As many commentators have pointed out, the newly founded Alba Party is facing a major hurdle in having in Alex Salmond a leader who is very unpopular with many people in Scotland. But does this mean that the party definitely has no chance of winning a noticeable number of list seats in the upcoming Scottish Parliament election? If having a popular leader is indeed key to electoral success, is there any path for Alba to win a significant share of the vote?
The overall picture looks bad indeed for the party. According to the most recent Opinium poll, only 14 per cent of the Scottish public have a very or somewhat favourable view of Mr Salmond, while 26 per cent say they are ‘somewhat unfavourable’ and 48 per cent even say ‘very unfavourable’. That does, however, leave a further 12 per cent who say they do not hold any particular view of him (‘don’t know’). So taken together one quarter of the population do not have negative views of Alba’s leader. While, that is not a great start, 26 per cent of the population is not a negligible group either – especially for a party that does not aim to win a majority, but wants to appeal to a distinctive minority of independence supporting voters who may look for an alternative to the SNP or the Greens.
Meanwhile, we know that SNP voters are not homogeneous in their views on various issues. The success of the party has partially been built on bringing together voters with divergent beliefs. In particular, a significant minority of then SNP supporters voted for Brexit in 2016 against the party line and the SNP subsequently lost votes from this group in the 2017 election. This appears to be a group to whom Mr Salmond may have some appeal.
Overall, those who voted SNP in the 2019 general election are only slightly more likely to regard Mr Salmond favourably than are voters in general. Nineteen per cent view him positively, and 8 per cent do not hold a view (so just over a quarter are not opposed). However, these figures are rather higher if we look at independence supporters overall. Amongst them 22 per cent are favourable towards Mr Salmond and 10 per cent ‘don’t know’, suggesting that about a third of independence supporters overall are not necessarily turned off by him as a person.
Significantly, however, the figure is even higher, amongst those independence supporters who voted for Brexit. Among this group, 28 per cent hold positive views about Mr Salmond and 15 per cent at least do not have negative feelings – a significant 43 per cent in total (compared to only 25 per cent amongst independence supporting ‘Remain’ voters).
In their initial TV interviews Alba representatives have been careful not to adopt an anti-EU position. Yet at the same time they have been very careful not to present an explicitly pro-EU message either. They talk instead, for example, about having “access to marketplaces” both in the UK and EU. At the same time, the party has signalled support for equalities policies that are described as focussing on “safe single-sex spaces for women” in distinct opposition to the SNP’s more inclusive approach.
Together these stances suggest that the party is aiming in particular for the support of pro-independence voters who are more socially conservative, a group that voted heavily for Brexit They are very different from the kind of pro-independence voters who might support the Green Party.
To be successful in winning a significant number of seats, Alba would have to appeal to a very large portion of this group. That seems to be a tall order, but it appears that they have at least identified a specific niche that they are hoping to win over.
A further key question will be how likely it is that those independence supporters who are not satisfied with the options currently being presented by the parties will switch their vote. On this, interestingly, Salmond’s favourability is higher amongst younger voters – who participate less in elections, but are also less partisan and more open to vote for non-established parties. Nineteen per cent of 16- to 34-year olds view him favourably and 16 per cent do not have a view, so 35 per cent of that age group do not see him as barrier, whereas that number drops to 25 per cent amongst those aged 45 to 54 and 19 per cent amongst those over 65.
Whether any of this will create a large enough group for the party to win seats remains to be seen. But Mr Salmond’s general unpopularity does not mean that Alba is a lost cause about which other parties can afford to be complacent. The party’s potential for success will depend on whether it can mobilise its apparent target group of socially conservative pro-independence voters – while convincing some others to vote for the party despite its leader.
About the author
Dr Jan Eichhorn is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and research director of the think tank d|part. He has worked on public opinion research in Scotland, the UK and comparatively across Europe using large scale surveys with a strong interest in political participation.