The emergence of Alex Salmond’s Alba party has changed the dynamic of the Scottish elections. For better or worse? Ray Morrell sees opportunities but also dangers in the range of pro-independence choices.
In the last few days we’ve seen the launch of Alba in Scotland, a new political party that hopes to challenge both the Westminster and Holyrood establishments.
Alba has already attracted some high-profile critics of the SNP leadership: Kenny MacAskill, the former justice secretary and sitting MP for East Lothian, Neal Hanvey MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, former Ayr MP Corri Wilson, Former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, George Kerevan, former MP for East Lothian, and Craig Berry from the SNP Common Weal Group being the latest high profile defectors, with more possible in coming days.
A recent data leak from the new organisation has revealed that local SNP officers and activists are among the earliest supporters. This is unsurprising considering the opposition among some grassroots members to the neoliberal ‘Growth Commission’ economic policies, frustration at the managerialism of the Scottish Government, the lack of internal democracy in the SNP and the party’s drift to the right at Holyrood.
However, Alba is also attracting those associated with the more socially conservative wing of the independence movement. Whilst some who oppose reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) claim to be motivated by ‘second wave’ feminist criticisms, others are motivated by hostility to trans people themselves.
Lynne Anderson, the former SNP Equalities Convenor, was a supporter of Joanna Cherry’s Women’s Pledge group which opposes reforms to the GRA, and others have moved over to the new formation, stating opposition to GRA reform as a key driver.
There has also been embarrassment for the new party over comments from some candidates. In the worst case, ex-boxer Alex Arthur has had to apologise for a racist tweet about Roma beggars.
Growing threat to Unionism
Some unionists initially welcomed the launch, with many hoping that it would destroy the SNP. The mockery from journalists and opponents at the launch has now been replaced by panic. Alex Salmond has announced his intention to lead Alba towards becoming the second largest party in Holyrood. This may seem like a fanciful ambition. However, the new party has already shifted the dynamics of the forthcoming election in May. Prior to the weekend, the election was going to be fought between the SNP and Greens and the unionist parties. The stakes were predictable and despite a number of recent polls showing majority support for independence, unionists were growing in confidence that an SNP majority could be averted. With the Tories experiencing a ‘vaccine bounce’ down south and the growing reality that Brexit hasn’t delivered the apocalypse that many in the pro-Remain SNP and Green parties had been predicting, ample room remains to deny the SNP an outright majority.
With the spat between Sturgeon and Salmond in recent memory, the launch of Alba rekindles tensions in the independence movement. Salmond may hope that the controversy will lead to the media airtime that Alba desperately needs to get its arguments across in what’s left of the campaign. Having Salmond and Sturgeon both in the race as party leaders recasts what had been a binary debate. Meanwhile, Salmond has already indicated that a referendum may not be the only route to independence.
Scottish Tory leaders Douglas Ross and David Mundell quickly recognised the danger posed by Alba with desperate and urgent calls for a Unionist pact. Ross told the Daily Mail: “If Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats can’t wake up to that threat then they are not recognising the clear and present danger from the Alba Party. They are not just taking nationalist votes from the SNP, but they are gaming the system. Alex Salmond understands that they could have a supermajority of nationalist-supporting MSPs.” Ross went on to say that he will look at “all options on the table”, which could include stepping-down candidates in seats like Glasgow Southside where Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is competing with Nicola Sturgeon, or North East Fife where Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie is the SNP’s main rival.
Unfortunately, for these unionist strategisers, memories of coalitions with the Tories that wrecked both the Lib Dems and Scottish Labour are still too recent and too raw. Neither the Lib Dems nor Scottish Labour have accepted the invitation to join a formal coalition.
Alba’s threat to the SNP and Green Party
Before last weekend, the SNP and the Green Party’s outlook was unchallenged within the independence movement. Since 2016, the Greens have propped-up the SNP’s minority administration, and are an essentially list-based party leading some to view it as a ginger group on the dominant party.
Now the SNP have a competitor that challenges both their narrow vision of independence and their support in the lists. If the Alba Party doesn’t have any discernible policies (some should be forthcoming at a policy conference), they do have one big idea, that of the ‘supermajority’. As cynicism grows with politicians of all shades, it’s likely that a realitive lack of policies won’t have much impact and the slogan can cut through. Salmond has also said that Alba wants to work with the SNP and other MSP’s to achieve independence. Alba is prepared to use alternative tactics should the Tories continue to stonewall the Scottish people. “International legal action, peaceful street demonstrations, popular will – these are all tactics but the tactics have to be founded on the legitimacy of the parliament,” Salmond said. “The parliament has to have… a supermajority that changes the balance, fundamentally, into Scotland’s favour.”
Salmond explained that Alba would aim to increase overall pro-independence representation: “At the last election there were nearly 1 million wasted SNP votes on the regional list.” This reflects a reality – the electoral system in Scotland is designed to balance list against constituency representation. However any ‘gaming’ of lists will also be open to accusations of manipulation by the British Government, who will deploy any excuse to ward-off another independence challenge.
