A FEW DAYS AGO, the Independent was announcing that it was “all over” for the Alba Party, after a poll put them on just 3 percent. Within hours, a fresh poll put the same party on 6 percent, with the Sun calling it a “stunning breakthrough”. If nothing else, this is a lesson in not being overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster of the social media new cycle and those who feed it alternately with gloating or scaremongering.
There are reasons to doubt this poll too. After all, if true, it suggests the unlikely prospect of George Galloway swaggering into Holyrood as a rural conservative. But that hasn’t stopped Alba’s many opponents panicking. For Conservatives, the headline figure of a 29 seat independence “supermajority” has already led to a reported decision to relegate Douglas Ross in favour of Ruth Davidson in a “mission critical” bid to save the Union.
Nicola Sturgeon has accused Salmond and Alba of “gaming the system”. The element of truth here is that, presented with a “supermajority”, this will be the obvious (perhaps only) Westminster retort. However, these electoral institutions were established to thwart nationalists from forming governments, so it will be a peculiar argument to make. And Westminster itself regularly awards stonking majorities to Governments commanding just over 40 percent of the electorate (Boris Johnson is living testament).
It is a peculiar argument, also, for Sturgeon. Not just because a nationalist leader should theoretically aspire to maximise pro-independence forces. But it also belies any suggestion that “SNP1&2” is an electoral tactic designed to maximise these forces. Instead, it would appear that voting SNP on the regional list is a tactic for keeping pro-independence forces commendably limited, so that nobody in Westminster will cast doubt on the arithmetic behind Holyrood’s electoral system.
Many leftists are panicking too. There is a more than understandable question mark over Salmond’s fitness for office, even if that critique could apply to a few others too. Many also take the view that Salmond’s presence will shift political debate to the right.
So far, there is little evidence for the latter perspective. Alba was always likely to exploit space to the Sturgeon government’s left, after a meagre return of policy reforms since 2014. If anything, based on recent developments, electoral competition seems to be causing the putative SNP-Green alliance to shower the electorate with policy “goodies”, leading exasperated critics to wonder what was happening over the past seven years.
On issues like the GRA, it seems clear that Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie will retain a significant upper hand, even if Alba gains more seats than the Greens. Any reluctance will thus likely stem from the SNP leadership’s own cautious instincts, which have inhibited progress in all areas of policy, not least on GRA reform itself. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s hard to say that Alba will present a barrier to anything.
Of course, to call Salmond a divisive figure would be an understatement. His net favourability ranks at -61. Many fear his presence will inhibit building wider support for independence. Equally, the same was true of Nigel Farage, and, loathe him or loathe him, his audacity clearly accelerated Brexit and helped his old enemies in the mainstream Conservative leadership break through the parliamentary deadlock. In a very different context, Salmond’s supporters will aim to do the same.
Either way, don’t panic. It’s one poll, and (sometimes performative) panicked politics leads would-be critics to uncritically back the people in charge. For these reasons, too many leftists position themselves somewhere between cheerleader for and conscience of centrist governments. The results are rarely edifying. Criticise Salmond, doubt his suitability, question Alba’s (largely absent) policy programme, but above all, think, don’t panic.