Yesterday saw the publication of the first full scale opinion poll since the launch of the Alba party giving us all our first opportunity to gauge the possible electoral impact of Alex Salmond’s new party. Fieldwork for the poll, commissioned from Survation for DC Thompson publishers took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week, when media coverage of the new party and the former first Minister’s announcement that he was seeking to return to Holyrood was intense, and the press and broadcasters were consumed with speculation about how this development would affect the SNP’s chances in May’s election.
However despite the claims by some supporters of the new party that it was set to take a huge chunk of SNP support and to succeed in its declared aim of forming a pro-independence super-majority in the next Scottish Parliament, the new poll has found that the Alba party’s appeal looks likely to be far more limited. On the all important list vote where the Alba party is standing four candidates in each region of Scotland, the poll placed Alba on just 3%, meaning that on these figures, if they were evenly distributed across Scotland, the party would fail to win a single MSP. The Greens registered 11% on the list vote, whereas the LibDems seem set to take 8%.
Meanwhile the poll suggested that despite the inclusion of another pro-independence party on the ballot, the SNP still seem likely to win a narrow outright majority, taking 66 seats in total, while the Greens seem set to win 11 seats. That would produce an SNP-Green super-majority for independence in the new Parliament composed of 77 seats for pro-independence parties as opposed to just 52 seats for Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems combined. The big losers look likely to be the Conservatives, who are forecast to lose 10 of their current 31 seats and be left with just 21, and will be overtaken by Labour as the second largest party. Labour is forecast to hold on to its current share of 24 seats but not to make any gains. These results would be a disaster for the Conservatives’ new Scottish leader and suggest that his tenure in post may be as brief as his predecessor Jackson Carlaw’s.
The poll also found that 71% of respondents had an unfavourable opinion of Alex Salmond and a majority of those asked believe that the Alba party is hindering the cause of independence.
It should immediately be noted that this poll does not mean that Alba has no chance of winning any seats, If the poll results were replicated uniformly across the country they would not, but that doesn’t take into account local and regional factors. Alex Salmond has a significant local support base in and around his old Westminster constituency in the north east and it remains likely that he could be returned on the list for the North East Scotland region, where he tops the Alba party list.
The Alba party’s supporters have tried to put a positive gloss on these figures, pointing out that their party’s support is registering in opinion polling despite only being in existence for a few days. A single poll does not a trend make, but the problem however is that new “insurgent” parties must make an immediate impact while they enjoy the full glare of media attention and publicity, and then must build on that momentum over the course of the election campaign when they can struggle to get their messaging across amidst the competition from the more established parties. With an initial breakthrough below the level necessary to win seats, and a broadly unfavourable public view of the party leader and his suspected true motives for setting up the new party, Alba is not dead on arrival, but the new party is going to struggle to establish itself as a viable contender among the general public outside its already committed and engaged support base on social media.
The real danger, if Alba remains on this level of support is that the new party will not attract enough votes to win any seats but will split the pro-independence vote on the list allowing a unionist party representative to slip in on fifth or sixth place and take a seat that might otherwise have gone to the SNP or the Greens.
The danger that the presence of Alba might unwittingly backfire and lead to greater anti-independence representation is being compounded by the behaviour of some of its angrier and more vociferous supporters online, who are calling for constituency ballots to be spoiled or even for constituency vote for Labour’s Anas Sarwar in the hope of unseating Nicola Sturgeon. There are those who have managed to convince themselves that Nicola Sturgeon is so opposed to independence that they would prefer to vote for an out and out unionist. This is a perfect example of allowing your anger to lead you into a situation where you not only cut off your nose to spite your face, but then you put your cut off nose through a sausage mincer and flush it down the toilet pan. Even on its own terms it is a spectacularly petulant and childish line of argument.
Politics, as this blog has frequently pointed out, is not about facts, it’s about narratives and stories. So let’s assume that the highly unlikely event of pro-independence Sturgeon haters succeeding in getting Anas Sarwar elected instead of Nicola Sturgeon does come to pass. Then, no matter how many pro-independence MSPs are elected to Holyrood, the only narrative in the media will be that the head of the SNP has lost her seat and this will be spun by the exultant Conservatives and their allies as “proof” that Scotland has rejected calls for another independence referendum. Even with substantial pro-independence majority in Holyrood it will provide Johnson and the Conservatives with the political capital that they need to block another independence referendum.
The success of Alba’s strategy crucially depends upon ensuring that the SNP sweeps the board in the constituency vote. Hopefully over the next few days Alex Salmond and other senior figures in Alba will send a message to the angrier end of their online support and remind them of that political reality and to ensure that even if they do not wish to actively support the SNP in the constituency vote, they cease trying to damage it, because by trying to hurt the SNP in the constituency vote they are only making it harder for their own party to achieve its goal. There will be more opinion polls to come. We will have to wait and see whether the Alba party will be a significant force in this election, or whether we are looking at RISE 2.0, which was launched prior to the 2016 amid great excitement and hype, but which failed to rise, and just sank without trace on election day.
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