Scottish Conservative supporters should not vote for ‘All for Unity’

5 Apr

When Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, his message to Nationalist voters was simple: if everyone who casts their ballot for the SNP in the constituencies throws their vote behind another separatist party in the regional lists, they can game the system and create a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the Scottish Parliament.

He’s not the first to have this idea. Alba immediately annexed another outfit called Action for Independence which was set up with the same intention. Apparently Labour occasionally mulled standing the Co-operative Party in the lists during the era of their hegemony. It’s a poor electoral system that allows such a thing.

Now there are plenty of reasons for nationalists to be wary of this plan. The demands of a ‘supermajority’ yielded by actively disenfranchising unionist voters won’t carry any moral force with the Government, and may even provide cover for Westminster imposing a supermajority requirement on a future independence vote. It could also prevent the SNP winning an overall majority in their own right, which would also undermine Nicola Sturgeon in any face-off with Boris Johnson.

But the basic mathematics of Alba’s proposition is basically correct. The SNP are so dominant in the first-past-the-post constituencies that, outwith the Borders, their list vote is punitively inefficient.

This is not true for the pro-Union parties. Which is why George Galloway’s plan for the Alliance for Unity – known for electoral purposes as ‘All for Unity’ – to serve as an anti-separatist (Jamie Blackett, who made their case on this site, says they are ‘not unionists’) version of Alba makes no sense. Let’s look at why.

‘Unionist unity’ hurts the Union

A4U’s proposal was that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats should put aside their differences and strike a grand bargain to divvy up the constituency seats between them. Then, in order to maximise the efficiency of the pro-UK vote in the lists, they all stand aside for the proportional ballot in favour of A4U.

Let’s start with the most basic problem: there is scant evidence that this would work even if it were possible. Time and again, from the 2019 general election to many council by-elections, voters for the main parties have proved deeply resistant to that sort of tactical voting. The Tories in particular struggle to win transfers in the multi-round system used for local government in Scotland. Labour shedding voters to the SNP cost the Conservatives seats at the general election.

Thus crude calculations about what seats could be won if only there was a pro-Union pact, based on just adding up the combined main-party vote in a given seat, are nonsense. The total pro-UK electorate is in no way a fungible ‘unionist vote’, and it is maximised by offering voters – including those for whom the constitution is not top priority – a variety of options.

By contrast, any united option would presumably disagree on economic and social issues and thus be stuck focusing on the constitution, the one issue it is least likely to win over voters from the SNP on, and steer unionism into the cul-de-sac it’s trapped itself in in Northern Ireland. It remains as bad an idea now as it ever was.

‘Unionist unity’ is undeliverable

But even if this weren’t the case, the proposal is obviously a non-starter. The difficulty the Liberal and Social Democratic parties had divvying up seats in the 1980s would be nothing compared to the acrimonious circus that three-way negotiations over the constituencies would be. At the very least, any chance of appearing less divided and more focused on the real issues than the separatist side would be squandered.

Nor was it ever realistic to expect that the main parties would cede to A4U the lists, where they win nearly all their seats. Even had any of their leaders been addled enough to consider it, they would not have survived signing up to a plan whose most likely outcome was simply the mass replacement of their MSPs with A4U ones. Put bluntly, such proposals were very obviously in A4U’s interests but nobody else’s.

How A4U will hurt the unionist cause

Any concern that the above interpretation might be overly cynical should be dispelled by party’s conduct. Had the plan been advanced in good faith, one might have expected Galloway, Blackett et al to reconsider once the necessary conditions for its success were not achieved.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead A4U is still planning to fight the lists. As James Kanagasooriam has pointed out, they are currently polling just below the threshold at which minor parties start to pick up seats, meaning they’re just going to make it harder to elect pro-Union MSPs and shorten the odds for Alba and the (also separatist) Greens. If they do pick up seats, it will almost certainly just be at the expense of an MSP from a unionist party, rather than a separatist. As Scotland in Union puts it:

“Modelling of the Scottish electoral system suggests that if the share of pro-UK voters supporting minor parties instead of the established parties doubles, the SNP could hang on to a majority of MSPs with as little as 34% of list votes, three full percentage points lower than if all pro-UK voters voted for one of the big three.”

As the force of this reasoning becomes harder and harder to escape, those who have committed themselves to A4U have started to abandon the pretensions of a tactical masterplan. Instead, it’s now all about ousting unionism’s tired has-beens in favour of fresh blood, which Galloway can lead to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’, whatever that means.

In reality, they will have no obvious way to land more blows on a disciplined separatist majority in Holyrood than the traditional parties. Nor will it obviously benefit the pro-UK cause to have as divisive a figure as Galloway become the public face of opposition to the SNP, no matter how high his standing amongst the unionist hard core.

What to do

After decades in retreat, it is understandable that unionist voters are frustrated and looking for options. Nor is the rise of challengers always a bad thing – the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, for example, offers a coherent and under-represented position to the electorate, expands the unionist coalition somewhat, and has already sparked a necessary and overdue realignment on the part of the Welsh Conservatives.

All for Unity are not cast in this mould. Individual good ideas such as a Clarity Act do not justify their existence (and that would in any case be the business of Westminster). Their deliberate construction as a broad-church ‘alliance’ probably prohibits them from doing anything too distinctive, apart from hawking the easy-mode nationalist ‘unionism’ of cutting off awkward connections to national politics. All they seem set to do is get committed unionist voters to cast their ballots in a deeply inefficient way.

They aren’t the only party compromising the cause’s best interests to scare up the vote – some Scottish Tories are doing the same by legitimising the idea that a victory for Sturgeon next month means another referendum, undermining the Prime Minister’s right of refusal. But they have much longer odds of making a constructive contribution. As in almost nil.

