A kind of fever has swept through parts of the Yes movement over the last 48 hours. A number of people who were clear-sighted about the risks of "tactical voting on the list" (sic) in 2011 and 2016 have been enthusiastically embracing the proposal for a Wings party, which looks set to make exactly the same "tactical voting" pitch that RISE did last time around. I've even had one or two people huffily announce that they are unfollowing me on Twitter for simply pointing out that "tactical voting on the list" doesn't magically become any more viable just because we're talking about a blog-based party rather than a radical left party.
Stuart Campbell himself, of course, warned of the dangers of misguided "tactical voting" in the run-up to the 2016 election. As I understand it, his explanation for changing his view comes in two parts. Firstly, he thinks that the result of the 2016 election changes the equation, because it demonstrates more clearly than before that list votes for the SNP are largely "wasted". And secondly, he believes the Wings party would be more mainstream and have much wider popular appeal than RISE or the Greens, and therefore sheer weight of numbers would ensure that vote-splitting isn't a problem, because the party would easily clear the de facto threshold of 5% or 6% for representation in each of the electoral regions it stands in.
The first point makes no sense at all, and the second point probably doesn't make much sense either. I say "probably", because I do have a couple of caveats to place on my doubts. There's a story in The National today based on a claim from an SNP "insider" that Alex Salmond is behind the plans for a Wings party. (The fact that something as paranoid-sounding as that is being said in private raises troubling questions about the extent to which the current SNP leadership have cast their popular former leader - who remains entirely innocent in the eyes of the law - out into the cold.) Stuart Campbell has strenuously denied the claim. However, it wouldn't be the first time in history that a denied story has turned out to have a grain of truth in it, so let's suppose for the sake of argument that Alex Salmond either led the Wings party or was one of its leading candidates. Would that make a difference? Of course it would. Alex Salmond is a hero for a huge number of independence supporters (myself included) and it's not at all difficult to imagine a new party in which he takes an active role securing a very healthy haul of list seats. But my question is this: in the unlikely event that Alex Salmond was looking outside the SNP for a route back into politics, does it seem plausible that he would choose the Wings party as his vehicle? I think he'd be more likely (and it would make more electoral sense) to build a new party around his own personal 'brand'. Theoretically, it's possible that he might be allowing someone else to make the running until legal proceedings against him are resolved one way or another. But my guess is that the SNP "insider" is probably just letting their imagination run away with them.
My second caveat is that there is at least one well-known international precedent for what Wings may be attempting to do. The Five Star Movement, which is currently the senior partner in the Italian coalition government, essentially started life as a blog. But there are a couple of key differences between Wings Over Scotland and the Beppe Grillo blog. The latter is written by a hugely familiar TV celebrity, and put forward a policy prospectus that was radically different from anything the existing parties had to offer. What is the gap in the market that a Wings party would be filling? As far as I can see it would basically be the SNP without gender self-ID and with more urgency on the independence issue. I'm not convinced those points of distinctiveness are sufficient to capture the public's imagination and to sweep the board on the list vote - or at least not without the backing of a public figure of Alex Salmond's stature (and to be honest that means Alex Salmond himself, because off the top of my head I can't think of any other public figure who would have the same effect).
Which takes me back to where I came in - the likelihood is that a Wings party would secure less than 5% of the vote in each electoral region, which means that any votes it does manage to take away from the SNP and the Greens would simply reduce the overall number of pro-indy seats in the Scottish Parliament. People struggle with this idea, but it's entirely conceivable that moderate success for the Wings party (by which I mean something like 3% of the list vote) could reduce the chances of retaining the pro-independence majority in Holyrood that we've had since 2011.
When I put that point to Stuart Campbell directly, he said that the SNP couldn't be harmed because they hardly had any list seats to lose (they have four at the moment). That's a sort of "truthy" observation that is going to sound like a killer point to people who don't really understand the voting system - and it therefore worries me greatly. I've been trying to think of a helpful analogy, and the best one I can come up with is this: saying that the SNP only have four list seats to lose is a bit like saying that Bill Gates only has $4.50 to lose because that's what he currently has in his pocket. List seats are distributed in a compensatory way to bring a party's overall representation in parliament up to roughly the level of its regional list vote. If the SNP had won fewer constituency seats in 2016, they would have won more list seats to compensate for that. So in fact the SNP could potentially lose up to dozens of their current seats on the list ballot next time around, because if the first-past-the-post element doesn't go their way to the same extent as in 2016, they would be relying on list votes to hold on to a healthy level of representation in parliament.
To see the truth of what I'm saying, you only need to look at the result of the 2011 election - which was, after all, the only occasion to date that the SNP have won an overall majority, and one of only two occasions to date that a pro-independence majority has been secured. How many list seats did the SNP win? Sixteen. I'll say that again: sixteen. If they hadn't won at least twelve of those, there wouldn't have been an SNP majority. And if the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald between them hadn't won at least eleven list seats, there wouldn't have been a pro-independence majority at all. Remember that, and in particular remember it the next time someone tells you the SNP don't need any list votes.
It's perfectly possible that 2021 could produce another 2011-style result, with the SNP taking fewer constituencies than in 2016 despite its popular vote holding up, which would make the result on the list absolutely critical. Some of the seats that the Tories took at Westminster in 2017 are still held by the SNP in Holyrood, so it's not hard to see where the constituency losses might occur if the Tories are riding high in eighteen months' time - and it's anyone's guess whether they will be, because much depends on whether Boris Johnson delivers Brexit on time and thus wins back the Tory votes lost to the Brexit Party in May's Euro election.
And it's also important not to lose sight of the worst-case scenario. What if the wheels come off and there is no chance at all of a pro-indy majority? What if there's a 2007-style result with a clear unionist majority in parliament, but there's still a chance of maintaining a minority SNP government? Would we really want to play silly buggers on the list, and make it easier for some sort of unionist coalition government to be cobbled together? Stuart's response to that scenario is "if that happens we're all screwed anyway", but I just don't take that 'win or bust' approach to life or to politics. A setback is a point on a spectrum, and it's important to keep the indy flame burning as brightly as possible.
Some have suggested that the threat of a Wings party might be a good thing if it helps the SNP leadership find a greater sense of urgency on independence, and actually I entirely accept that. But if the threat is actually carried through, then I fear that for some of the reasons George Kerevan outlined yesterday, it's bound to be a lose/lose for all concerned.