So I've just been catching up with today's news (gleefully announced by Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson) that Wings Over Scotland editor Stuart Campbell is pondering the idea of setting up a new pro-independence party to stand in the 2021 Holyrood election, in direct competition with the SNP. As you know, I've always been very sympathetic towards Wings, but I'm not going to be a hypocrite about this: vote-splitting in Holyrood elections is still a mug's game, irrespective of whether we're talking about a Wings party or RISE or any other small party. What do I mean by vote-splitting? I mean people who want an SNP government, but are lured into wrongly thinking they can somehow maximise the number of pro-independence seats by only voting for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and giving their list vote to another pro-independence party.
You might recall that analysis by John Curtice suggested it was possible that "tactical voting for the Greens" was directly responsible for costing the SNP their overall majority in 2016 - without vote-splitting by SNP supporters, the SNP could potentially have won an extra two list seats, which would have given them an overall majority of exactly one. Vote-splitting enthusiasts like Kevin Williamson had been absurdly claiming for months before the election that the SNP were absolutely guaranteed to win at least 65 of the 73 constituency seats, and therefore didn't need any list votes at all. Kevin was proved hopelessly wrong about that, as many of us had pointed out was pretty likely. You just can't know in advance how many constituency seats a party will win - opinion polls are snapshots, not predictions, and often they're not even accurate snapshots. A few percentage points one way or another can make the difference between winning 50 constituency seats and winning 20. And if you don't have a clue how many constituency seats a party is going to win, by definition you also don't have a clue whether that party will be in desperate need of as many list votes as it can possibly get.
How much difference would it have made if the SNP had got their overall majority in 2016? It's impossible to know, but it would at least have made a psychological difference, and the debate over whether the mandate for a second independence referendum is a "real" mandate might have followed a slightly different course. (Doubtless the unionist parties would have still come up with some excuse for denying the mandate, but they'd have really been scraping the bottom of the barrel.) I don't want us to repeat the mistake of 2016 by giving the unionist parties any more gift-wrapped excuses.
The biggest danger of the proposed Wings party is that it might fall between two stools, ie. it could take enough votes on the list ballot to do the SNP and the Greens significant damage, but still fall below the de facto threshold for winning any seats itself - in other words, it could lead to a net increase in the number of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat seats. We don't yet have enough information to judge whether that is likely to happen, but I have to say I'm a tad sceptical that the Wings party would top 5% of the list vote. Stuart has today pointed to Panelbase polling showing that Wings is a highly recognised 'brand', with only 45% of respondents saying they had never heard of it. But the reality is that online polling is likely to produce skewed figures on that sort of question, because people who read a great deal about politics are disproportionately likely to join volunteer online polling panels. Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt that Stuart has an absolutely enormous following - but Esther Rantzen and Robert Kilroy-Silk are also both household names, and they still failed to break the mould of British politics when they attempted to do so. It's always a mistake to underestimate people's tendency to revert to the major parties in a key election.
I'd imagine Stuart would point out that his proposed initiative isn't just about attempting to game the Holyrood system - it's also being mooted because the SNP aren't pursuing independence strongly enough at this moment of national crisis, and are also in danger of disappearing into a US-style identity politics quagmire. Voters, he would say, are crying out for an alternative. And I'm not going to deny that if we ever reached the point where it was rational to conclude that the SNP are never going to be serious about delivering independence, I'd probably be looking for an alternative myself. But we are a long, long, long way from reaching that point, especially when the bulk of the SNP membership are itching for action on independence as soon as humanly possible. I'm not any keener on the identity politics stuff than Stuart is: for example, it's now (at least on paper) SNP policy to introduce the Swedish model on prostitution law, which I've always felt infantilises women and is discriminatory against men. But there's a bigger picture here, and that sort of thing would never make me walk away from the SNP. You're never going to find a party with a set of policies that you can agree with 100% on every dot and comma.
Imagine what would have happened if Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the rest of the Labour left had prematurely concluded during the Blair years that the game was up and that they should set up a new socialist party to compete with Labour. Would they have achieved anything? Well, the new party might have recorded a respectable 3% or 4% of the vote in general elections, thus making it easier for the Tories to win. And that would have been about it. They'd never have got anything like as close to power as they did in June 2017.