to ten per cent or above, then it might look as though it’s game on.”
The move isn’t without risk for the SNP. If we look at the North East list, on which Salmond himself is standing, there is a chance Alba taking votes from the party could benefit unionists.
In 2016, Aberdeenshire West returned a Conservative MSP, while nearby Banff and Buchan elected a Tory MP in 2019. If the party performs strongly again, that could leave space for an SNP list MSP for the region – unless too many votes have shifted to Alba. A similar scenario is possible for the Highlands and Islands and South Scotland, both of whom were the only regions to elect SNP MSPs on the list last time around.
There has also been some speculation that Alba could result in the Scottish Greens losing seats. That is based on the theory that SNP voters who may have lent the Greens their second vote may change to Alba instead.
However, party co-leader Lorna Slater played down this prospect, insisting the two attracted different voters. She told Andrew Marr: “They are a totally different demographic than people who are likely to vote for a party that has been thrown together by a disgruntled ex-first minister as part of his vendetta against our First Minister.”
It's an argument that Eichhorn has given some credence to. He believes Alba seem to be targeting pro-indy, socially conservative Eurosceptics. He wrote: “Together these stances suggest that the party is aiming in particular for the support of pro-independence voters who are more socially conservative, a group that voted heavily for Brexit. They are very different from the kind of pro-independence voters who might support the Green Party.”
But whether or not the next six weeks will be just the start or the whole story for Alba, Salmond has successfully made the campaign trail that bit more uncomfortable for Sturgeon and the SNP.
He has already poached two of the party’s MPs (Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey), a handful of councillors and some well-known campaigners, with rumours of more defections to come.
And after Westminster leader Ian Blackford said MacAskill had become “an increasing embarrassment” and Nicola Sturgeon suggested Salmond was driven by “self-interest” and “ego”, others in the party have hit back against the personal insults which they fear may damage the independence project as a whole.
The final outcome on 6 May could see Salmond undermine the party he himself once led to victory.