Friday, May 17, 2024

A plea to Alba: look before you leap

I was contacted today by a Scot Goes Pop reader who is very concerned that Alba have just selected a candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which was very narrowly won by the Liberal Democrats in 2019, but which apparently is notionally an SNP seat on the new boundaries.  He makes the point that "the chance of an independence candidate winning this large constituency is now diluted".  

Obviously as an Alba member I have to support Alba candidates once they've actually been selected, and I do, but as I said the other day, the priority has to be to urge the party to slow down and ideally stop the unveiling of more and more candidates in more and more constituencies.  There are already nine listed on the website, and I know of at least three more in the pipeline, who will presumably be announced tomorrow at the spring conference.  I hope it doesn't go much beyond that, and I'm mildly encouraged by this line in the weekly Alba email from Neale Hanvey: "what will be the first chance to see all of our ALBA Party General Election candidates in one place as they are announced".  That can possibly be interpreted as meaning that whoever is announced tomorrow will constitute the final tranche of candidates, and there won't be any more afterwards. That would be a welcome development. If a decision has been made to stand the minimum number of candidates to nab a party election broadcast, then OK, but don't cause needless harm to the independence cause and to Alba's good standing with Yes supporters by going way beyond that minimum.

I've heard two main arguments for why Alba will supposedly not cause harm by intervening in a first-past-the-post general election, but neither of them are remotely convincing.  Firstly, it's said that these are seats that the SNP are going to lose anyway.  Well, if elections really were that predictable, recent history would look radically different.  We knew Iain "the Snarl" Gray was going to be elected First Minister in 2011 until he wasn't.  We knew Remain were going to win the EU referendum until they didn't.  We knew Tyrannical Theresa was going to win a landslide majority in 2017 until she lost her majority altogether.  We may think it's unlikely that the SNP will recover sufficiently this year to become competitive in seats like Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but we certainly don't know that they won't.  If they do, and if Alba's intervention tips the balance and helps the Lib Dems hold on, there will plainly be a lot of disquiet among independence supporters and probably a greater reluctance to vote Alba on the list in 2026.

Secondly, it's argued that Alba will not be taking votes away from the SNP but will simply be picking up former SNP voters who would otherwise be going to Labour or abstaining.  That's just wishful thinking in my view.  Anyone who cares enough about independence to consider voting for a small party like Alba would be unlikely to vote Labour in the first place.  They might abstain, but if Alba are successful in picking up abstainers with a radical independence message, they'll almost certainly also pick up people who would otherwise be holding their nose and voting SNP.  And if those votes are taken away from the SNP column, unionist victories are undoubtedly made more likely.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A major polling silver lining for the SNP: their leader has a positive net rating, something that would have been unimaginable during the Yousaf leadership

As you'll probably have seen, the Redfield & Wilton poll over the weekend was poor for the SNP, but there were two notable silver linings.  Firstly, support for independence continues to hold up astonishingly well in the context of SNP decline.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 48% (-3)
No 52% (+3)

The apparent 3-point swing to No is almost certainly just margin of error noise, because the Yes lead in the previous poll was unusual for Redfield & Wilton, so we're probably just seeing a reversion to the mean. 48/52 or thereabouts has been fairly typical.

Perhaps even more important is that John Swinney has a positive net approval rating of +7.  That's pretty extraordinary if you think about it, because we've seen a number of polls over the last year in which every single politician asked about had a net negative rating.  Because perceptions of the leader are so important to election outcomes, that offers a glimmer of hope to the SNP.  Humza Yousaf consistently had dismal net ratings with Redfield & Wilton, so if anything, the assumption had to be that the SNP might perform worse under him than standard voting intentions suggested.  It's now at least possible to construct a scenario in which the moderately high regard that the public hold Swinney in could help the SNP perform better than the polls currently suggest.  The popularity of Kate Forbes should also help now that she's been made deputy in a blaze of publicity.

One important caveat is that the wording of the question about John Swinney was different from the one that has been used for Yousaf over the last year, so it may be that once people are asked about Swinney's actual performance as First Minister, he'll slip into negative territory.  However I doubt his ratings will be as bad as Yousaf's, and as I've said before, I'm pretty confident that when Redfield & Wilton start asking the head-to-head question about whether Swinney or Anas Sarwar would make the better First Minister, Swinney will hold a good lead.  It's also encouraging that 35% of respondents support Swinney becoming SNP leader and First Minister, with only 18% opposed.

I was asked on the previous thread whether Reform UK's 4% showing in the poll is implausible and therefore casts doubt on the rest of the results.  The simple answer is no.  There's been a consistency to the way Reform UK have crept upwards in recent Scottish polling, but they remain below their UK-wide numbers, which is what you'd expect based on how their predecessor parties performed.  Remember that Scotland proved itself perfectly capable of electing a UKIP MEP on one occasion, so there is a natural constituency for Reform here.  They could actually do the independence movement a favour by splitting the Tory vote and helping the SNP to win one or two key seats.

*  *  *

After the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, right-wing nutters were lauding the UK public for supposedly backing Israel, while left-wingers were bewildered and expressed disgust that the British people had indirectly backed a regime that is committing genocide.  The reality is that both groups are wrong, because the ordinary UK public probably had very little to do with the UK giving maximum points to Israel.  There was a determined internet advertising campaign, seemingly originating from the Israeli state itself, to persuade sympathisers across Europe to vote for the song up to twenty times each, which is the maximum allowed under the rules and would cost as little as £2.  The likelihood is that the vast majority of votes that Israel received in the UK came from a relatively small number of Israeli and American ex-pats, plus those politically sympathetic to Israel.  Just 2000 people could have generated as many as 40,000 votes, and remember with the non-political votes split between 25 different songs, it wouldn't necessarily have taken all that many votes to push Israel into the lead.

