I’d just like to draw your attention to yesterday’s column in The National by the chair of the Alba Party, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, in which she expresses her astonishment at the now-notorious leaflet and letter that the SNP have been sending out, urging people to “ask their friends and family” to only rank SNP candidates and “no other party”. I’m still trying to make some sense of what happened, because even from the SNP’s narrow partisan interest, the message seems utterly self-defeating. Imagine you saw a TV advert for Travelodge that told you to “never stay in any other hotel”, or an advert for Twix that told you to “never eat any other biscuit”. Would those brands become more attractive to you, or would you just think you were viewing the last days in the bunker?
It was fascinating that the message was totally contradicted a day or two later by the controversial SNP MSP Emma Roddick, who wrote a lengthy Twitter thread correctly urging people to use the “vote til you boak” strategy in the local elections – meaning that you rank as many candidates/parties as you feel you can bear to. She obviously knew she was repudiating her own party’s letter and leaflet (even thought she didn’t mention them directly), but the million dollar question is: was she speaking only for herself, or had she been urged to post the thread by a leadership that knew a terrible mistake had been made? In other words, was the letter and leaflet the work of some naive and over-excitable interns, and had it slipped through the net in a catastrophic failure of quality control?
When I praised Ms Roddick for her thread (quite possibly the first and last time I’ll ever praise her for anything), she became deeply uncomfortable, probably because she saw that I’m an Alba member, and in the hysterical McCarthyite atmosphere currently gripping the SNP she regarded it as vital to distance herself instantly. She made two points of supposed ‘clarification’: a) she’s not part of the SNP leadership, and b) she would “boak” before reaching Alba on the ballot paper, if there was an Alba candidate in her ward. The latter point isn’t especially important, because it doesn’t change the fact that her thread was 100% correct about how the STV voting system works. Exactly where and when a voter “boaks” is very much an individual thing. That said, it was a fascinating insight into Ms Roddick’s own mindset as a supposedly pro-independence parliamentarian, and raises the obvious question of whether she would rank unionist candidates ahead of pro-independence Alba because she regards identity politics issues as more important than independence.
As for the point about her not being part of the SNP leadership, that was a statement of the obvious but it was also very carefully worded. It doesn’t exclude the possibility that she was speaking at the leadership’s urging. She’s known, after all, as one of the darlings of the leadership, and it would be startling if she ever spoke on questions of electoral strategy without their blessing.
Another possibility is that the message on the leaflet was the work of the leadership, but they hadn’t anticipated the fallout from it. Because it was apparently only sent out to SNP members, former members and people who had at some point donated to the party, the leadership maybe thought they could get the “no other party” message to spread by word of mouth, while keeping it deniable by not putting it on leaflets aimed at the general public. If so, that was extraordinarily naive. There are enough former members who are alienated from the party that the message was bound to become publicly known within about fifteen seconds of it landing through people’s doors.
As has been pointed out many times, the SNP telling its voters not to use lower rankings on other pro-independence parties will not help SNP councillors to get elected. Literally the only effect it will have is to make it easier for unionist candidates to get elected at the expense of the Greens and Alba. So if the message on the leaflet was leadership-approved, the only rational conclusion to draw is that they think it is strategically important that non-SNP representation in local councils should be as unionist-dominated as possible. That would make no sense if it’s really true, as the likes of Paul Kavanagh believe, that the SNP are serious about holding an independence referendum next year. If that was the case, you would want as you head into a referendum campaign to have as many pro-independence elected representatives as possible, and as few anti-independence elected representatives as possible. But it might start to make a sort of perverse sense if the strategy is instead geared towards a world in which the SNP have privately decided that a referendum isn’t going to take place for the foreseeable future, and in which they’re just trying to maintain their own power within the devolved settlement beyond 2026. Looked at in that way, paranoid fears about Alba winning a modest number of local council seats have a kind of logic, because ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’.
In other words, if the messaging in the leaflet was intentional and properly thought through, it indicates that the overriding strategic objective of the SNP in these elections is not to bring independence closer. It’s instead to try and ensure that a fellow pro-independence party is “strangled at birth”, to borrow the ugly words Cyril Smith famously used about the nascent Social Democratic Party in 1981. Readers must decide for themselves whether they want to have any part of such a breathtakingly cynical and self-serving project.