So just a quick recap for anyone coming to this discussion late. Last night, Craig Murray published a blogpost arguing that if the next Westminster election is not a genuine plebiscite election (I'll have more to say later about how he's choosing to define "not a genuine plebiscite election"), the Alba Party should stand candidates against the SNP in every single Scottish constituency - even though he freely concedes that this would split the pro-independence vote in a first-past-the-post election and probably lead to unionist parties needlessly gaining seats from the SNP. A few hours later, I wrote a blogpost of my own explaining why I thought Craig's proposal was crazy, and today Craig has written a reply to my reply. This is my reply to his reply to my reply - and hopefully you'll indulge me for posting about the subject again, because Craig has asked me a number of specific questions which I think should receive an answer.
First of all, let me reciprocate the respect Craig extended to me in the opening remarks of his reply. Craig is someone who gave up a glittering diplomatic career and ultimately even served several months in prison because he repeatedly refused to compromise on his principles. That's something that must command tremendous admiration, and it's unlikely that most of us could honestly say we'd be similarly brave in the same circumstances. He's also a lifelong proponent of independence for our country, and a fearless defender of human rights in all parts of the world.
Turning to the substance of his reply, I'm going to start with the seemingly bewildered observation he makes at the very end, because it's so wide of the mark that it made me laugh slightly -
"I am genuinely perplexed as to why James left the SNP at all if he wished to campaign for them. I certainly will not myself remain in the Alba party if it sees itself as not a real alternative for Independence, but simply a bolt-on to the SNP for the Holyrood list vote elections."
I'm not sure Craig has thought this through, because presumably he and I both joined the Alba Party at roughly the same time, ie. shortly after its public launch in the spring of 2021. In doing so, we were both joining a party that had in its mission statement from day one a commitment to campaign for SNP first-past-the-post candidates. It fully honoured that commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election - the leaflets, the party election broadcast, the public statements from the party leadership were all crystal-clear that people should vote SNP in the first-past-the-post ballot. Alba's intention was not to destroy the SNP or even to harm them, but instead to augment the pro-indy representation they were able to deliver on the constituency ballot, and to make it more pluricentric.
So the real question is for Craig: if he doesn't want to be part of a party that behaves in that way, why did he join one? Why didn't he instead join a party committed to campaigning against SNP first-past-the-post candidates, or at the very least a party that was neutral on whether people should vote SNP in the first-past-the-post ballot? "Simply a bolt-on to the SNP for the Holyrood list vote elections" is a needlessly pejorative way of putting it, but yes, Alba launched as a strictly list-only party for Holyrood, following the example set by other parties that intended to stand only on the list, such as Action for Independence and Independence for Scotland. That was absolutely fundamental to my rationale for joining, as it was for a great many others - I would have had no interest whatever in joining a different sort of party that was trying to burn the whole house down by splitting the pro-indy vote in the first-past-the-post ballot.
The only way Craig's comment might make some kind of sense would be if he's hinting that the list-only nature of Alba (designed to produce a pro-independence "supermajority", if you recall) was simply a ruse to get the party off the ground during the first few weeks, and that the true purpose of the party was always to try to harm the SNP, even if that meant a reduction in pro-independence representation at Westminster and Holyrood. If that is what Craig is getting at, I simply cannot and do not accept that it's true. The Alba leadership are people of tremendous integrity and I do not believe for a moment that they would have coaxed people into defecting from the SNP on a false prospectus. They inspired us with a vision of a list-only party that would build on the SNP's electoral success rather than attempting to tear it down, and I'm sure that's exactly what they intended to deliver.
Let's ensure that Alba stays true to those exhilarating founding principles, because make no mistake: what Craig and others are proposing is that the party should mutate into something radically different. It's not only card-carrying Alba members like me who will feel they've been left stranded if that happens - a number of people who enthusiastically voted Alba on the list in 2021 have left comments on Scot Goes Pop over the last couple of weeks saying that they wouldn't vote for the party now, due to the alarming recent chatter (especially at the party conference last month) about potential vote-splitting interventions in first-past-the-post Westminster elections. Given that Alba only received less than 2% of the list vote last year, it may be hard to imagine the party actually losing support, but if we follow Craig any further down the road he's suggesting, we could be in for a nasty shock.
Craig asks how, other than by standing against the SNP in first-past-the-post elections, Alba will ever "get a platform to point out the SNP are not a real Independence party". I don't accept that is the current aim, but even if you think it should be, the answer to the question is pretty straightforward - you simply do what Alba was founded to do. You stand and make your case in elections that are conducted by voting systems that don't punish a split pro-indy vote. You sit out the elections where it would be extremely damaging to intervene. Both the Holyrood list ballot and local government elections are conducted by proportional representation, and that's plenty enough for Alba to be getting on with.
I think it's actually extremely helpful and honest of Craig to set out the downsides of standing against the SNP in Westminster elections - he accepts that we'd be resigning ourselves to a very long process before we'd have any realistic chance of achieving the goal of independence, and that along the way we'd probably be gifting SNP-held seats to unionist parties such as Labour. That usefully confronts people with the grim realities of vote-splitting under first-past-the-post. I've had the impression that until now quite a lot of people have thought it's some sort of free lunch.
