The Scottish Parliament election in May is a seminal moment for the British Union. The Union which has stood since 1707, through war, empire and partition now lies in the hands of two key actors: Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour Party and Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party.
Sarwar, MSP for Glasgow and former MP for Glasgow Central is the first leader of Scottish labour since Donald Dewar who seems truly up to the task of moving the once dominant party in a forward direction. The son of former MP and Governor of the Punjab region of Pakistan, Mohammad, the junior Sarwar has always seemed destined for a successful career in the labour movement.
Joseph Stalin is often quoted as having said that “the death of a million is a statistic” and the talented Sarwar became little more than a statistic when he was one of the 40 Labour MPs swept away by the nationalist onslaught of 2015. Having been elected to Holyrood only a year after his defeat, Sarwar has proved an effective parliamentarian. This has been most notable in his role as Labour’s health spokesman when he championed the family of Milly Main, a young girl who tragically died from a water-born infection at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
Having lost the Labour leadership election to hapless Corbynite Richard Leonard in 2017, Sarwar was finally installed to leadership at the turn of the year. In him, Scottish Labour finally has a competent and charismatic leader. As the Liberal Democrats continue to tread water and the Conservatives lose Ruth Davidson, the unionist cause may well need a politician of his calibre to stall the charge to independence.
The Union Needs Labour
It is never been in doubt that the Scottish Labour Party is the most effective conduit for the unionist cause if it is firing on all cylinders. Labour has the ability to capture more voters in more areas than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. The 2016 Holyrood success for the Conservatives was probably close to the party’s high water mark in a country where they have historically been a toxic brand. In 2021, the party no longer has Ruth Davidson to lead it but it does have an unpopular Boris Johnson at the helm in Westminster. These two issues, combined with Brexit, leaves the Tories poorly positioned to expand their coalition beyond the combination of Southern & Northeastern regional strength and unionist list votes which delivered them 31 seats five years ago.
For the Liberal Democrats, post-coalition obscurity has left them competing in a handful of constituencies where they are best-placed unionist party to take on the SNP and edging enough soft-unionist second votes to take the 7th (and final) seat on proportional regional lists.
A good performance from the Labour Party in Scotland means a genuine threat to the SNP dominance across the central belt, where approximately 60% of Scots reside. The evidence from 2017 suggests that SNP central belt support may be soft in the event of a strong nationwide Labour performance and some unionist tactical voting.
Reclaiming lost Voters
For example, in 2017, the voters of Sarwar’s former seat in Glasgow Central cut SNP MP Alison Thewliss’s majority by more than 13%. Seats like Glasgow Central are ground zero for the pro-independence movement and the SNP. Across the city, Labour finished only 3% behind the nationalists and gained one seat against the backdrop of Labour’s better-than-expected performance across the United Kingdom. If the Labour Party can regain momentum across Scotland, their former heartlands may yet provide difficulty to the SNP.
In the week leading up to the election, however, Labour are not showing the kind of form required to take advantage of possibly soft SNP voters. In spite of Sarwar’s strong personal approval figures, Scottish Labour remain stubbornly limited to between 19 and 23% of the constituency vote. While some polls are showing labour solidifying their constituency numbers, Professor John Curtice has pointed out that Labour voters are the least loyal of any when it comes to the proportional second ballot required to gain list seats. Curtice estimates that around 15% of voters who choose labour on the constituency ballot will give their list vote to another party.
Labour continue to be stuck in a post-referendum bind. The party has many urban left-wing voters sympathetic to their platform, but they ultimately give their second votes to the Conservatives or nationalist parties. This may not be too damaging for the unionist cause due to Labour’s strength deriving from its ability to rival the SNP across more seats than the Tories or Liberal Democrats. But without a much stronger performance on the constituency ballot, Labour will be in a worse position to stop the SNP or pro-independence Greens in regions where their vote is stronger than the Tories.
For the British union to be declared safe for the next five years, Labour must perform well in this week’s Holyrood election. With the Conservative vote stabilising, but unable to cut through with crucial elements of Scottish society, Anas Sarwar carries the burden of stopping a nationalist majority on his capable shoulders. In the final few days of campaigning, Labour must focus on constituencies across the central belt where the SNP vote is soft and stabilise their list vote to play their full part in depriving Nicola Sturgeon and the “Yes” movement from the majority that could end the United Kingdom.
Alba; Friend or Foe for Independence?
On the other side of the divide, Alex Salmond’s sensational return to frontline politics with his new Alba Party will play an important role in the prospects of independence in the near future. The Holyrood electoral system, which synthesises first-past-the-post constituencies with proportional regional top up seats, has allowed Alba to stand without denting the SNP’s charge towards a majority.
If the SNP can continue their dominance at the constituency level, then Alba has the chance to supplement a strong Scottish Green showing on the list to create what Salmond is calling an “independence supermajority”. If the SNP attain around the 48% mark on the constituency ballot and the Greens continue to draw between 8 and 11% on the list, then a 5-6% showing for Alba could create a 3/5ths-3/4s Holyrood majority in favour of independence.
Such a majority may prove difficult for Westminster to resist in the event of a formal request for a second independence referendum, but the role of Alba is a double-edged sword for the “Yes” movement. There are already questions about the legitimacy of a narrow multi-party majority for independence with the SNP and the Greens. To add another piece to the “Yes” jigsaw may add to that cynicism. Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged as much by saying that a strong Alba performance on the list vote may give the impression of the pro-independence movement gaming the system for an advantage.
Recent polling has also suggested that Alba may not take any seats at all, with between 2 and 6% of voters stating a preference for Salmond’s party on the list vote. It is generally accepted that 5% would be the minimum requirement for taking regional list seats. A failure to do that may waste critical votes which could have gone to the SNP or the Greens in the event of a close election. Whether Salmond helps or hinders the pro-independence movement will be a question more easily answered by the weekend. In any event, Scotland’s comeback kid has created controversy and headaches for his protege-turned-foe, Nicola Sturgeon. This fact may convince a cynic that he has already succeeded.
The success of the unionist and nationalist causes in Thursday’s election will be inextricably linked to the performance of the Labour and Alba parties. For unionists, Anas Sarwar has provided hope that unionism can once again park its tanks on the SNP’s front lawn and attract new voters to its cause. For nationalists, Alba may provide a chance for any pro-independence mandate to be put beyond controversy.
As the election begins, Sarwar needs to turn his personal popularity into a solid national showing for Labour and allow them to target the nationalists in their former strongholds. For Salmond, his chance to help make Scotland independent and ensure that he gets a platform to haunt Nicola Sturgeon for the next five years rests on the finest of margins.