Archive image - Some of the counting going on. Archive image - Some of the counting going on. Photo: Flickr - duncan c / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Chris Bambery explains how the new Alba party has caused a stir in the upcoming election, but why the independence movement needs a grassroots campaign

The Scottish election has become interesting. Whatever you think of Alex Salmond and the newly launched Alba Party that is down to their intervention.

Until Salmond announced his new outfit would stand for the Regional list vote – you have two votes. The first is for a first-past-the-post Constituency representative, the second for a Regional list of parties which is a PR vote designed to help those parties which polled ok in the first vote but were beaten at the post – the expectation is Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party would be returned to office, probably with the Greens even if the SNP secured an overall majority.

That the SNP has been in office since 2007 is a remarkable achievement with only Germany’s Angela Merkel able to compete in Europe.

That meant the SNP campaign pre-Alba was steady as you go, relying on dislike of Boris Johnson and his Scottish Tory cohort, the car crash which has hit Scottish Labour (and aversion to Sir Keir Starmer) which is now in third place in the polls, and above all, the fact that Nicola Sturgeon has been seen to have had a good response to the pandemic. That centred on the fact she showed humility and the ability to handle her brief – compare and contrast with Johnson.

In truth, Scotland’s death rate is lower than England’s but remains one of the highest in Europe, and there is growing concern about the decision to discharge Covid positive and untested patients into care homes in Scotland, where 3,000 residents have died.

Prior to Alba, the stress was on showing how responsible the SNP Scottish government was in dealing with the pandemic. So last summer in an interview with The Scotsman, Nicola Sturgeon explained:

“The Yes movement possibly has something to learn about the fact that – as we have stopped shouting about independence, and shouting to ourselves about how we go about getting independence, and just focused on [dealing with the pandemic] – it has allowed people to take a step back and say: ‘Well, actually that’s the benefit of autonomous decision-making’ and also ‘perhaps things would be better if we had a bit more autonomous decision-making,’”

But the SNP’s raison d’etre is to achieve independence. That’s why there was such a huge surge in membership following the failed 2014 independence referendum, meaning that in proportion to Scotland’s population the SNP is the biggest party in Britain.

The SNP cannot just stand on a ticket of wanting “a bit more autonomous decision-making.”

Brexit, where Scotland voted by a significant majority to Remain, and the horror people felt over Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has boosted support for independence which has in recent polls been in a consistent majority.

The SNP’s problem is that the decision on whether to hold a further independence referendum is a “referred matter” only possible if the London government agrees with it. Theresa May refused Sturgeon’s request and Boris Johnson has made clear he’d do the same.

One SNP response is to insist Downing Street cannot sustain its refusal because, in Sturgeon’s words, those that stand in the way of democracy “get swept away.” The key here, the party says, is ensuring the SNP is returned to the government next month.

The other has been to promise major initiatives, a summer of campaigning for instance, at party conferences to keep the troops happy but which never materialise.

The other is for the SNP leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, to assert a referendum will take place within months without explaining how.

So, returning to pre-Alba days, the SNP seemed to be coasting towards victory in what promised to be a dull election campaign.

The startling announcement that Alba would stand on the Regional lists changed that.

The SNP has made great efforts to insist every pro-independence voter must vote SNP on both lists. Alba points out that where the SNP wins the Constituency vote the list seats go to other parties regardless of how many votes the SNP stack up.

Salmond says a vote for Alba can counter that and create a pro-independence “supermajority”. As previously stated, I am dubious about that but believe Alba can win list seats – previously I said five or six so I will stand by that although, in a PR vote things are highly accidental, a gap of just a few percent can mean either zero seats or a good few.

The SNP has chosen to take on Alba despite the fact that it deepens divisions within the pro-independence camp and being aware that many of its key members, you might say cadre, have gone over to Alba, including much of the left in the party.

As previously said, that reflects frustration at any strategy, beyond asking Johnson, for getting a second referendum, and opposition to a marked neoliberal turn enshrined in the Growth Commission.

The latter was parked anyway for the election campaign because Sturgeon knows well that its rejection of a separate currency, something members voted for, and its acceptance of austerity measures will not play well with voters.

Now faced with Alba, Sturgeon has produced a manifesto complete with a number of progressive measures, albeit low-cost ones. So, having already promised NHS Scotland workers a 4% wage increase, Sturgeon promised if elected an SNP government would boost health spending, create a National Care Service, increase social security and boost childcare.

There are also plans for future changes, including proposals for a four-day working week and a basic “citizens’ income”.

For those pondering who to vote for in the London dull-as-dishwater mayoral election or following the hapless Starmer, this must sound like a breath of fresh air.

Yet, that these measures can suddenly be pulled out of the hat does beg the question why haven’t they been enacted in this parliament’s lifetime? That the party has had to shift back to the social-democratic stance adopted under the previous leader, Alex Salmond, is obviously in response to Alba which claims to stand on the left of centre.

The other shift is that suddenly independence is an election issue. Of course, it always was for the Tories and their Unionist rivals, Alliance4Unity, headed up by one-time leftist, George Galloway.

Nicola Sturgeon has promised Scotland will be “Free by 2023.” She does not explain how she’ll get Johnson’s approval for a referendum and also warns indy will have to await an end to the pandemic and the recovery of the economy. Significant caveats.

Alba’s intervention has significantly shifted this election. The likelihood is that Sturgeon will return as First Minister and the likelihood then will be back to steady as it goes. If the Greens are in government they are likely to be loyal partners. If Alba were to get 5 or 6 seats then they could present themselves as the opposition.

To be honest, while Alex Salmond is an excellent act, he also divides people, particularly in the wake of the recent botched prosecution of him for sexual assault. There also remains the glaring question of how to achieve independence. Alba’s strategy is still hinged on negotiating with Westminster – a supermajority might strengthen their hand but it’s hard to see it being enough to make the Tories u-turn on granting a referendum. So there isn’t really a significant difference with the SNP’s strategy or lack thereof. But despite that, he has taken a significant tranche of SNP activists.

If we want independence we can’t rely on Alba getting seats or playing that role, just as we cannot rely on a further SNP government. That’s going to require a grassroots, mass membership campaign. The recently launched Now Scotland has been pushed to the side by this election and the SNP v Alba divide. Now the issue is whether it can grow into that role. Let’s hope so.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.