The Alba Party - The National Extra
The emergence of the Alba Party, led and dominated by former Frist Minister Alex Salmond, has caused all parties to rethink their carefully planned campaign strategies at the very moment that those campaigns are due to get into their strides.
That, of course, was part of the point for Salmond; put the other parties on the back foot, make them rethink their plans, pressure them into making decisions in a rush without thinking them through. And to that end at least it appears to be working with some parties.
The latest response to Alba’s emergence is for the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to call for the pro-Union parties to consider standing down candidates from certain parts of the country in order to try and maximise the chances of preventing Salmond’s stated aim of creating a pro-independence “super-majority” in the next Parliament.
Ross is of course right in one regard, that the former First Minister’s move is an attempt at “gaming the system” but despite that, his call to “rediscover Better Together” is likely to be rejected again by Anas Sarwar and Wille Rennie, the leaders of the other two main pro-union parties. There are a number of reasons for those leaders to see this as a trap they are unlikely to fall into.
First, of course we actually do not yet know what impact, if any, Salmond’s new party will have on voting intentions. It is absolutely possible, as Ross, points out, that pro-union parties are damaged by the Alba factor; it is also possible that the new party actually does more damage to the SNP and the wider pro-independence parties.
At this stage, as we await the first polling since Friday’s grenade was thrown into the campaign, we can only speculate on its impact by considering the very low levels of favourability that Salmond has with the electorate, and specifically with the SNP voters that he will need to attract, only around 1 in 6 of whom have any favourability towards him. He would need to all those voters to his cause to stand any chance of winning seats. That is certainly possible but would be a tall order.
But aside from the absence of evidence on Alba’s impact, there are other reasons for the other pro-union parties to be wary of a trap. Both Sarwar and Rennie have made it clear that, although opposing independence and the holding of another referendum, this is not the ground on which they wish to fight this campaign, preferring to concentrate on the economic and social rebuild after Covid and the range of domestic issues from schools to the NHS and criminal justice.
Having the debate increasingly focussed on constitutional issues only suits one of the three pro-union parties, the Conservatives and this in itself is reason enough for Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Ross is right that time is short with just six weeks to go until polling day, and he is right that the Alba party is overtly trying to game the Holyrood voting system. But the evidence of the new party’s impact is far from conclusive and it is not at all clear that it is in the interests of either of the other two unionist parties to entertain ideas of a pan-unionist alliance. Indeed, both of the other unionist parties have recent experience of electoral damage after forming alliances of one form or other, adding to the likelihood of this being a non-starter.
So, rather than ‘Better Together’ reforming, it is likely to be ‘No Thanks’ from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
This article was published in the National Extra on 29 March 2021