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.