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Artillery Row

Friendly fire

Can Unionists better game Scotland’s two vote electoral system than the Nats?

George Galloway would be “disappointed and surprised” if the Alliance 4 Unity party he founded to put “an end to the Scottish Neverendum” won less than eight MSPs in May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

Believing that neither the Scottish Conservatives, Labour nor Lib Dems can individually defeat the SNP, Galloway founded the cross-party Alliance 4 Unity earlier this year to drive momentum for a broad-slate – the radical politician might, but resists, the temptation to style it a “popular front” – to take on the Nationalists.

In May, Scots will elect MSPs to 73 constituencies under the first-past-the-post system. Each planning to fight the election on the Scottish government’s record in power rather than singularly on the future of the union, there is little prospect of any of the established unionist parties agreeing to stand aside to ensure that only one of them faces the SNP in each constituency. But with the unionist vote remaining divided, the SNP – support for which Survation’s latest opinion poll puts at 53 percent – is on course to the sweep the vast majority of the 73 constituencies.

However, under Holyrood’s voting system, the Scottish electorate has an additional vote which is cast for “party list” candidates on a regional, rather than constituency, basis. This introduces proportional representation, using the d’Hondt method to allocate which candidates from their respective party lists are elected to Holyrood. If the SNP’s success in the constituencies translates into a higher proportion of MSPs than the percentage of votes that elected them, the pro-union parties can anticipate picking-up the majority of the 56 regional list MSPs.

Galloway’s strategy is twofold. Firstly (and surely fruitlessly) to convince the three established pro-union parties to decide which amongst them has the best chance of defeating the SNP in the constituencies (which the Alliance 4 Unity will not contest) and then field that single candidate. Regardless of how this works out, the Alliance 4 Unity will field candidates for the regional list vote only.

The regional list vote is precisely where the traditional pro-union parties could usefully pile-up votes competitively and still be rewarded with MSPs under the d’Hondt redistribution. Assuming that there is no electoral pact, the danger is that adding Alliance 4 Unity candidates to the pro-union mix will succeed only in draining the list votes of each of these parties a little more, ensuring fewer top-up MSPs in the quantity required to stop a Nationalist majority at Holyrood.

It is a game that both sides could, but perhaps now will not, play. The spectacular falling-out between Alex Salmond and his protégée-turned-enemy Nicola Sturgeon, raised the spectre of Salmond endorsing – or even leading– an alternative pro-independence party which would only field regional list candidates.

The plan made some sense. It would allow Salmond the satisfaction of influencing frontline politics without playing second fiddle to Sturgeon whilst, at the same time, ensuring that votes for his alternative party did not greatly handicap the SNP’s tally of MSPs given that the SNP stands to make so few gains on its own in the regional list vote. This seemed like a win-win opportunity for Nationalist voters to game the system – getting as many SNP candidates returned as possible at the constituency level and as many Salmondite candidates returned as possible on the regional list. The consequence would be a Holyrood parliament dominated by pro-independence politicians.

That plan appears to have stalled. Of the two front organisations for independence that could be vehicles for Salmond’s ambition, only the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) is still in the game, but yet to attract the endorsements of senior figures to give it heft. Earlier this month the Electoral Commission refused to approve the Alliance for Independence, a group instigated by the former SNP MSP, Dave Thompson. The Commission ruled that the group was “likely to mislead voters as to the effect of their vote” and that the application was, in any case, “incomplete.” Salmond is pondering his next move, and keeping his counsel whilst doing so.

By contrast, Galloway stands like a greyhound in the slips. His Alliance 4 Unity has Electoral Commission approval to field candidates, and the first few have already been adopted. Topping the bill, Galloway and his deputy, the Dumfriesshire farmer and writer, Jamie Blackett, will be standing in the south Scotland region where unionist sentiment (but also strong Conservative party support) is high. The academic and veteran Eurosceptic, Alan Sked, has been adopted for the Highlands and Islands.

Galloway stands like a greyhound in the slips.

Galloway remains convinced that their intervention will maximise the unionist vote rather than splinter it four-ways instead of three. “Our USP is that anyone can vote for us. It’s not easy for Labour voters in south Ayrshire – mining country – or East Lothian – mining country – to vote for a Tory landowner” but they could vote for a party that offers the full spectrum of ideologies and backgrounds bound in the common cause of keeping Scotland British (as exemplified by Galloway and the Old Etonian ex-Coldstream Guardsman and landowner, Blackett).

“A yellow-green front governs Scotland” Galloway explains, with the SNP buttressed by the pro-independence Greens. “We have to get rid of these Greens.” But wouldn’t it be easier to convince environmentally-minded Scots to therefore vote for pro-union Lib Dems? “Our energy and profile is vastly greater than the candidates elected on lists from the other parties. I dare say even in their own street where they live most people could not identify the list MSP from the traditional parties.” Galloway asserts, “but everyone in Scotland knows me, I can assure you. And if they don’t know me, they would recognise my hat.”

Besides Ruth Davidson – who is going to the House of Lords and is not contesting her marginal Edinburgh Central constituency – George Galloway is one of the few active Scottish politicians who could match Nicola Sturgeon in debate. His 2005 barnstorming testimony before a sub-committee of the US Senate has been viewed on YouTube over 1.8 million times. He has considerably greater name recognition than Richard Leonard who is three years into his embattled leadership of Scottish Labour. Polling suggests most Scots still have little clear idea who Leonard is.

everyone in Scotland knows me. And if they don’t know me, they would recognise my hat.

However, Galloway’s new party has neither the established organisational structure, experience (beyond Galloway’s own) of fighting elections on this scale, nor funds of the major parties with which it will compete for attention. In a traditional election, this should tell against it.

But if Covid-19 continues into the new year, the Holyrood election will be a socially-distanced campaign. Both Blackett and Galloway insisted to me that the Alliance 4 Unity had, as yet, spent no money on campaigning and that it was creating an inexpensive base for itself through its digital profile. With over 17,000 following it, the party already has more Twitter followers than the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Yet, if Twitter decided elections, it would now be Jeremy Corbyn explaining why the test and trace system was struggling to meet demand.

Alliance 4 Unity is the wildcard in Scottish politics, its role as kingmaker or spoiler dependent upon whether it can impress voters whilst the leaders of the other unionist parties meanwhile fail to do so. It is hard, though, not to conclude that with all his oratorical fire-power and eye for publicity, George Galloway might have taken the attack to the SNP more devastatingly if he was instead a firebrand for Scottish Labour. In this, as in so many areas, does Tony Blair’s legacy continue to exert itself.

Graham Stewart’s podcast with George Galloway and Jamie Blackett is available to listen to in full here.

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