Alba’s campaign will now put more scrutiny on the list vote, challenging the “SNP1+2” tactic, which is much better at protecting the SNP’s hegemonic position in the independence movement than it is at producing overall independence majorities. According to a recent Survation poll the SNP would elect no regional seats at all from a million votes on the list. In previous elections, it’s been the Greens who have benefited from vote-savvy independence supporters using their list votes wisely to elect a larger Indy cohort. Now the Greens have competition in this field, although it’s likely that the appeal of Alba’s call for a ‘supermajority’ will hit the SNP’s list vote more than the Greens, as more Indy voters become aware that an SNP list vote is likely to be a wasted one. Many Greens would also probably prove resistant to Alba’s more populist appeals.
Alba has announced its intention to build an “economically successful and socially-just independent country, through the pursuit of a social-democratic programme”. Late last year Salmond produced a joint paper with former SNP MSP Alex Neil, an Action Plan to tackle the Covid unemployment crisis in Scotland. Amongst its many ideas was a national housebuilding company to build an additional 10,000 energy efficient homes a year on top of existing targets, with funds made available to train apprentices to tackle the dire housing and youth employment crisis. The paper also proposed a Scottish national renewable corporation to invest in wave and tidal technologies with the development of a Scottish supply chain to ensure we face no more disasters like the recent BiFab closure.
With the election approaching the SNP led Scottish Government has announced a 4% increase for health workers, a housebuilding program and the doubling of child benefit. If Alba positions itself to the left of both the SNP and Labour on economic issues there is scope for further pressure here.
Independence and social movements
Since the unsuccessful referendum, the Indy movement has taken to the streets with mass protests organised by the grassroots, working class independence activists of All Under One Banner (AUOB). Up to 100,000 joined the last large march in Glasgow in 2019. These mass protests have been organised across Scotland, and despite being shunned by the SNP leadership, their powerful presence has kept the independence referendum on the political agenda. Further protests are scheduled for later this year with the hoped-for subsidence of the pandemic and end of lockdown.
However, in recent weeks we have also seen the re-emergence of militant street protests in England. The recent acts of mass civil disobedience to oppose violence against women and the draconian police bill have broken lockdown restrictions, giving expression to the pent-up anger and frustration felt by many young people who have an increasingly precarious existence. These protests echo the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted across the world last year, reaching Scotland with large demonstrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
This explosion of anger against racism, misogyny and the new police bill has sent shock waves through society and the political establishment. Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut and Kill the Bill demos have drawn in a new, younger leadership to the radical movement uniting people of colour, with those fighting racism, misogyny and transphobia. Tens of thousands have attacked symbols of slavery, broken lockdown restrictions with mass acts of civil disobedience and confrontations with the police. This new, radical movement is currently pushing back the limits set by the lockdown. Once restrictions ease, we are likely to see a resumption of militant protest led by this newly radicalised youth.
One of the problems we face is that none of these movements are finding any expression in the Indy movement. Although we’ve had huge demonstrations in support of independence, the Indy movement has yet to articulate a vision of the kind of society we want to build that can appeal to this younger audience.
The SNP are pro-market, accepted austerity and are pro-EU, while their allies in the Green Party mount no effective challenge to the neoliberal priorities of the Scottish Government. The SNP leadership in particular have adapted to the needs of the Scottish establishment and the middle class. The Scottish government has power to tackle the grinding poverty that afflicts working class communities across Scotland, but chooses to tinker with election bribes. Years of cuts passed to councils from both Westminster and Holyrood have had a disproportionate impact on women, people of colour and other minority groups who had a greater reliance on the services that have disappeared. It is shameful that these people have been allowed to posture as tribunes of the oppressed.
So while in England we’ve seen the re-emergence of militant street protests to oppose violence against women and the draconian police bill, Alba is fronted by Alex Salmond who has a record of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ against women. There are now legitimate questions about Salmond’s suitability for office. Anyone, of course, has the right to justice and to clear their name. His ‘inappropriate behaviour’ may not be criminal and it’s difficult to know what if any impact it may have on the doorstep, but it does make him unsuitable for the leadership of a movement that needs to mobilise women, and these radical currents in society, if it is to have a chance of breaking the deadlock with Westminster.
Salmond and his more toxic supporters are a block to building alliances between the extra parliamentary independence movement and the growing radical movements on the streets. However, those within the left who give uncritical support to the SNP and the Green Party are also a barrier to winning the new radical forces to the independence movement, as they are associated with their failings and pro-austerity policies.
The left, with few exceptions, is disconnected from organised labour and working class communities where the brunt of oppression and exploitation are experienced. The electoral rift that’s opened up between the Sturgeon and Salmond camps will move beyond ‘the culture wars’ on to more strategic issues around independence. This split will provide opportunities for the radical left.
Rather than pick a side in this fight, the radical left can focus on the kind of independent Scotland we want to fight for. Alba has recognised the need for civil disobedience in the pursuit of a new referendum. Ultimately, the left wants to be participating in the movement on the streets where we can build genuine solidarity by linking up the independence movement with wider struggles. We could be thinking about how we link the struggles against oppression with the struggle for independence in the forthcoming Indy demos. Or if further demonstrations are organised by the new movements we can work out how Indy activists show genuine solidarity by joining these struggles. This kind of approach can help build a new and radical movement for a diverse and independent Scotland. Without these new forces, the movement will struggle to develop the power, energy and radical instincts it needs to effectively confront Westminster and the conservative forces in Holyrood.