Alex Salmond’s return to the political fray has made already important Scottish parliamentary elections on 6 May into a critical determiner for Scotland’s constitutional future.
Salmond was Scotland’s First Minister between 2007 and 2014 and led the Scottish National Party (SNP) for over 20 years in total. He left the party in 2018 to fight against allegations of sexual misconduct and was in 2020 acquitted of all charges against him. He returns to politics with a new party, “Alba”, which intends to deliver a “supermajority for independence”, but he may also be motivated by revenge against current First Minister and long-time former ally Nicola Sturgeon.
Salmond is standing candidates only on the “list vote”. The plan is to pick up extra seats that would otherwise have been won by pro-unionist parties, namely, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But will this work or will one of the biggest figures in the independence movement end up harming the SNP’s chances of winning a majority and thus holding a second independence referendum.
It is first important to understand how the electoral system at Holyrood works.
Scotland, like Wales, uses the Additional Member System (AMS) as opposed to the First Past the Post (FPTP) system which is used for Westminster elections. AMS is not, as often claimed, a complicated system, nor was it designed to prevent parties winning outright majorities. Generally speaking, if a party wins half the votes, it will win half the seats. The difference with Westminster elections is that AMS introduces a level of proportionality, so that seats won better correspond to the share of the vote each party wins.
Although, unlike electoral systems in Germany and Scandinavia, which use a similar process, it is not fully proportional. In the aforementioned countries, additional “overhang” seats are added to make sure that if a party wins more seats than its vote share suggests it should, the other parties are compensated with further seats, meaning that the size of the parliament can vary from election to election, in Germany, whereas in Scandinavia additional “levelling” seats are added at the national level to ensure proportionality. This is not the case in Scotland where 129 members are elected at each election.
When Scots go to the polling station they have two votes: the “constituency vote” and the “list vote”. The constituency vote works just like in Westminster. The candidate who wins a plurality of the vote in each of the 73 Scottish constituencies is elected to Holyrood.
A further 56 members are elected in eight Scottish regions (seven in each). Here the list vote is used, with the number of constituencies won in that region taken into account. The D’Hondt method is used to allocate seats, so, for example, if a party won six constituency seats in a particular region, the number of list votes would be divided by seven (six seats plus one), whereas if a party won no constituencies, its divisor would be one.
Since 2011, the SNP have dominated the constituency vote, winning 59 (out of 73) seats in 2016. However, its success in constituencies resulted in the party winning just four seats from the list vote (despite winning 41.7% of the list vote).
Salmond’s plan is to encourage SNP voters to vote for his party “Alba” in the list vote, instead of wasting their vote for the SNP. However, this is also behind the success of the Scottish Greens. They won six list seats in 2016 and could win even more in May’s election, as pro-independence voters split their votes between the SNP and the Greens. If this is the case already, then what purpose does Salmond’s party serve and is it likely to be a benefit or a hindrance to the independence cause?
Polling so far suggests that Alba is set to win about 3% of the list vote in May’s election, with those votes likely coming from the SNP. Whereas the Greens are set to win 9%, an improvement of the 6.6% they won in 2016.
For Salmond’s party to benefit the independence cause then it would need to win at least 6-7% in a region, where it would pick up a seat. This result would boost the number of pro-independence MSPs because any list seats won by Alba would likely come at the expense of the pro-union parties. This is because the pro-union parties win far more seats on the list vote than the constituency vote (in 2016 46 MSPs were elected on the list for pro-union parties compared to just 14 on the constituency vote).
However, Alba’s current polling of just 3% won’t win any seats and may harm the independence representation as that small portion of the vote could’ve provided the SNP and Greens with additional members. If the pro-independence list vote splinters, and Alba (or the Greens) don’t get above that magic threshold of 6-7% then Salmond’s re-emergence could end up harming the cause he is trying to support.
Another factor to consider is George Galloway, a former Labour MP, and his new party “All for Unity”, which, like Alba, is standing candidates (including Galloway) on the list vote and advocates tactical, pro-union voting on the constituency vote. Unlikely Alba however this isn’t likely to be beneficial to the unionist cause. Salmond’s plan might work because of the SNP’s dominance of constituencies (and its resulting lack of list seats). Unionists only won 14 constituencies in 2016 and current polling suggests that they are likely to win even fewer in May’s election. This means that the unionists are more dependent on list seats than nationalists. If this new party performs credibly, it would further split the pro-union vote and allow for more nationalists to be elected. However, it is difficult to gauge the support Galloway’s party might obtain. His party has only been prompted by one pollster and it has so far registered between 2-4%. Not enough support to win seats but enough to potentially take votes away from the established unionist parties, resulting in them winning fewer seats.
Another area to consider is whether unionist voters vote tactically in the constituency vote for the pro-union party most likely to beat the SNP. This is what All for Unity advocates and Galloway has confirmed that he will be voting Conservative in his constituency.
Given that the SNP’s support is relatively evenly spread across the country it benefits from the FPTP system at Westminster (winning 48 out of 59 seats in 2019) and the part-FPTP system at Holyrood (winning 59 out of 73 in 2016). This means that anti-SNP vote is often split between the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.
Each of these three parties have areas in Scotland where they are the most popular pro-union party. If unionist voters hold their nose and vote Tory in North East Scotland, Labour in Glasgow and Liberal Democrat in the Highlands and Islands then an SNP majority is far from certain.
Whether Alex Salmond’s return to Scottish politics will help the independence cause is uncertain. It is important to recognise that Salmond’s popularity has waned considerably in Scotland since he left office. Only around 10% of Scots have a favourable opinion of him, and he is less popular even than Boris Johnson.
The SNP, Alba and Greens have all committed to holding a second referendum on Scottish independence in the next parliament (before 2026). Whilst the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all implacably opposed to such a vote. Polling suggests that the unionist parties are likely to struggle and the most likely outcome in another nationalist government: either an SNP majority, or an SNP lead government support by the Greens and/or Alba.
However, this does not mean a referendum will necessarily take place. The power to hold a plebiscite lies in the hands of Westminster and the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has said repeatedly that no such vote will take place under his premiership. Wary of his political future, Johnson does not want to be cast in the same league as Lord North, the Prime Minister who lost the American colonies. More immediately, if Scotland voted for secession, it would end his political career, as the Brexit vote did for one of his predecessors, David Cameron.
With Brexit mostly resolved and the Coronavirus crisis receding, the next few years in British politics are going to be dominated by conversation about the future of “the Union” and specifically Scotland’s place within it. If another pro-independence government emerges in Edinburgh, then Johnson will be under enormous pressure to grant another vote. If he still refuses, then the independence movement will be divided about how to react.
It is noticeable that Salmond’s party is taking a harder line, demanding an independence referendum immediately, compared to Sturgeon, who is committed to holding a referendum after the pandemic is over. Other options exist: the Scottish government may take the British government to court over its refusal to grant a referendum. Scotland could even hold a “wildcat referendum” without the permission of Westminster. Such a move would likely lead to a unionist boycott and end up like the stasis that has emerged in Catalonia. Scotland is a country that is divided on the key constitutional question.