Sceptics who scoff at the prospects of pop-up parties which seek to break the mould of established politics should consider two key points before doing the same with “Alba”, the new party which launched in Scotland today: the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, and the personality of its founder, Alex Salmond. For all that the launch of Mr Salmond’s new party was cack-handed , his new venture needs to be taken seriously.
First, the electoral system. Holyrood uses the highly complex Additional Member method of electing MSPS. Of the parliament’s 129 seats, 73 are allocated via traditional first past the post. In order to make the parliament more representative, a further 56 additional members in 8 regions, picked from a party list, are allocated using proportional representation. This uses a complex mathematical formula known as the “d’Hondt” method. In essence, this “marks down” parties which are over-represented in the constituency vote, making it harder for them to win additional members. Meanwhile parties which are under-represented in the constituency vote are compensated.
Alba is an attempt to game this system. Currently, the SNP is on course to win all but a handful of Scotland’s constituency seats. Thanks to D’Hondt , this means it will find it hard to win many additional members. Mr Salmond’s new party has spotted a nationalist opportunity. It won’t stand any candidates in the constituency vote. This means the votes it wins on the additional member vote won’t get “marked down”. The basic rule of thumb is that, once such a party wins around 6% of the votes in each of Scotland’s 8 regions, it will start to turn votes into seats.
Alba’s website, which went live yesterday, claims that one million pro-independence list votes were “wasted” in the last election (ie; given to the SNP). It is calling on pro-independence voters to vote for it on the second additional member vote and make sure those votes come good.
Will anyone listen? That is where Mr Salmond comes in. For all that he is a much-diminished figure, and for all the fact he is now entirely ostracised by Nicola Sturgeon and her coterie, polls suggest that around a third of SNP voters still approve of him. He is still seen by many as the man who nearly led Scotland to independence and who – in the eyes of many Nationalist supporters – has been the victim of a conspiracy to wreck his reputation. So it’s to be expected that plenty of these voters will be attracted to his latest ruse. A scenario which sees Mr Salmond’s party win around 10-12% of the party list vote – enough to win up to 2 seats in each of Scotland’s 8 regions – is therefore possible. And while some of these would come from the pro-independence Greens, the majority would be at the expense of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
That is the worst case scenario for the Unionist cause. The more optimistic take would see the pro-independence movement descending into chaos over the next four weeks of the campaign, with splits and divisions dominating coverage. It would also see cautious soft-SNP voters who have been won over by Nicola Sturgeon’s approach taking fright and either declining to vote, or switching back to Labour.
True to form, Mr Salmond has decided to roll the dice and find out. There is impeccable and calculated method in his latest move. We’re now set to find out whether he remains as good a judge of Scotland’s mood as he once was.