Those of you who are on Twitter may have seen that I had a brief exchange with Pat Kane last night. Earlier in the day, Pat had said that he couldn't understand why Ash Regan would want to cast doubt on the integrity of an electoral process she was involved in. I thought that was an extremely peculiar remark, because it's actually very commonplace, the whole world over, for people to stand as candidates in electoral processes that they believe or suspect to be flawed in some way. That's generally the only way to bring reform about (short of a revolution), and you'd think that any progressive would understand that perfectly well.
A banal example is that if you think first-past-the-post is a rotten electoral system, you still have to stand in first-past-the-post elections, because it's only by winning power under the current system that you can introduce proportional representation. The suggestion that nobody can in good conscience stand in an election unless they have complete faith in the system ultimately betrays a deeply conservative worldview, because it seeks to exclude (or at least delegitimise) most of the real world options for seeking change. Eventually I responded to Pat, and the way I put it was that nobody would ever criticise the Belarussian opposition leader for standing in an election she believed to be flawed, and that having faith in how the SNP run internal elections is not a prerequisite for Ash Regan or for anyone else to think that they would make a good leader of the SNP, and thus to put themselves forward for that position.
Pat responded by implying that the mention of Belarus was further proof of the "derangement" of those who have queried the conduct of the leadership election. Then Gerry Hassan suddenly popped up out of nowhere, and made a series of what I can only describe as defamatory claims, including the utterly baseless suggestion that I had "made light" of the Belarussian people's suffering under a cruel regime. I hadn't even mentioned the Belarussian people. I must say it's instructive to see just how quickly - in fact instantaneously - a leading radical left intellectual will quite happily try to distract from the weakness of his own case with cynical and disreputable debating tactics that would shame even the rawest of student politicians.
In reality, a comparison with the flaws of the Belarussian electoral process is not a comparison with the wider activities of the regime. It's a comparison that does exactly what it says on the tin, no more and no less - and once you acknowledge that irrefutable fact, it becomes a much harder comparison to simply swat away. The subtext of the suggestions that Ash Regan and her followers are some kind of lunatic fringe is that we live in a free country, very unlike Belarus, and that it's therefore absurd or somehow "Trumpian" to imagine there's any chance that the conduct of the SNP leadership election is not spotless and beyond reproach. But that's a logical fallacy, because the UK's status as a free democracy rests on the conduct of elections to public office. Internal party elections do not fall into that category and are therefore not subject to the same standards, laws and rules.
Parties run internal elections themselves as they see fit. If there was outright vote-rigging, there would probably be legal redress available - as long as you could find proof, of course. But meeting the threshold for a free and fair election requires far more than simply the absence of vote-rigging. In the context of public elections, there are several criteria applied, such as independent oversight, fair access to the media for all candidates, and transparency in the way the votes are counted. What all of these points boil down to is one central question - is there any reasonable prospect of a transfer of power from the incumbents to their opponents if that is what a fair process might have resulted in?
A much-studied political phenomenon is the "one party dominant state", where multi-party elections occur, but where the same party always wins. Mexico was a prime example of that for many decades, and Russia is perhaps the best example now. The process is managed by systems of patronage, and by starving opposition candidates of fair access to the media. Vote-rigging does not generally occur, but there always remains the open question of what the government might resort to if the more informal safeguards on its power start to fail.
In the context of the SNP leadership election, Humza Yousaf represents the incumbent faction. That does not mean, of course, that Yousaf has to lose for the outcome to be democratic - it's perfectly possible that he could win because he is the best candidate or because his ideas resonate most. But because the playing field is self-evidently not level, there will remain a question mark on whether the ruling faction would ever be prepared to relinquish power in line with democratic principles, and that question will stay unresolved until such time in the future that a transfer of power occurs.
I'd invite you to look carefully at a list on Wikipedia setting out ten broad categories of things that must be present for an election to qualify as "free and fair". Pretty much all of them are present in elections to public office in the UK, which is why we consider ourselves to live in a reasonably free country. And, in fairness, most of them are present in the SNP leadership election too - but there are, unfortunately, a number of gaps. For example..."whether election-related laws were not changed immediately before an election"
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