I concluded my previous blogpost by saying that one of two things will happen from here: either the SNP-Green government will honour its solemn commitment to hold an independence referendum next year, or it won't. And if it doesn't, the likelihood is that many newly-disillusioned SNP activists, members and voters will be on the search for a new political home. The chances are that home will be Alba, despite that party's disappointing results in the local elections. And with as little as a couple of extra percentage points of support, Alba could find itself on course to have its first MSPs elected in 2026. The SNP leadership will have naturally worked through that logic for themselves, which may explain their rather frantic attempts since polling day to weave a narrative that Alba is totally finished. (All of the above has to be taken with the caveat that any small party can only survive and thrive with the continued support and enthusiasm of its members.)
So even without having won any seats in the two elections it has fought so far, Alba is continuing to apply a measure of pressure on the SNP simply by continuing to exist, because that constitutes the potential for an electoral threat at future elections if the SNP fail to deliver an indyref. Nevertheless, it would obviously have been far more optimal for Alba if that electoral threat was already playing out as a reality in the here-and-now, rather than remaining a hypothetical for the future. SNP leadership loyalists have come out of the local elections with the most they could have hoped for, and everything they said they wanted - the SNP won the election, they made gains in the election, and they don't have a batch of newly-elected Alba councillors as a tangible manifestation of the independence movement's growing frustration with the endless sense of drift at the top.
But that does now leave those loyalists looking rather naked. Perhaps they should have been careful what they wished for. They said the SNP would deliver a referendum in 2023 without needing any external pressure to hurry the process on. That proposition is now quite simply going to be proved right or wrong, with no middle options in between, because the SNP have the means and the electoral momentum to hold a 2023 indyref, but they don't have any external pressure (other than Alba's simple continued existence) keeping them honest. They'll either keep their word on their own initiative, or they won't. They'll get all the credit they could ever want for honouring their commitment, or every bit of the blame they deserve for breaking it.
There is one extremely well-known SNP loyalist blogger who has practically staked his entire credibility and reputation on the notion that the Scottish Government's promise to hold a referendum next year can be taken absolutely literally, without qualifications or conditions - it's simply something that is going to happen, because the SNP leadership have said it's going to happen. To my mind, the only real question is at what point that blogger will start the process of shifting the goalposts, because if he doesn't get his skates on, he won't be able to do it gradually enough for his readers not to notice what he's up to. There are less than eight months to go until 2023 begins, and less than twenty months until it finishes. Preparation for the inevitable excuses and get-out clauses can't be put off forever. My guess is that we'll see yet another variant of the old favourite: "Of course the SNP would have held a referendum in 2023 if it hadn't been for totally unforeseeable event X, but nobody in their right minds would expect them to go ahead while X is happening - have you taken leave of your senses? Once X is out of the way, though, we can be assured of a referendum in 2027, that's an absolute guarantee, and only the most appalling cynic would think an absolute guarantee can't be taken at face value."
Alba can't stop the promise of a 2023 indyref from being betrayed. Our job is instead to snap people out of their trance and to make them notice what is happening. The election counts on Friday gave an opportunity for Alba and SNP people to mix, and anecdotally, a significant number of SNP activists confided that the 2023 date was a line in the sand for them, and that if it wasn't kept, they'd either move over to Alba or at least give up on the current SNP leadership. We must constantly remind them of that line in the sand over the next year-and-a-half, rather than allowing them to be incrementally beaten down into accepting inaction on the basis that: "well, as long as we're still making progress towards a referendum..." (Once again, I'd recommend seeking out the early 1980s Doctor Who story Full Circle, in which a population is told by their leaders to keep 'repairing' and 'preparing' a spaceship with the aim of returning to their home planet several decades later. "Towards the embarkation!" is the rallying call. At the end of the story, you discover that the leaders have known all along that the spaceship is in perfect working order, but they maintained the pretence that it needed decades of repairs because they didn't actually know how to fly it.)
It's entirely conceivable that Alba will find itself with local councillors once again, long before the 2027 elections, because many of the newly elected or re-elected SNP councillors are serious about independence and may defect if they're strung along too much further. I wouldn't even rule out Alba having an MSP or two before the 2026 Holyrood election for the same reason. But once again, I want to caution Alba against doing anything counter-productive at the 2024 Westminster general election. Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill are incumbent MPs, and thus have every right to seek re-election if they wish to do so. But if Alba stand in any of the other constituencies, all we'll succeed in doing is taking a small percentage off the SNP's vote in first-past-the-post contests. If that leads to the SNP losing seats to unionist parties, a mythology will spring up that Alba are the unionists' "little helpers". We must be smart enough not to walk into that trap, and keep our brand untainted for the real opportunity in 2026. In any case, if we don't stand in any of the Westminster seats we don't currently hold, we'll be able to pour all our resources into the two that we do, thus increasing the chances of successfully defending those seats. It really would be the best of both worlds - or a way of avoiding getting the worst of all worlds.
