Alex Salmond’s Alba Party: who are they and do they pose a threat in the Scottish elections?
When Scots go to the polls on May 6 to vote for which MSPs will represent them in the Scottish Parliament for the next five years, there will be a new party on the ballot paper, albeit fronted by a familiar face.
The Alba Party, led by former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond, did not exist when elections were postponed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the pro-independence party hopes that this year they can to pick up votes from Mr Salmond’s former ally, Nicola Sturgeon.
Although unlikely to win a large number of seats according to current polls, a small win could still have political implications for the SNP.
Here is everything you need to know about the Alba Party.
Who are the Alba Party?
The Alba Party was registered with the Electoral Commission in February by the journalist Laurie Flynn. With several fringe parties emerging in the run-up Scottish elections, few paid the development any attention.
However, just days before the deadline for registering candidates, Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who led the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, announced that he would lead Alba into the Scottish elections and seek to return to Holyrood.
The sensational development was by far the most dramatic of the Scottish election campaign so far, with Mr Salmond and his former protégé Ms Sturgeon having been engaged in a bitter feud for nearly three years about the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against him.
Once the closest of allies, the two giants of the Scottish independence movement are now facing each other in an election – a showdown that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
What do they stand for?
In a word – independence. Mr Salmond is hoping to win support from hardcore independence supporters who believe Ms Sturgeon has been too cautious in her plan to break up of the UK. Despite twice announcing plans for a new referendum in the last parliament, both attempts failed after the UK Government refused to cooperate, leading some independence supporters to question Ms Sturgeon’s ability to achieve her party’s founding aim. Alba has made overtly emotional and nationalist pitches to Scots – even claiming the support of Robert the Bruce in a campaign video.
Despite initially promising to run an entirely positive campaign, Mr Salmond has launched a series of attacks on Ms Sturgeon over her independence strategy, which is to seek permission from the UK Government to hold a new vote, and then to organise her own referendum only if this is refused.
Ms Sturgeon has not said what she would do if an attempt by Holyrood to organise its own vote was blocked in the courts, as many experts believe it would be. She has repeatedly emphasised that winning independence must be achieved in a way that would be legal and respected internationally, and has insisted Boris Johnson will back down and allow a referendum to go ahead. However, her critics say there is little evidence of the Prime Minister giving in or allowing a vote that would likely see him forced to resign should he lose.
Ms Sturgeon has said she wants a new vote to take place by 2023 and has emphasised that a new referendum would only take place once the immediate coronavirus crisis has passed. However, Mr Salmond has called for “independence negotiations” to begin within days of the election and has repeatedly suggested that alternative democratic routes to independence, other than Ms Sturgeon’s favoured legally-binding referendum, exist.
Some of Mr Salmond’s candidates have floated the idea of turning parliamentary elections into a de facto referendum on separation if the UK Government sticks to its guns and blocks any binding vote.
Mr Salmond has also called for an independent Scotland to have a looser relationship with Europe than Ms Sturgeon proposes, joining EFTA rather than becoming an EU member, and for a breakaway Scotland to set up its own currency more quickly.
The party has put forward some domestic policies, such as an annual £500 payment to low income families to tackle poverty and setting up a ‘citizens chamber’ to scrutinise Holyrood legislation. It has also sought to appeal to female voters who oppose the SNP’s plan to allow people to declare their own gender, which some believe will erode women’s rights.
What is Alex Salmond’s strategy?
Mr Salmond insists he wants to deliver an independence “supermajority” that will actually help Ms Sturgeon and the SNP.
Under the Scottish Parliament’s complicated voting system people get two votes – the first to elect a constituency MSP under first-past-the-post system which is identical to the system used to elect MPs at Westminster. The second vote is used to vote for a party rather than an individual, and these ballots are used to elect regional MSPs.
Regional seats are allocated under a system designed to make the overall election result more proportional, meaning a party that does well in constituencies will find it harder to win regional seats. Alba is standing only in the regional section, which sees MSPs elected from lists put forward by parties, and is urging voters to back the SNP with their first constituency ballot.
Mr Salmond has claimed that the system means that regional votes for the SNP are “wasted”, as the party wins the vast majority of its MSPs in constituencies. Ms Sturgeon’s party won 59 constituency MSPs in 2016, but only four regional MSPs. Mr Salmond argues that if SNP voters back a second party with their regional vote, it would deliver a “supermajority” of independence supporting MSPs as Alba’s tally would not be affected by the high number of constituencies the SNP is likely to win.
The strategy has proved controversial as it is designed to deliver a result that would not represent public opinion, with support for independence and the union evenly split.
