Upon hearing that her former mentor and colleague Alex Salmond would be leading Scotland’s newest political party, the Alba Party (Al-ah-ba), into the upcoming Scottish Parliament election, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said, “Alex Salmond is a gambler. It’s what he enjoys doing.” This is a fair appraisal of his approach to politics.
Salmond has long been a polarising figure in Scotland. Aside from the question of Scotland’s independence, Salmond is also recovering from the fallout of standing trial over allegations that he had committed sexual assault while serving as First Minister. While the trial ended in his acquittal, something he continues to point to when asked about the allegations, his own defence team’s admission that his behaviour had been “inappropriate” has tarnished his reputation.
Coupled with his decision to take the Scottish Government to court over the application of the policy that allowed him to be investigated, and his insistence that the decision to prosecute him was the result of a conspiracy within the ranks of the SNP to oust him from the party, some political commentors could be forgiven for viewing his sudden decision to launch a new independence party on the eve of a Scottish Parliament election as suspicious. Many see it as a means for Salmond to seek revenge on Sturgeon, starting with poaching some well-known MP’s and party officials from the SNP and into his ranks.
Of course, this is not the narrative put forward by Salmond. In his view, the Alba Party was formed with the aim of achieving a “supermajority” for independence within the Scottish Parliament.
He seeks to achieve this by only standing candidates for regional list seats, rather than constituency seats, and persuading SNP voters that 1 million SNP list votes were effectively wasted in the last election. This is hard to deny. In the 2016 election, the SNP only won 4 list seats out of 56. This is because of the D’Hondt method used to allocate list seats whereby the more constituency seats a party wins, the less list seats they are entitled to. The SNP is currently on course to win the overwhelming majority of constituency seats at the upcoming election, meaning it will be very difficult for them to win list seats.
SNP voters recognise this and have become known for loaning their list votes to other parties. The Scottish Greens are the only other major independence-supporting party and have thus been the main beneficiaries of this arrangement. With the Alba Party as a viable alternative, it is the Greens that have the most to lose here rather than the SNP.
While Salmond is undoubtedly a tarnished figure, in the eyes of a significant minority of nationalists he is seen as the victim of a conspiracy to drive him out of public life. Only 14% of Scots have a favourable view of Salmond, which makes him even less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson. However, this rises to 22% among those who support independence. When you include the 10% of independence supporters who “don’t know” what their view of him is, the result is that a third of independence supporters are not immediately turned off by him. These represent potential Alba Party voters. Taken together, this is a significant proportion of the population. However, it must be remembered that Nicola Sturgeon still enjoys approval ratings of over 90% amongst SNP voters and has made clear that she does not believe Salmond is fit for public office. With this in mind, it remains to be seen how many SNP votes Salmond will be able to secure in practice.
Judging by the 2016 results, the Alba Party will only need to secure around 6% of the vote in any given region to have a chance of gaining a list seat. With a relatively large base to secure potential votes from, this seems achievable. Salmond himself is running in the North East region, where the SNP look likely to win the majority of the constituency seats, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to securing list seats. However, the North East region is still something of a Conservative stronghold. In the last election the Conservatives secured 4 of the 7 list seats available here. In order to win a seat, Salmond will have to successfully persuade many of those voting SNP at the constituency level to loan him their vote.
Whether Salmond’s latest gamble pays off is yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure, the dynamics of this election have changed entirely.