Because of BBC Scotland's astonishing failure to cover the local elections, I found myself watching quite a bit of BBC Northern Ireland's Assembly results programme, and I was struck once again by how startlingly civilised Ulster politics can be at times. You had unionist politicians sincerely commiserating with nationalist politicians for losing their seats (and vice versa), and singing the praises of their opponents' personal qualities. Contrast that with the sheer hatred - that word is not too strong - that some SNP and Green supporters displayed on social media towards pro-independence Alba candidates, as they took unadulterated delight at those candidates suffering defeats and severe personal setbacks. Nor was this ugly phenomenon confined to a few foolish young foot-soldiers. Nicola Sturgeon herself used somewhat dehumanising language about Alba members when she unconvincingly tried to tell the media that she had seen voters in her own constituency "visibly wince" upon receiving Alba leaflets because they found the people involved in the party to be so unappealing. (If you think for a moment about the circumstances in which the First Minister might actually see anyone look at an Alba leaflet, it's highly likely that she was talking about her own friends and fellow travellers. I dare say there are quite a few supporters of other parties in Southside who "visibly winced" upon receiving a Mhairi Hunter leaflet, but sadly Ms Sturgeon wouldn't have been around to witness that.)
The implication is that Alba, and uniquely Alba, are composed of freaks. Ms Sturgeon doesn't use that kind of language about her unionist opponents - with Tory and Labour people, it's always "as much as I strongly disagree with his/her views, I have enormous respect for him/her as an individual and I admire the way that he/she stands up for his/her constituents". It's a bit disingenuous to claim to live by a "be kind" principle when you selectively apply it only to the people you don't actually hate.
But amid all this anti-Alba bile, the boot was at one point briefly and unexpectedly on the other foot. Mhairi Hunter, probably the least popular SNP councillor among Alba members (in fact it's no exaggeration to say that the views Hunter espouses effectively sum up why Alba needs to exist) lost her seat out of the blue. There was a degree of jubilation in some quarters, and as unedifying as that was, SNP members didn't have any credibility in criticising it, given the way that some of them had been dancing on the graves of defeated Alba candidates all day long. It was particularly ironic that Hunter blamed her defeat on a strong vote for Alba and the Greens - because of course Hunter's ward is in Nicola Sturgeon's constituency, the place where voters are supposed to "visibly wince" when they receive Alba literature. It turns out, in fact, that Alba are more popular in Nicola Sturgeon's backyard than anywhere else in Scotland. They received a remarkable 8% of the first preference vote in Hunter's ward.
So why did Alba do so well in Southside Central? I asked someone in the know, and it appears there was a combination of factors at play. Alba's campaigning was superior to many other wards in Scotland because the team was large enough in number to do full-on face-to-face campaigning, rather than confining themselves mostly to leaflet drops. But there was also dissatisfaction locally with Nicola Sturgeon's failure to deliver for her own patch, with a perception that parts of her constituency that had once been relatively prosperous are now going backwards. And Mhairi Hunter herself is personally unpopular, perhaps in part due to the very sense of entitlement she betrayed after her defeat.
A further clue can be gleaned from how Alba's votes transferred after their candidate Kamran Butt (by all accounts a superb candidate) was eliminated. The good news is that the majority of the votes did transfer, so Alba voters were mostly heeding the 'vote till you boak' advice. But the destination of those transfers was really startling. Just over 40% went to SNP candidates, while more than 54% went to Labour. That suggests Alba's success hinged to a large extent on reaching out to parts of the electorate that the SNP simply don't appeal to. Whatever Mhairi Hunter may think, these are not voters that would have been 'owned' by her in the absence of an Alba candidate - they would instead have been first preference Labour votes in many cases. Alba succeeded in growing the collective support for pro-indy parties - something the SNP should actually be thanking us for.
And, incidentally, even to the limited extent that Alba voters would have otherwise voted for the SNP on first preferences, they still wouldn't have voted for Hunter personally. She received an astoundingly poor 8.4% of Alba transfers, compared to 31.7% for the other SNP candidate, Alexander Belic. That can be partly explained by Belic having the alphabetical advantage over Hunter on the ballot paper, but I doubt if that's the whole explanation. Hunter should just be grateful that she received any Alba transfers at all, because at least Alba told their voters to rank all pro-independence candidates - the polar opposite of what the SNP did, let's not forget.
Incidentally, a freakish statistical curiosity occurred in the ward - the Green candidate Elaine Gallagher just happened to land on the exact quota of 1544 votes when she was elected, meaning there were no Green surplus votes to transfer. So we'll never know whether Hunter is as unpopular with Green voters as she is with Alba voters.
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I see that Ballot Box Scotland has responded to people calling him out on his rather daft anti-Alba propaganda. He's now arguing that it's perfectly reasonable to calculate Alba's national vote share by assigning them zero per cent of the vote in the two-thirds of the wards they didn't stand in, because other parties didn't stand in all of the wards either, and he's calculating their national vote by exactly the same method. Hmmm. The snag is, Mr Faulds, as you know perfectly well, that those other parties stood in a far, far higher percentage of the wards, and you're therefore not producing a like-for-like comparison. Any analysis you base on that comparison is therefore bound to be intellectually dishonest - especially when you deliberately conceal from readers how the calculation was made.