Ms Sturgeon has attacked it as an attempt to “game” the system and accused her predecessor of misleading pro-independence voters with a suggestion “we can trick our way to independence”.
However, Mr Salmond insists it is legitimate to seek to take advantage of the existing voting system and claims the Prime Minister would find it harder to say no to an overwhelmingly pro-independence parliament.
Will it work?
We will find out on May 8, but opinion polls have generally ranged from disappointing to disastrous for Alba. While Mr Salmond suggested that the party could become the second-largest in Holyrood at its launch, some polls suggest that its support is so low it will fail to win a single seat.
There are eight electoral regions in Scotland, and parties generally need around six per cent of second votes in a region to secure an MSP.
A few polls suggest that Alba will meet this threshold, but most do not. The most optimistic, realistic scenario for the party is that it would return one MSP in each region, translating to a small but potentially influential bloc at Holyrood, particularly if the SNP does not win an outright majority.
However, several polls have put Alba on around three per cent support, and one survey put it at just one per cent. Such a result would prove a major humiliation for Mr Salmond who dominated Scottish politics for years and was once a hero for many independence supporters.
Mr Salmond’s personal approval ratings are also cataclysmic, showing he is far less popular in Scotland than even the Prime Minister.
Although he was cleared of all charges in a sex assault trial last year, he has regularly faced difficult questions about inappropriate conduct towards women while he was First Minister, which he admitted to when on the witness stand.
He has also appeared uncomfortable when asked about his relationship with Kremlin-funded Russian propaganda station RT, which broadcasts his weekly chat show. Mr Salmond has refused to say whether he believes the Russian state was responsible for the Salisbury poisonings.
Who is supporting the Alba Party?
When it launched there were some defections from the SNP, including two MPs. The former SNP justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, and Neale Hanvey, who represents Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, jumped ship meaning Alba now has more Scottish MPs than Labour.
However, several SNP figures who are allies of Mr Salmond, most notably Joanna Cherry – the Edinburgh MP, respected QC and critic of Ms Sturgeon – have not signed up to his new project.
Alba has put forward 32 candidates in the election, including Mr MacAskill and Mr Hanvey, although just six have any parliamentary experience. Several are former SNP councillors, while Alex Arthur, a former world champion boxer, is one of the candidates Mr Salmond plucked from outside the world of politics.
Mr Arthur had to apologise within hours of his candidacy being announced after it emerged that he had compared “Romanian beggars” in Edinburgh to “big juicy overfed pigs” on social media. Another candidate, the economist Jim Walker, said sorry after calling Ms Sturgeon “a cow” on Twitter.
Mr Salmond has also complained of unfair treatment from the mainstream media and of being cut out of TV debates. However, he has courted and won support from several pro-independence bloggers. These include former UK ambassador Craig Murray, currently awaiting sentence for contempt of court over articles he wrote about Mr Salmond’s trial, and the controversial former computer games journalist Stuart Campbell, who runs the Wings Over Scotland website.
Others speaking out in support of Alba include Jim Sillars, the former SNP deputy leader, and Tommy Sheridan, the disgraced ex-socialist MSP who was jailed for perjury in 2011.
Should Nicola Sturgeon be worried?
According to opinion polls the SNP will win the election easily. However, a nightmare scenario for the First Minister would be the SNP falling short of a majority and Alba winning enough seats to force her to turn to Mr Salmond to pass legislation and govern. That scenario is highly unlikely as even if she fails to win a majority, she could look to the pro-independence Greens, who are polling above Alba. Ms Sturgeon has said that she would not work with Mr Salmond under any circumstances.
However, the prospect of Mr Salmond on the Holyrood backbenches constantly sniping at Ms Sturgeon and accusing her of caution over independence would be highly unwelcome for the SNP and has the clear potential to split the independence movement further.
Mr Salmond has said that if he wins election to Holyrood, he plans to table a motion within days instructing the Scottish Government to open “independence negotiations” with Whitehall. This would put the SNP in an uncomfortable position, with a refusal likely to lead to more accusations of backsliding on independence, which most of Ms Sturgeon’s supporters are impatient to achieve. However, agreeing to the move would potentially alienate Scots who believe the First Minister should focus on the pandemic.
Some observers believe that the First Minister has already gone further than she would have liked to – repeatedly saying she will call for a new independence referendum by 2023 – due to the presence of Mr Salmond in the campaign.
The SNP is also concerned that Alba could suck up crucial list votes that would otherwise have gone to them. While the SNP is not expected to win many regional MSPs at the election, just one or two seats could make all the difference in whether Ms Sturgeon wins a majority.