On my first day at St. Andrews University in the 70s, I nervously chapped the door next to mine in student halls, to introduce myself. ‘Salmond, Alex Salmond’, came the response.
So I wasn’t surprised when he re-entered the political fray, with new party, Alba, seemingly undaunted by his travails of the last years, when he lost his Westminster seat in 2017, survived criminal charges for sexual assault and attempted rape, trounced his former running mate Sturgeon’s government in a judicial review, and narrowly failed to nail her in a boisterous parliamentary inquiry, with a bravura six-hour witness box performance.
Retire with your ageing and ailing wife, reminiscing about better times with a dram by the fireplace? No chance.
It was the Greens who first spotted the loophole in the peculiar Scottish two votes system of partial proportional representation; after 73 First Past the Post constituency seats, there are 56 MSPs elected under an Additional Member System.
Like Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party had earlier garnered six MSPs, almost by accident in 2003, the Greens actively targeted the second vote that time to take seven, and subsequently winning all their six seats in 2016 that way; that, in turn, helped Sturgeon’s SNP achieve its parliamentary majority, in an informal pro-independence pact.
Ergo, talk of a more formal Green / Yellow coalition if the maths require it after May 6th, on this outing.
What Salmond hopes to exploit is the ‘wasted vote’ theory, that if the SNP wins most constituency seats, as now slated, ipso facto it cannot take many second vote top-up seats; it gained only four last time out (Labour seized 21 and the Tories 24). So, to game the system you need a ‘lookalike’ separate second party (somehow I feel that Sinn Féin and the DUP would have twigged this years ago!). Step in Salmond.
Reasons to be cheerful for Alba:
- Salmond brings a huge and heavyweight political presence, name recognition and a fresh sense of urgency
- Media attention (MSM print and social) will be wall-to-wall for the next six weeks
- Covid-compliant campaigning suits a centrally-driven party machine with few reliable foot soldiers, or tested candidates on the ground; no endless town hall hustings to trail around, just newspaper interviews and social media adverts to curate
- Smart voters will want to maximise impact, and help secure the fabled ‘supermajority’, to underpin the call for Indyref2, in face of the detested GB Tories; since Alba isn’t contesting constituency seats, the charge of ‘splitting the vote’ is weak
- Even if Alba takes four or five seats (it only needs just under 6% in any of the eight regions, as per the D’Hondt formula to begin traction) it can hold the balance of power, as the Greens now do (they are the party with most to lose in this experiment); even if only Salmond wins, think of the thorny Jim Allister.
In contrast, nevertheless, there are reasons to be fearful for Alba’s prospects:
- Once the election broadcast rules kick in, say goodbye to BBC, Scottish, Sky et al (even his RT is Ofcom-regulated!), despite anticipated high profile, attention-grabbing legal action to secure access
- Every dissident, fragmented, defection-led party tends to attract oddities (remember Bob McCartney’s UKUP, the UUAP, and UKIP itself or the Brexit Party?) and rejected candidates from the ‘parent’ party; watch out for early embarrassments and expulsions. Tommy Sheridan has already joined; will Jim Sillars be next, George Galloway, Craig Murray?
- Vote management is a tricky discipline, as we know over here, after years of practice and mistakes; can a new party persuade tens of thousands of voters to comply? The AMS system is widely misunderstood already; even we find 1, 2, 3 voting hard sometimes
- Salmond remains personally deeply unpopular amongst many, especially after his shameful treatment of women, as recently exposed in the various cases, and admitted by him, albeit without apology or remorse; can the process message transcend the messenger?
- While the SNP’s record in government, apart from Sturgeon’s Covid communications success, is not so robust as it claims; ‘judge me on educational achievement’, Sturgeon’s now shallow promise of 2015, has morphed to ‘child poverty is my priority…’ as she strives to resurrect a social democratic mission; fourteen years of Nationalist government has not been sufficiently differentiated from the rest of the UK to stand out. But that probably matters little, as the constitutional Indyref arguments triumph; #BothVotesSNP is a simple demand of confused voters.
Revenge will be sweet for Salmond if he re-enters Holyrood, to taunt and undermine his erstwhile tormentor; a consummate parliamentarian, an inveterate gambler, a huge vanity and self-regard, but above all a risk-taker.
The prize is huge, the risks negligible to a thick skin.
Lobbyist with Belfast-based Stratagem