There’s been a lot of talk about the potential of pro-independence candidates standing on a joint ‘Yes Alliance’ platform in next May’s General Election – the idea being that the 45% who voted Yes, and in particular the Yes majority in Labour heartlands such as Glasgow, could deliver the largest possible team of pro-independence MPs.
It’s likely that, without party instruction, a great deal of independence supporters will be minded to vote tactically to ensure the best result for pro-independence candidates. And it is entirely feasible that pro-independence candidates may strategically decide not to stand against each other in certain seats. But the Yes Alliance proposal goes further – suggesting that the Yes parties should drop, or at least dilute, their individual identities to stand on a common platform.
Much of the enthusiasm for this idea seems to have developed from the experience of working across political divides during the referendum. And no wonder – the non-partisan nature of the campaign was not only highly enjoyable for activists but hugely attractive to the public. I strongly believe that many of the relationships built during the campaign will endure, and delivering first devo-max and later independence will require us to continue to work as a united movement.
But there’s a huge difference between fighting for a common cause and fighting parliamentary elections on a joint platform. Would a Yes Alliance actually work?
1. Who chooses the candidates?
The immediate issue any electoral alliance would face is choosing candidates. If we assume that the six sitting SNP MPs would stand again, then we’d have to select 53 candidates for an election happening next year.
The time frame is important here. If energies hadn’t been focused on the referendum, then we can assume that the SNP would have a full slate of candidates by now and that the ground campaign would already have begun. The earliest a Yes Alliance could presumably be agreed would be SNP Conference in mid-November. To devise and operate an entirely new process of candidate selection could take two to three months. That’s getting dangerously close to the election itself.
But even if a time-frame were to be agreed, who would actually choose the candidates? For the Yes Alliance to capture the movement it would have to extend beyond the SNP, Greens and SSP and include the other campaign groups and non-aligned Yes volunteers. But these other groups are not formal membership organisations in the way a political party is and establishing a secret ballot among a group that may be no more than an e-mail list would be extraordinarily difficult – and would still exclude the thousands of volunteers who simply turned up at stalls and canvass sessions without ever formally joining any group. And what of multiple memberships? Would someone who was a member of the Greens, RIC, National Collective and Women for Independence get 4 votes or 1? How would this be controlled?
2. Would voters just vote as they’re told?
The central assumption of the Yes Alliance proposal is that Yes voters would back a joint pro-independence platform in greater numbers than if the parties stood individually.
It’s entirely feasible that, were the pro-independence parties to stand against each other, there could be seats where their combined vote share would have been enough to push the leading party over the edge. But the Greens only stand in a minority of seats and its unlikely that the SSP, or any other pro-independence left group, will stand. Party competition isn’t a particular threat in the Westminster elections.
The electorate will often behave in strange ways. Not all Yes voters will be minded to vote for a pro-independence candidate – there will be a not insignificant number who vote Labour next year, if not in 2016, and there will even be some who go back to voting Conservative, Lib Dem, UKIP or not voting at all. Meanwhile there are significant numbers of anti-independence voters who will happily vote SNP but might baulk at the thought of voting for a Yes Alliance. I’ve written before on behaviour of Green voters, as has Jonathan Mackie, and the idea that they would universally vote for an SNP or other pro-independence candidate simply because the Greens endorsed them is unconvincing. And speaking personally, I wouldn’t vote for just any candidate simply because they supported independence if their other views were incompatible with my own principles.
3. What happens once they’re elected?
Part of the reason we can’t expect voters to put aside their own political opinions is simple – our candidates might win.
When a voter selects a candidate they do so understanding that they’ll be accountable not just to the electorate but to a party and its manifesto. The voter may not agree with every policy a party has, but they can make a judgement based on the party’s record and platform and vote accordingly.
If a Yes Alliance candidate without party allegiance was to be elected then what would they actually do in their position? Yes, we’d expect any Yes MPs to argue for the best possible devolution settlement and to articulate the argument for independence in the long-term. But the next parliament will not be defined solely by further devolution. Scottish MPs will still be required to represent their constituents interests on issues of welfare, citizenship, employment and consumer rights, defence and more.
What happens if the enthusiastic, non-aligned small business owner turns out to support welfare reform and vigorously campaigns against employment protections? What if the peace campaigner is elected only to oppose any MoD investment in Scotland? What if the hard-working activist from the local campaign turns out to be a zealous advocate of depriving criminal suspects of their civil liberties?
These things aren’t likely, but they’re not impossible. We can’t assume that everybody who supports independence has a consistent world-view. And the working-class SNP voter might choose to vote Labour rather than for a Business for Scotland candidate just as the middle-class Yes supporter might find it impossible to vote for an SSP activist.
4. Wouldn’t it destroy what made Yes work?
A conflict in our beliefs didn’t matter during the referendum because of the binary nature of the question being asked us. You either believe that Scotland should be independent or you didn’t.
As a whole the Yes movement found lots of common ground. At least on principle. We were mainly on the left, and we talked about internationalism and social justice and equality, but we did so knowing that after the vote we’d often end up on different sides of the argument again. Even if our objectives sounded similar we had different routes of getting there.
That diversity was a strength. But in a parliamentary election, it could be become a weakness.
5. Wouldn’t it entrench us in the 45?
If we want Scotland to become independent in our lifetimes then in all likelihood we will need to convince hundreds of thousands of people who voted No this time round to change their minds.
There are plenty of No voters who can be won round. There are even more who can be won round immediately to the idea that we need an extensive and radical devolution of powers. And many of them will be willing to vote for a pro-independence candidate in future elections if they feel that this will deliver them devo-max.
My biggest fear about a Yes Alliance is that these soft No voters are confronted with ‘Yes’ on their next ballot paper and vote for anybody else in frustration. We need to win these people over and to do that we have to demonstrate that we accept the referendum result and will, at least for now, strive to make devolution work. A Yes Alliance could permanently divide Scottish politics along referendum lines and entrench two camps in their beliefs. The problem for us is that we’re the smaller of those two camps.
6. Where would it actually be of benefit?
But let’s say that all of this can be overcome. Let’s say that we devise a workable way of selecting candidates, that we can put together a credible platform that makes us electable while maintaining our diversity, and that we carry Yes voters with us without permanently alienating the 55% of No voters. Where would this approach actually benefit us?
I’m an SNP activist and my political instinct is shaped by that. But the SNP are by far the largest political party of the Yes movement and, without a Yes Alliance, the only party with any credible chance of electing any MPs.
I’ve tried to think of a single parliamentary constituency where nominating a non-SNP figure would make it more likely that we win. I can’t think of one.