Jason McCann ran a Twitter poll yesterday, asking whether a new pro-independence party should be set up if the SNP fail to use their mandate to hold an independence referendum. Now, it's no secret that I think it would be a historic error to let the mandate expire in 2021, and that I'm deeply troubled that there seem to be a few senior people in the SNP who don't take their manifesto commitment to voters seriously. But nevertheless, and regardless of what happens, setting up a rival party to the SNP would be a terrible idea.
First of all you'd have to be clear on what your objective is - are you trying to replace the SNP as the largest pro-independence party, or are you trying to pressure them from the outside into changing course? If the former, it's a pipe-dream, and if the latter, it's a very, very dangerous game, because to have any chance of applying that external pressure you'd have to take significant numbers of votes away from the SNP, which could cost us the pro-independence majorities both at Holyrood and among the Scottish contingent at Westminster.
Take the example of Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party, which by historic standards actually achieved relative success for a new party by securing 2.6% of the Britain-wide popular vote in its first (and only) general election in 1997. But its aim was to either replace the Tories as the government for long enough to hold a referendum on the future terms of EU membership, or more realistically to pull the Tory government in a more Eurosceptic direction. All it actually succeeded in doing was increasing the huge parliamentary majority of the newly-elected pro-European Labour government (indeed, if Tony Blair had got his way, that was a government that would eventually have taken the UK into the euro).
Imagine if a new pro-independence party succeeded in taking 2.6% of the vote away from the SNP at the next Westminster general election. If everything else stayed the same from last time, the SNP would lose no fewer than TEN of their 35 seats. That's the immense damage relatively small changes can do under the first-past-the-post system. The SNP would win just 25 seats, the Tories would go up to 16, Labour would go up to 13, and the Liberal Democrats would go up to 5. There would be a clear unionist majority among Scottish MPs, purely because a small number of voters had moved from one pro-independence party to another. Similar damage would be done in the constituency section of the next Scottish Parliament election.
One or two people suggested last night that the new party could avoid this problem by sitting out Westminster elections and Scottish Parliament constituency votes altogether, and only standing on the Holyrood list. I'm not sure it's realistic to think it would do that - more likely is that it would feel obliged to build its profile by standing in at least a few constituencies, as the Greens have done over the years. That would mean less damage to the pro-independence cause, but still some damage. (For example, it seems highly unlikely that Ruth Davidson would have won Edinburgh Central in 2016 if the Greens hadn't put up a candidate.) But even in the unlikely event that the new party only stood on the list, nobody should be under any illusions that it wouldn't probably still be doing harm. On 2.6% of the vote or lower, it wouldn't be coming close to winning any list seats, and those are wasted votes that would otherwise presumably be mostly going to pro-indy parties that do actually have a chance of winning list seats (ie. the SNP and the Greens).
I know some people have truly boundless optimism and will argue that a new party can defy historical precedent by winning a lot more than 2.6% of the vote, and will therefore be in contention for list seats. But I would suggest that to have any chance of doing that, it will need to recruit some very well-known people from the Yes movement. And if it succeeds in rivalling the SNP to that extent, it's very hard to imagine it being content to be a second-string party and to sit out the majority of electoral contests, which takes us back to the original problem of splitting the vote under first-past-the-post.
It's noted in some quarters that UKIP succeeded in doing what this new party would be trying to do - ie. by changing another party's stance on holding a referendum. I'm not sure that's quite right - although in the long-run it turned out that UKIP was indeed a genuine threat to Conservative chances at the 2015 general election, it was far from clear that would be the case at the moment David Cameron actually embraced an in/out referendum on EU membership. But even to the limited extent that UKIP did play a part, it shouldn't be forgotten just how perilously close they eventually came to defeating their own objective. They won 12.6% of the national vote in 2015 - if they hadn't been around, and if the bulk of their votes had instead gone to the Tories, David Cameron would have won an overwhelming majority and a referendum wouldn't have been in any doubt. As it was, he won a wafer-thin overall majority of just 12 seats. If UKIP had deprived him of just a few more seats, a referendum would never have taken place, and Britain would not be currently leaving the European Union. All because too many people voted for a hardline anti-European party. Bonkers, but true.
It's also worth considering the varying fortunes of those who abandoned a major party when they were unhappy with the direction it was taking, and those who stayed put and fought their corner. The MPs who broke away from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP had given up hope of pulling Labour back to the centre, and intended to replace the two traditional parties with a new centre-left party of government. Instead they delivered an extra decade-and-a-half of hard-right rule from the Tories, and by the time that was over, Labour had grotesquely somehow ended up as a right-of-centre party as well. Contrast that with the fate of the Corbynites, who appeared to be in a 'nuclear winter' situation during the Blair/Brown years (Tony Blair even openly joked about the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader as if that was the most improbable thing he could think of). And yet they didn't break away. They stayed, argued for what they believed in, and eventually the pendulum swung back in their direction and they took control of the Labour party. Corbyn even came pretty close to the keys of 10 Downing Street in 2017.
I know that some of you are not just unhappy with the SNP for its excessive caution on a second independence referendum, but also for its recent full-on embrace of identity politics - for example, the role that Fiona Robertson played in Grouse Beater's expulsion from the party after a highly dubious allegation of anti-Semitism. Mhairi Hunter quite accurately pointed out to someone at the time that Ms Robertson had only just been elected "by your fellow SNP members" as Equalities Convener. But the correct response to that fact is not to give up in despair and think that you have to make a straight choice between a) agreeing with everything Ms Robertson says, and b) leaving the SNP. The best course of action is to stay in the party, fight your corner and seek a better result in future internal elections. One thing is for sure - those internal elections will not go your way if you and enough of the people who agree with you walk away from the SNP.
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Here's the latest in Phantom Power's acclaimed Journey to Yes series of films - this time featuring Jenny Constable, who supported the Better Together campaign in 2014 but now wants to see an independent Scotland.