How would you prevent that kind of manipulation, which is tantamount to vote-rigging?  The obvious way would be to restrict each person (or each phone number) to only one vote.  But that would ruin the fun for a lot of people, myself included, who like voting for more than one song.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

In a first-past-the-post election, the way to further the cause of independence is to unite behind a single candidate in each constituency

There wasn't really an answer to those questions.  If I had worries about some Alba members in the early days (and I did), it was simply because of their views, either because they had unrealistically radical notions of how independence could be achieved, or because in a very small number of cases they were climate change deniers or whatever.  I also had a specific dispute with those who essentially wanted to exclude most English people resident in Scotland from the franchise for any future indyref.  But I don't think I ever suspected people of joining Alba for opportunistic or careerist reasons, which would have been absurd given that career prospects are obviously far healthier in a large party than in a small one.  (The only example anyone was able to come up with today of a genuine opportunist was Kamran Butt.)  Nor do I think the flurry of recent departures can be explained by people becoming frustrated that their dastardly opportunistic ambitions have been thwarted.  If you actually bother to listen to what the people who have left are saying, in a lot of cases they speak of a toxic culture of bullying, and can often supply convincing details of their claims.

But instead, history is being rewritten with an artificial narrative that "we're better off without these people, who were only in it for themselves".  And in spite of the innocent protestations today, I've heard variations on that line directed at Eva Comrie in particular, which really is crazy given that she gave up a plum spot at the top of the SNP list to join Alba.  I was on the Alba NEC with her for a year, and so I know how passionately committed she was to Alba's success, and how supportive she was of Alex Salmond personally.  If she had criticisms, they were always constructive ones intended to maximise the chances of Alba securing electoral victories.  As far as I could see, if she had driving ambitions, they were for Alba, and for Scotland, and for the independence cause, not for herself.  

I accept that no one person is bigger than any political party, but I do think Eva Comrie was valuable enough that the leadership should at least have seen if it was possible to open up a dialogue with her and address enough of her concerns to persuade her to reconsider her decision to leave.  And if there were one or two key people whose pride was standing in the way of that dialogue, well, they're not bigger than the party either.

But if we buy into this notion that Alba has shaken off the "undesirables" and has now been "distilled" (what a euphemism) into a smaller "dedicated team", what is the dedication towards?  What's the goal of this small vanguard party on which iron discipline is being imposed?  If it's to win list seats in 2026 and use that as leverage to help bring about independence, that would make absolutely perfect sense.  But the vote to bring down the SNP government a couple of weeks ago was not consistent with that interpretation, because it's likely to have alienated independence supporters who might otherwise have been tempted to give their list vote to Alba.  The same problem applies to the recent flurry of announcements of Alba candidates for the Westminster general election, which will be conducted under first-past-the-post, and thus any votes Alba take away from the SNP will simply help unionist parties win seats.

I make no bones about it - this is something I disagree with Eva Comrie about as much as I disagree with the Alba leadership.  With Labour on the verge of a major comeback, the independence movement needs to be united behind one candidate in each constituency in any first-past-the-post election.  It's extremely unfortunate that the SNP turned down the proposal for a cross-party Scotland United slate of candidates, but that boneheadedness is not an alibi for smaller pro-indy parties or independent candidates to behave destructively by splitting the vote in an emergency situation for our movement.  In my view, what should have happened, and what should still happen, is Alba and other small parties taking a leaf out of Tommy Sheridan's book.  In 2015, Solidarity didn't put up candidates in the general election, but made clear they would put up list candidates in the 2016 Holyrood election and in the meantime urged their supporters to vote for the SNP in the first-past-the-post election for the greater good of independence.  That was a unilateral decision - no deal with the SNP was required for Solidarity to do the right thing.

Over the weekend, Redfield & Wilton published a full-scale Scottish poll that showed the biggest Labour lead for Westminster so far - 

Labour 38% (+5)
SNP 31% (-1)
Conservatives 14% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-)
Greens 4% (+2)
Reform UK 4% (-1)
Alba 1% (-1)

What would that 1% for Alba actually achieve?  It's not going to win independence, but it may well gift one or two seats to Labour or even the Tories.  If that happens, many independence supporters may take note and withhold their list votes from Alba in 2026.  It would make much more sense to tell Alba supporters to bide their time until 2026, and to unite behind SNP candidates this year as the best chance of stopping Labour.  The Alba 1% suddenly can make a big difference if they're asked to use their votes to make a dent in Labour's seven-point lead over the SNP - to state the obvious, it would solve one-seventh of the problem, which is far from nothing.  

The logic of the situation might be different if the SNP were cruising to a landslide victory and independence supporters had the luxury of doing something different with their vote without causing any damage, but that's not where we are.  It's the total opposite of where we are.

So my advice to the Alba leadership is to slow down the rush to unveil Westminster candidates, and to give serious consideration to actively endorsing SNP candidates in the vast majority of constituencies.  That is without doubt the best strategy for keeping the independence cause alive.  There's not much use in having a tightly disciplined party if the imposed discipline is directed towards a counterproductive strategy or the wrong goal.  I'm not interested in Alba using the general election to settle old scores with John Swinney or with Nicola Sturgeon.  I'm only interested in achieving independence, and vote-splitting in a first-past-the-post election makes that less likely to happen, not more so.

I know that a lot of people won't like this blogpost, but if there was ever a moment where some home truths are urgently required, I'd suggest this is it.