So for any Tory voters reading this and wondering how to cast their vote, it’s simple. If you’re minded to vote tactically, head over to Scotland in Union’s calculator, put in your postcode, and back the strongest pro-Union candidate in your constituency. If not, and always in the lists, vote Conservative and Unionist.

Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Henry Hill: Reserving control of ‘level playing field’ provisions to Westminster should be just the first step

16 Jul

Government’s fight over post-Brexit powers is late, but welcome

The big constitutional story this week is the news that the Government is squaring up to the devolved administrations over control of vital ex-EU powers.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson intends to retain control over ‘level playing field’ provisions and state aid at Westminster, in order to prevent different parts of the United Kingdom undermining each other. This has revived specious claims by Edinburgh and Cardiff that London is engaged in a ‘power grab’, seizing powers which are rightfully theirs.

The Scottish Conservatives have come out fighting for the pro-UK position: Ruth Davidson has penned an op-ed in the Evening Standard supporting the move. Douglas Ross, who recently resigned from the Scottish Office, challenged the SNP on this basis:

“If it is a power grab there most be powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament, enacted by the Scottish Government on behalf of the people of Scotland that we the UK Government are taking away.”

Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and now head of Downing Street’s Union Unit, has taken the same line: that these powers have never been devolved (indeed Holyrood was only established after many were already vested in Brussels), so there is no attack on devolution.

This is a welcome shift in position. During the pivotal clash over the misnamed “post-Brexit devolved powers” in 2017 and 2018, several leading Scottish Tories were at the forefront of the campaign to force the Government to scrap the part of the Withdrawal Bill safeguarding ex-EU powers in Westminster. Indeed, senior MSPs lent credence to the ‘power grab’ claim.

Defenders of Section 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, as-was, advanced detailed arguments about the dangers posed by ceding powers necessary to harmonise a common market below the highest level of political authority in that market, and were met with little more than airy rhetoric about the “spirit of devolution”.

Whilst some, such as the Institute for Government, believe the new, more centralised approach is “not a sustainable long-term strategy”, in fact the reverse is true.

It is not sustainable to continue trying to deliver pan-UK rules whilst bending over backwards to avoid our pan-UK institutions setting and enforcing them. It should be taken as read that any devolved administration committed to breaking up Britain will exploit any opportunity to foul up the proper functioning of the UK common market, whether that be through setting different standards or exploiting new consultation and dispute-resolution mechanisms as platforms for grievance.

Any power previously exercised at the EU level should, by default, be executed at the UK level. They were, after all, passed upwards for a reason. Ministers should re-acquaint themselves with the arguments over Section 11, and consider casting their powers net much wider yet.

Separatists attempt to game Holyrood elections with new party

An ex-SNP MSP has set up a new pro-independence party, with the aim of hugely inflating the number of separatist MSPs returned at the next Holyrood elections.

STV reports that the Alliance for Independence anticipates that it might win up to 24 MSPs by running exclusively for the Scottish Parliament’s ‘list’ constituencies.

Under the Scottish electoral system, voters cast two ballots: one for their geographical first-part-the-post constituency, and another for a regional list. When the parties contest both, the list vote is used to ‘top up’ those parties which under-performed under FPTP and ensure something resembling a proportional outcome.

But if the Alliance for Independence only contest list seats, and SNP voters lend it their support en masse, it could result in the ‘official Nationalists’ winning most of the constituencies and the ‘unofficial nationalists’ a huge share of the list, resulting in a chamber in which the unionist parties were seriously under-represented compared to their vote.

Some commentators, such as Kenny Farquharson, have argued that this would undermine the legitimacy of the resulting parliament – a possible boon to the Government if it truly intends to resist calls for a second referendum (as it should). Rory Scothorne, writing on a pro-independence site, sums up the approach as ‘magical thinking’.

There may also be more to the AfI than gerry-mandering. The SNP civil war, which David Leask profiled a couple of months ago, rages on. A new separatist party could provide a rallying point for Nicola Sturgeon’s internal opponents and provide a vehicle for Alex Salmond’s latest re-entry into politics.

On the other side of the argument, George Galloway is carving himself a space in unionist politics with the launch of his new ‘Alliance for Unity’. Based on the Scottish branch of his new Workers Party of Britain, it will provide a vehicle for his particular brand of energetic, left-wing unionism.

Galloway’s decision to return to Scotland and contest elections there might be bad news for Scottish Labour, the ailing giant of the left-unionist quadrant of Scottish politics. But who knows, perhaps the WPB will confine itself to the lists…

Brexit Party shift to anti-Senedd stance

There is now a three-way battle for the votes of Wales’ sizeable devosceptic minority. Mark Reckless, the leader of the Brexit Party’s MS group, has made it his party’s policy to scrap the Senedd.

Whilst differing in detail from the position of rival groups – Reckless’ plan is to hand the Welsh Parliament’s powers to Welsh MPs, rather than wholesale reintegration – this puts him in contention both with the rump of UKIP, led by Neil Hamilton, and the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.

Dividing this vote, which is already reluctant to even turn out for devolved contests, may provide a short-term boost to the Conservatives. But should one of the three emerge triumphant it could pose a serious threat on the Tories’ right-unionist flank.

Op-eds:

  • Sunak was right to bypass the SNP with UK-wide splurge – Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph
  • Devolution is dragging the UK’s economic recovery down – Matt Smith, CapX
  • Six things the Conservatives need to do now – Andrew Waddell, The Majority
  • The Union is in graver danger than ever – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • Stand up for the Union or lose it – Stephen Daisley, Website
  • Sturgeon’s quarantine threat is an anti-English dog whistle – Henry Hill, Daily Telegraph