Remarkably, the debate over the wisdom of the proposed Wings party is still raging after the best part of a week, and it's started to take on a noticeably 'harder' tone. Many of Wings' keenest supporters already seem to be identifying as partisans of an electoral force that doesn't, we should recall, actually exist yet. That means they're instantly taking offence at any hint of scepticism towards the proposed party, and in some cases at anything that falls short of total enthusiasm. Every time I log onto Twitter now, there are dozens of new notifications that tend to fall into three broad categories: people are either irate that I don't accept that a Wings party can successfully game the Holyrood electoral system, or they're professing incredulity that I could possibly think that way, or they're trolling me about it.
This was one of the comments I found particularly exasperating -
"Why don’t you try & find a way that will work. That would be of help, rather than it will nae work"
To remove any doubt that she was trolling, she added a 'crying with laughter' emoticon to the end of her tweet. But actually it's me who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at comments of that sort (and there have been a good few of them). They imply that it's somehow imperative that the Wings proposal be made to work, because it's the solution to a problem that has to be addressed, and that it must be possible to make it work with sophisticated number-crunching and strategising.
Both of those assumptions are misplaced. In fact, the Wings party is a solution in search of a problem that as of yet doesn't exist. We have a pro-independence majority at the moment, we've had it for eight years, and current polling suggests that we're on course to hold onto it. Of course the polling situation can change between now and May 2021 (and it can change for either the worse or the better), but the time for highly risky, panicky measures is when we actually have something to panic about.
And there's no Baldrick-style cunning plan that can be devised to make the plan work, because the problem I and others have identified is a very basic one - that the Wings party is unlikely to have enough popular support to win list seats in any region. That being the case, any list votes it takes will simply make it harder for other pro-indy parties to win list seats (and by extension easier for unionist parties to win list seats). There's nothing I can do about a basic shortfall in the required number of votes - other than winning the lottery and helping to pay for Wings billboard ads. Remember that the broadcasters will feel able to largely ignore the Wings party because there's no evidence of significant support in previous elections. There'll almost certainly be no invitation to leaders' debates. The newspapers may give the party an occasional mention, but only in an attempt to whip up mischief. Social media will therefore have to carry the weight of any campaigning, which is a tough ask when the party won't have an especially distinctive policy platform (except on gender self-ID).
Stuart Campbell has pointed out that we don't yet know exactly what the potential level of support for the party is, and that he'll be conducting more opinion polling before making a decision about whether to stand candidates on the list. That's fair enough, but when this polling appears, I would urge people to look closely at the format of the question before getting carried away with the results. Questions along the lines of "how likely would you be to vote for Party X?" are notorious for producing wildly misleading results.
The classic example was in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood election, when Archie Stirling used his wealth to set up a new centre-right party called Scottish Voice. (I know very little about Archie Stirling other than that he's the father of actress Rachael Stirling, who dutifully came out in support of the doomed party.) He commissioned a YouGov poll that supposedly showed that 21% of the electorate would consider voting for the party, and on that basis managed to convince the newspapers to breathlessly report that Scottish Voice was on course for 20+ list seats and maybe even the balance of power. In the event, of course, Archie didn't even trouble the scorer - he took just 0.1% of the constituency vote and 0.3% of the list vote, and didn't come within light-years of taking any seats.
How could a poll be so misleading? Basically if you ask about a party in isolation, people will think "well, I'm a reasonable person, this party sounds fine, of course I would consider voting for it". But when they see the name of that party in a menu of options, it gets lost in the crowd and they instead focus on the party they prefer the most. We saw the same problem earlier this year with polls offering wildly inflated suggestions about the electoral potential of Change UK. Other polls that asked "if the Independent Group stood in the next election, who would you vote for?" produced somewhat more realistic results, but I think they were still problematical because they artificially drew people's attention to the new party in the question's preamble.
For my money, to get a meaningful sense of how well a Wings party might do, a poll would need to ask...
If the following parties stood on the regional list ballot, who would you vote for?
Scottish National Party (SNP)
Wings Over Scotland
If 5% or more of voters selected Wings unprompted on a robust question of that sort, then we might not necessarily be looking at a suicide mission. And if 15% said they would vote Wings, then Stuart might be on to something. I don't think that would be the result of such a poll, but realistically that's the test.
* * *
Stuart has been protesting over the last couple of days that he isn't trying to "game" the Holyrood voting system, and that standing candidates in a democratic election isn't "gaming" the system. The latter point is strictly speaking true - standing candidates on the list isn't in itself an act of trying to game the system, but it becomes one if 90% of your pitch to the voters is about gaming the system! I defy anyone to read Stuart's posts on the subject and conclude that isn't what he's trying to do. For the most part he hasn't been talking about policy but about tactical voting - about how the number of pro-indy MSPs can supposedly be increased by voting SNP on the constituency ballot but switching to Wings on the list.
To me, this is an academic point, because I would have no moral objection to gaming the system if I thought for one moment it was actually going to work. But words do have meanings, and yes, the Wings party would be a clear attempt to game the system and win a bigger number of pro-indy seats than the size of the pro-indy vote would normally warrant.