If 2024 becomes a plebiscite election, there are only two viable options: either a Yes alliance should put up a single slate of candidates, or the Alba Party should mostly sit out the election and lend its support to SNP candidates

I’d have thought the title of this blogpost should be a statement of the obvious, but I’ve seen one or two prominent people suggesting on Twitter today that Alba should not only stand against the SNP in a plebiscite election, but that they should stand against the SNP in every single constituency.  That would be a catastrophic misstep, not only for the cause of independence but also for Alba as a political party.  And if this debate is already taking place out in the open, I’m not going to shy away from contributing to it, because often the seed of the most foolish and self-defeating ideas takes root at a very early stage.  

So let’s knock this one firmly on the head.  If the next general election becomes a plebiscite election (and it’s still an “if” because we’ve yet to hear the Supreme Court’s decision), Alba should for the most part not participate in it, or at least not as a party in opposition to the SNP.  If Joanna Cherry’s excellent suggestion of a unified Yes alliance is taken forward, that would be fabulous, and Alba’s biggest stars could then stand as Yes alliance candidates.  But if, as seems likely, the SNP insist on standing as a single party in the usual way, or perhaps as part of a narrower SNP-Green alliance that specifically excludes other pro-indy parties, Alba should sit the election out in the vast majority of constituencies and get behind the SNP candidates.  Yes, that will mean turning the other cheek to some extent, but that’s been the Alba way from the start – we always do the right thing for the independence cause no matter what the provocation. That’s why we supported the SNP’s constituency candidates in the 2021 Holyrood election even when senior SNP people were routinely screaming abuse at us.

There are a number of reasons why the whole Yes movement essentially needs to get behind a single slate of candidates in a plebiscite election, regardless of whether that slate fights under a Yes alliance or an SNP banner:

* It may seem unfair, illogical and irrational, but a single-party or single-slate majority of the popular vote will be taken more seriously in London than a multi-party or multi-slate majority.  We saw that in 2015 when the SNP and Greens between them took an absolute majority of the popular vote, and when there were still newspaper articles (I distinctly remember blogging to correct one) claiming that there was a unionist majority, because the SNP on their own fell just short of 50% and journalists just lazily assumed that any non-SNP vote was a unionist vote.

* In a plebiscite election, the popular vote matters most, but seats matter too.  Given that Westminster elections are fought by first-past-the-post, a split pro-indy vote will cost us seats.  That matters at both the ‘higher end’ and the ‘lower end’ of Yes support.  If we actually achieve a popular vote mandate – ie. the ‘higher end’ – having as many pro-independence seats as possible gives us the maximum leverage in pressing home that mandate.  If, for example, it’s decided to withdraw pro-indy MPs from Westminster either temporarily or permanently, the impact will be greatest if those pro-indy MPs constitute as near as possible to 100% of Scottish representation in the Commons.  We wouldn’t want a 2% vote for Alba helping one or two unionist MPs get needlessly elected.  And at the ‘lower end’, if we fail to achieve our popular vote mandate, we don’t want to compound that setback by losing a truckload of seats to unionist parties at the same time.  It’s always important to live to fight another day.

Alba do of course have the incumbent MPs in two constituencies.  In those two seats, the debate is different, because I don’t think it’s for me or for anyone else to tell incumbent MPs that they shouldn’t seek to defend their seats if they feel very strongly that they want to do so.  It would be a very powerful unifying gesture if the SNP were to decide not to put up candidates against those two MPs in a plebiscite election – but if the SNP do stand, a decision will have to be made on the Alba side.  The same problem applies in those constituencies as everywhere else – a split pro-indy vote could be very harmful.

I’ve heard it said that “political parties stand for election, that’s what they do”.  Absolutely – but that doesn’t mean you stand in every single election, regardless of circumstance.  Alba has already shown great wisdom in choosing its battles with care – in 2021 it stood on the list ballot but not the constituency ballot, and it then declined to stand in a string of local by-elections in order to keep its power dry for the local elections this May.  There’s no more important time to keep choosing your battles wisely than when the independence of your country is on the ballot.