Craig asks me: "for how many decades is he prepared to assert that we should vote for SNP MPs, who will never make any move for Independence?" Again, I think the real question here is for Craig: by prematurely giving up on any hope that the SNP leadership can be pressurised or shamed into genuine action, how many decades in the wilderness is he prepared to risk consigning the independence cause to? Three? Four? Five? More? Because if we cross the Rubicon and decide the SNP should be destroyed, there's no going back. We can't have buyer's remorse five years down the line just because we start wondering if maybe, just maybe, the massive advantage of having an SNP majority in the Scottish contingent at Westminster was something we didn't explore the full potential of. Once it's gone, once we've helped to destroy it, it's gone for good.
Craig takes particular exception to my assessment that Alba would almost certainly be "humiliated" if it stood in a UK general election. He points out that he has personally stood in two parliamentary by-elections, receiving 5% and 2.7% of the vote respectively, and didn't feel remotely humiliated, because he'd had the chance to air his views in a free democratic process. I think this is an argument over semantics, because the point I was making was that the vote Alba can expect to receive would be extremely low - and in fact I think it would be much lower than 2.7%. Whether that's "humiliating" or not is in the eye of the beholder, but that doesn't change the substance of the point - if you receive a derisory vote, then a) you're not achieving your objectives, and b) you're suffering a monumental psychological setback that in the worst case scenario might finish the party off.
I'm going to have to take issue with the way Craig characterises the basic difference between his views and mine. He suggests that we only disagree about what should happen if the next Westminster election is not a genuine plebiscite election, and that we are fully in agreement that Alba should not stand against the SNP if a real plebiscite election occurs. But the problem is that Craig's notion of what constitutes a real plebiscite election is much narrower than mine. He seems to think the only thing that would qualify is an election in which the SNP promise in advance to declare UDI if they win a majority of seats. Indeed, if I'm reading him correctly, he seems to suggest that anyone who doesn't support such a declaration shouldn't be considered a true independence supporter. By that definition, even I would be excluded from the ranks of "real Yessers" because I think UDI would be wildly premature in those circumstances.
What makes a genuine plebiscite election different from previous elections is that if you win a majority of the popular vote, you declare that you have a mandate for independence. Not a mandate for a referendum but a mandate for independence itself. You then demand that the UK government negotiate an independence settlement. You certainly don't demand that they negotiate the terms of a referendum, because a referendum would no longer be required. If they flatly refuse to negotiate or to acknowledge your mandate over a prolonged period, you might eventually start thinking about UDI as a potential tactic, but that would be a last resort, not the first recourse.
Craig chides me for setting up what he calls a straw man by implying that he thinks Alba could win seats or overtake the SNP at the next general election. But in fact it wasn't a straw man, because the words I used were not "at the next general election" but "any time soon". Craig makes clear that he thinks, based on the Irish precedent, that Alba could overtake the SNP within around twelve years - well, to me, that is very much covered by "any time soon". I said to Yvonne Ridley earlier today that I thought a plausible timescale would be more like twenty or thirty years, and even after that length of time it would be a long shot.
Think about the mountain Alba would have to climb to overtake the SNP, even in the very long term. The biggest issue is the success of the SNP and the mainstream media (especially the BBC) in thoroughly toxifying the Alba brand last year by cynically connecting it to memories of Alex Salmond's trial, and to an acquittal which they seemed to regard as a meaningless technicality. That's not such a problem for as long as Alba's aim is to win a wedge of seats under proportional representation, because a significant minority of the public remain sympathetic to Mr Salmond. But it becomes a huge problem as soon as you set yourself the far, far more ambitious target of becoming the majority party. You'd need huge numbers of voters who at the moment hold Alba and its leader in complete disdain.
OK, at the end of Craig's twelve year period, Alex Salmond might no longer be leader (he'd be 79 years old by then), but we shouldn't regard that as a magical solution, because a change of leader - inevitable though it is in the long run - may cause more problems than it solves. If there's one thing more dangerous for a small party than getting negative publicity, it's being totally ignored by the media, and that could well happen as soon as Mr Salmond departs the scene.
An alternative scenario is that the SNP's supremacy could yet be seriously challenged by a much stronger "post-Alba force". Perhaps there'll be a second wave of defectors from the SNP, but instead of going straight to Alba, they might set up a wholly new party to avoid any baggage. Perhaps there would then be a merger with Alba to create a big tent party under a fresh name. But that's all very speculative, because it may be that Alba's failure to achieve the instant success many expected will prove to be a deterrent in future, and that as a result disgruntled SNP parliamentarians may instead seek to achieve change from within.
Finally, on a point of semi-pedantry (I say 'semi' because it does make a touch of difference to the substance of the debate), Craig has given a false impression about the recent Panelbase poll. It did not, in fact, suggest that Alba would take 4% of the Westminster vote - that was the Holyrood list vote. Alba were actually shown to be on 2% of the Westminster vote, and even that has to be seen in the context that Panelbase have tended to produce better numbers for Alba than any other polling firm.
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